BASKETBALL

Ohio State basketball mourns passing of 'Mr. Dependable' Jamaal Brown

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Jay Edwards moves in to steal the ball from Ohio State's Jamaal Brown on Jan. 4, 1989.

In Ohio State basketball circles, the story is a legendary one.

The Buckeyes were putting together a strong recruiting class with coach Gary Williams in his second season at the helm. With Chris Jent, Mark Baker, Bill Robinson and Steve Hall already in the fold, Williams placed a letter on the desk of assistant coach Fran Fraschilla with a message: “Check this kid out. He’s probably not good enough, but he wrote us.”

This wasn’t a novel situation. In a given year, letters from high school kids hoping to be recruited could number in the hundreds. This time, however, it was Brown who had sent a letter trying to jumpstart an under-the-radar recruitment since moving from New Jersey to the Dallas area.

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Fraschilla was intrigued, but partially for a different reason.

“Gary really gave me free rein to do all the recruiting back then and I was dating a girl in Dallas, Texas,” Fraschilla said. “I said, well, I’ll go down and see him, and if he’s not good enough at least I’ll get to see my girlfriend. I went down to see Jamaal and was intrigued with his athleticism and got to know him. That’s how the recruiting started.”

Jamaal Brown a cornerstone for Ohio State's 1991 and 1992 Big Ten champions

The result was Ohio State, in Brown, landing a cornerstone piece for what would be a run of back-to-back Big Ten titles. From 1988-92, Brown went on to score more than a thousand points and serve as a team captain as a senior in helping the Buckeyes not only win the 1991 and 1992 Big Ten titles but also reach the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, during those two seasons.

Brown, 52, passed away Sunday after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home in Texas. In his wake, the gritty, dependable point guard left behind a flood of memories and emotional former teammates and coaches who expressed their sorrow and grief at losing someone so beloved so soon.

“Everyone that knows Jamaal Brown, he has definitely impacted their lives in some shape or form or fashion just by who he is as a person,” Treg Lee, an Ohio State letterwinner from 1989-91, said. “As an individual you’ll never find another genuine person who is just a good guy, amazing person.”

Jerry Francis Jr. was Brown’s host on his official visit to Ohio State, and upon arrival the recruit wasted little time developing a reputation for being a down-to-earth type of player. With all the possible spoils that could come with a taste of college freedom, the Texas product asked for two things that Lee, his future roommate, still remembers.

“All he wanted was orange juice and Skittles,” Lee said. “He was just different than everybody else. He was just a down-home, wholesome kid from Texas.”

After Fraschilla’s visit allowed him to watch Brown in person (and see his girlfriend, Meg, who has now been his wife for 34 years), the assistant brought Williams to an AAU-type of tournament to get his own eyes on the guard. Brown promptly fouled out in 10 minutes, giving Williams a few concerns. But after Kansas won the 1988 NCAA championship, the Jayhawks offered him a scholarship, which helped to further Williams’ sense of urgency.

Fraschilla said he told Williams to call Brown and offer him a scholarship, knowing he was likely to commit. Williams did, Brown did and the Buckeyes had their final piece.

“For every Jimmy Jackson, Chris Jent, Lawrence Funderburke, Mark Baker, all these highly recruited high school guys, Jamaal was the one guy that if they had the star system back then I think Jamaal wouldn’t have had any stars,” Fraschilla said. “That’s how under the radar he was. It was really the stroke of luck that I needed to see my girlfriend and I figured we already had four great recruits in the bag, Gary’s not going to care. I go down to see him and he ends up being a four-year starter and a two-time Big Ten champion.”

Jamaal Brown left his mark on Ohio State basketball – both on and off the court

Once he got to campus, Brown didn’t take long to leave a mark on his new teammates – both on and off the court.

“We had a shell drill and the first team was on the inside,” Francis said. “You have to box out, and then the shot goes up and you’ve got to go get the rebound. Shot goes up, maybe one of our teammates blew an assignment and Jamaal was able to go in and I tell you he took off from the dot and tip-slammed that thing and was about 12, 13 feet in the air.”

Francis, a Columbus native who lettered for the Buckeyes from 1986-89, was a senior when Brown was a freshman. During their shared season together, Francis recalled a memorable visit to a local establishment.

“One time we were on campus, doing what we do on High Street, being college guys, and then we go into a venue and (Brown) goes to the guys and goes, ‘You got milk?’ ” Francis said. “That’s when I said, ‘This guy’s special.’ What we doing tonight, gentlemen? Jamaal’s like, ‘I’m drinking milk.’ I said, oh my goodness. This guy right here.”

Jamaal Brown fit Ohio State basketball 'like a little brother'

Lee said that’s just one example of how seamlessly Brown fit into the culture.

“He fit like a little brother that was that little corny brother but he had some talent and nobody knew about it until he stepped on the floor,” he said. “He was that type of kid, and personality-wise he just blended with us like we always knew each other from years before.”

Then, there were the nicknames Lee and Brown gave each other during Lee’s senior year that defy conventional spelling and owe their genesis to the TV show “In Living Color.”

“We had these long names that we would make up,” Lee said. “His was, ‘Moss Ski Easkey Bone On The Raheem-Abdul-Kamala-Tip Love.’ Mine was, “T-Bone on The Raheem-Abdul-Ishmael-Tip Love.’ We’d change the words around to have some fun. He was just an amazing guy.”

Jamaal Brown: An all-time dependable player for the Buckeyes

Ohio State tipped off the 1988-89 season six time zones away against the reigning national runners-up. Participants in what was then known as the Maui Classic, the No. 16 Buckeyes drew a first-round matchup with No. 5 Oklahoma, which lost to the same Jayhawks that had tried to sign Brown.

In the season opener for both teams, Brown was in the starting lineup.

“Think about what he did,” Fraschilla, who called Brown "Mr. Dependable," said. “He came in unheralded. Here’s a kid that went underrecruited and the second game of his career he’s starting in Maui against Oklahoma, which was a top-5 team.”

It was the first of what would be 126 career starts for Brown, tying him with Francis for a program record that would stand for two decades until William Buford broke it with 137 starts from 2009-12. A steady contributor, Brown only averaged double figures as a junior when he scored 12.0 points per game and finished with 1,139 career points. That figure still sits at No. 43 in school history. As a senior, Brown was named team captain.

He did it while grabbing onto a point guard spot that wasn’t his natural fit.

“He was just an ironman,” Francis said. “Just could do multiple things on the floor and so athletic. You always need that glue guy, the guy who’s going to sacrifice his personal scoring or accolades for the betterment of the team. That was Jamaal.”

Those were the attributes Ohio State fans saw and remember, in addition to the memorable Big Ten titles and postseason successes. For his teammates, Brown’s passing is a jolt to the tight-knit brotherhood those Buckeyes enjoyed and a reminder that time is short. Lee said he enjoyed seeing Brown when Ohio State recognized the 30th anniversary of that 1991-92 season during a game last year and that Brown had been planning a retreat next summer for his former teammates to again enjoy some time together.

They ended that conversation the way everyone