Game-day rituals and routines are vitally important. Ask anyone who has played competitive sports at any level and they will concur. Athletes everywhere tend to set about preparing for battle in a unique and repetitive fashion. Whether it be sneaking in a midday nap, having a chicken sandwich a couple of hours before game-time, or something as trivial as wearing a lucky pair of socks, most can identify a go-to habit or practice that is a staple of their preparation for competition.
In the case of Northwestern’s freshman guard Isiah Brown, that go-to is a phone call back home to Seattle and his father Gerald.
“We typically have long conversations before his games,” the elder Brown reveals. “I’ll try to remind him of some things to focus on, and we’ll analyze a bit together, but it’s also important for both of us to just check in generally and see how he’s doing and how his mindset is.”
“We’re both basketball junkies,” Isiah says. “He’s the person that I know understands the way that I see the game the best, and as my father we connect in a way that nobody else does, so it’s important to have that influence and his wisdom going into games.”
These father-son conversations are not just limited to game-days and special occasions. As Isiah has embarked on his first year in his life away from his father, they have both made and kept up a commitment to talk daily.
“Thank god for FaceTime,” Gerald jokes. “It has been a tough process for me adjusting to not having him here for the first time in 19 years, but I know a lot of dads who don’t talk to their kids that much and drift apart when they go away from home, and we have a very tight bond and talk every day which I am very thankful for.”
“I’ll call him up or he’ll call me up at any time, it’s not a burden at all,” Isiah says. “We’ll talk about basketball a lot but also about my academics and about life in general just to check in. It’s a real blessing having a father who is willing to take the time to be so invested in what I am doing. We certainly have a special and unique relationship.”
While the characterization their father-son connection as “special and unique” is undoubtedly true, going a step further to apply the phrase “one-of-a-kind” may do it more justice.
Isiah and Gerald Brown’s relationship is one of unparalleled sacrifice, love, and commitment to each other that has centered around the game of basketball, and has defined both father and son in terms of where they are and who they are as people.
The story of their relationship started in September of 1997 in a place that not many that revolve so heavily around the game of basketball do: Anchorage, Alaska.
Gerald had starred there on the court in college when attending the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and had returned after a lengthy and successful career playing professionally overseas and established a life with his wife (and Isiah’s mother) Yolanda as a successful businessman in the corporate communications industry and a part-time basketball coach. With Gerald being a former player and current coach, and with he and Yolanda having already added a basketball player to the family in Isiah’s older sister, a young Isiah was almost literally born into a basketball world.
“From as early as I can remember, my life was about basketball,” he says. “Going to the gym with my dad and my sister everyday just kind of became what I did. I never really knew anything else.”
While that lifestyle at such a young age could be interpreted as a sort of forced indoctrination into the game that can be detrimental in many father-son relationships, Isiah makes it very clear that that was not the case.
“My dad always made sure that I was the one initiating the work that I was putting into basketball,” he recalls. “Even from ages like five and six, it was never him pushing me to do something that I didn’t want to do, and that’s where our mutual love for the game and dedication to it grew.”
Unfortunately, being situated in Anchorage meant that it was hard for Isiah to extend his basketball world outside of the Brown household. Hardly any gyms and community centers existed for kids to just go play; the state had taken away competitive sports from middle schools; the AAU circuit, in the words of Gerald, was “virtually non-existent;” and the only competitive playing environments that were readily offered to kids prior to the high school level were expensive private leagues.
Realizing very early on that the city did not have the basketball resources to quench his son’s thirst for the game, Gerald decided to help Isiah by making their aforementioned household as much of a basketball resource on its own as it could be. This meant drawing on his connections throughout the Alaska basketball network, and bringing some pretty influential figures into Isiah’s life as mentors.
“I knew [Anchorage natives] Mario Chalmers and Trajan Langdon very well, having coached both of them” says Gerald. “For Isiah, who was so passionate about the game right from the start, I tried to bring Mario and Trajan around as much as possible. Not only were they guys that had had a ton of success in high school and beyond in college and the pros, but they were also people that Isiah could see play growing up, learn from, and emulate in the situation we were in.”
“There’s not a lot of examples to look up to in basketball terms when you’re growing up in Anchorage, but I was really lucky to be able to have the two best [Chalmers and Langdon] in my life,” Isiah says. “I consider both of them like family and grew up idolizing them. They were the closest thing that I had to look toward as far as my dream of playing basketball, and because I was surrounded by such great basketball people like them growing up, I never really saw [living in Alaska] as a disadvantage at all.”
Despite his work to provide his son with the very best of what basketball connections were available, and despite Isiah’s lack of perception of a disadvantage, Gerald still knew that his son wanted more and needed more to flourish on the court and as a person. Having done all that he could in terms of improving Isiah’s basketball environment in their immediate locale, he knew that what he needed to search for on behalf of his son lay outside Alaska borders.
Brown was an eight-year-old kid who had just started third grade at his elementary school in Anchorage when his dad came to him with a proposal that most would have seen as bordering on insane. There was an AAU team that Gerald was wondering if Isiah had any interest in playing for. It was 4,200 miles away, in Houston.
“Looking back now it seems really crazy,” Isiah says with a laugh. “But back then, I was completely on board.”
In perhaps the most poignant validation of their one of a kind commitment to and understanding of each other, Isiah and Gerald began traveling to every corner of the country to pursue basketball opportunities before Isiah had even reached double-digit years on the earth.
Isiah played with and went to nationals with the team from Houston through fourth grade, then played for a while with a team based in California, and then a team from Seattle.
“He was the master orchestrator and I was just kinda down for whatever,” Isiah recalls with a smile. “I absolutely loved to hoop so I was good going wherever as long as I got to play.”
“That was the start of us being adventurous together,” Gerald adds. “That was the start of us doing it our way.”
For Isiah, traveling around the country and playing at the highest level with different teams was certainly valuable and enriching, but both he and his father recognized that there was something in the water in Seattle.
“When we started going to Seattle it was really my and Isiah’s first exposure to how valuable AAU ball could be for him,” Gerald says. “ There came a point where we were coming to Seattle as many as five times per year to play, in addition to traveling around the country to tournaments with teams from here.”
“Isiah was playing for the top team in the state and was the top player on the team, so you would hear a lot of ‘oh, the kid from Alaska is coming this weekend to play.’ I could tell he was already making waves around the city and the basketball community as early as fifth of sixth grade.”
By the time Isiah was in seventh grade, it was clear that basketball was pulling the family further and further south towards the Emerald City. That summer, the family sat down to discuss a permanent move and decided to go all in on Isiah and his basketball dreams.
“There were no other factors in moving to Seattle, it was all about Isiah and his basketball,” asserts Gerald. “We went all in as a family.”
Gerald gave up his corporate job of over twenty years in Anchorage to commit himself to helping Isiah by whatever means necessary as a stay-at-home dad, while Yolanda went on the job search in Seattle and took on the full responsibility of providing for the family. Their primary focus was unequivocally placed on their son, and their efforts were now entirely driven towards helping him achieve his dream of a Division I scholarship.
“In the moment when we moved, I didn’t fully realize what it meant for their lives,” Isiah says. “But as I got older and got to the place that I am at now, I sometimes just think about it and say ‘wow.’”
“It took so much for my dad to leave his job in Alaska. He had been there for 20-30 years and had established himself as a successful businessman, and he just really put all of that to the side to give opportunities and devote himself to helping me become the best I could be. That says a lot about who he is and I am incredibly grateful.”
Even before the Brown family made the permanent move, “that kid from Alaska” had already begun to turn heads, not just in the Seattle AAU and youth basketball community, but among the city’s finest class of hoopers.
“The cool thing about Seattle is that the basketball community is very connected,” Isaiah says. “If you are at a certain caliber, people everywhere are going to know about you.”
It is not every elementary school basketball player whose play on the court earns him name recognition with the likes of Seattle natives Jamal Crawford, Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy, and Nate Robinson. Recognizing the unique situation, Gerald did everything he could to make sure that that name recognition turned much more for his son.
“My dad was the biggest factor in actually linking me up with those guys for the first time,” Isiah says. “He knew some people who knew Jamal, who organizes a lot of the stuff that the pro guys do, and when they started coming out to AAU games they decided I was good enough to start bringing me around.”
Out of all the Seattle basketball luminaries that Isiah has had the chance to cross paths with, it is the man that with whom his father first got him connected that has embraced said process and touched his life more than most: “the godfather” and “the people’s champ,” four-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Crawford.
“Jamal is a guy who has had as big an impact on my life as anybody,” Isiah says. “I did probably two or three summers straight when I was in middle school of just coming to the gym at 8 a.m. with my dad and just being there for four hours just watching Jamal, watching how he carried himself. He is such a down-to-earth humble guy, and also the biggest gym rat I’ve ever seen. He is definitely a role model for me on and off the court.”
“I am so thankful for the what Jamal has done with Isiah and the way he has been able to impact his life,” Gerald says. “I have always tried to teach him to play the game the right way, and having Jamal as a mentor I think is a big reason that he has been able to grow up into someone who does exactly that.”
As Isiah moved from middle school to high school and promptly knocked off Crawford’s alma mater Rainier Beach to win his school’s first ever district championship in his freshman year, his relationship with the current Los Angeles Clippers guard reached a new level. He started devoting more time to Isiah, working with him more one-on-one, and inviting him around every summer to play in high level scrimmages with the top pros and college kids from the area. This has continued through Isiah’s record-setting high school career all the way up to the summer before this year, and from Isiah’s perspective will hopefully continue for many summers in the future.
“I have gotten so much out of working with Jamal and all the other guys that I have been around,” and I’m really thankful for my dad putting in the time to get me those opportunities to better myself,” says Isiah.
“I was at the AAU circuit last spring with Armon Gates, and we were watching a game to get a look at these two kids who were on our radar,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins recalls. “So I started watching these two kids play, mainly focusing in on them, and all of a sudden I realize this point guard on the opposing team is just lighting it up. I turned to Armon and said ‘Whoa, who is that guy?’ and Armon turned back to me and said ‘Yeah, we gotta get our eye on him.’”
“That guy,” was Isiah Brown, and the match between him and Northwestern Basketball was instantly one that him and his father could tell was made in heaven. For Collins, getting Brown quickly became a priority.
“I helped him put together a list of things that were important to him in where he wanted to go to school,” Gerald recalls. “And the list we came up with, Northwestern ticked all those boxes.”
“When I came for my visit I immediately felt extremely comfortable here with the coaching staff and with all the guys,” Isiah says. “There was real sense that everybody was on board with the same vision, and it had all the other factors, such as academics, that I was looking for. I committed almost right away after leaving.”
For Isiah and Gerald, the decision was also made that much easier because it fell perfectly in line with the approach that had never failed them in Isiah’s basketball journey to that point — the approach of “our way”.
“Over time it has always proven to work for me and be a situation that I have thrived in, and my dad knows me well enough to recognize that,” says Isiah. “I wanted a different challenge and this presented that. It was a really unique situation for me and it was something I was drawn to immediately because of my path.”
To outsiders, the obvious choice would have seemed to be University of Washington — an NBA factory of sorts that served as home base for most of Isiah’s summer workouts and where he had a lot of his Seattle basketball connections. The Huskies had extended an offer to Brown during his high school freshman year. But Gerald knew that was never the route his son wanted to take.
The route he did want to take officially became Evanston on November 11th of 2015, as Brown signed his national letter of intent with his father proudly by his side
“Like going to Lakeside in high school instead of one of the big basketball schools, I knew [coming to Northwestern] wouldn’t be the easiest thing or the most surefire path to big things and big success,” Brown says of his decision. “But I know that the work that I’ll have to put in to get there will be worth it and will make me better in the long run.”
“I really liked the challenge and the chip it puts on my shoulder going up against the best and trying to do something that wasn’t the typical route or decision to make. It’s always good to do things your own way and me and my dad have ran with that as our philosophy.”
In his freshman year so far, Isiah has experienced what just about every freshman does in college basketball, and has gone through some typical ups and downs. Nonetheless, he has displayed consistent growth over the course of the year, and the man who was with him every step of the way on his basketball journey to this point could not be happier with the strength and resilience that he has shown.
“I am extremely proud of him,” Gerald says. “I feel as if he has adjusted really well in life and on the court throughout the year and he’s getting more and more opportunities and having more and more success as a result.”
The results certainly showed on Wednesday night against Maryland, as Isiah spearheaded a furious comeback bid against one of the Big Ten’s best teams with a career-high 19 points off the bench. He is aware that he has experienced his struggles and has room to improve, but certainly recognizes his work at his craft paying dividends.
“I really think I’ve made a lot of progress,” he says. “Coming in was tough because I was in a spot where I was just learning at every step. In college I’ve learned quickly that you can’t necessarily prepare for the things that you’re going to have to face and learn. I’ve just tried to soak everything in to the best of my abilities.”
His coach echoes those same sentiments.
“He’s gonna have his ups and downs,” Collins says. “But I’d rather have him make his doing the things that he does best and trying to be aggressive than him being timid and being on his heels. And I’ve seen already that that’s just not who he is. I am very happy with how he’s played and I think he’s only going to get better.”
Isiah’s improvement is hard to deny, and his formidable determination and work ethic that have brought that about throughout the course of the year are apparent. Even though this is the first time in his basketball life without his father physically by his side, it shows the strength of their relationship that Isiah still actively credits him with producing the drive that has brought about his growth.
“The sacrifices that my dad has made have meant everything to me,” he says. “Thinking about that and knowing what he has done for me is something that keeps me going and gets me through tough times. I try to always keep his and my family’s sacrifices in the back of my mind and be the best that I can be for them.”
Isiah and Gerald Brown’s relationship is one that has taken them on a journey the likes of which no one else in the world has likely experienced. The results of that journey are that they now both have a mutual bond and a commitment to each other continues to motivate and define both of them every single day.
This bond will be exemplified Saturday night, as on opposite sides of the country, the two basketball-obsessed Brown’s will each lock in at 5:00 PM and be motivated by one another as Isiah looks to help Northwestern to victory against Rutgers, and Gerald soaks it all in on his new favorite TV channel.
“The Big Ten Network is one of the best things in my life right now,” he says.
It allows him to see the results of years of early mornings, sacrifice and love for his son.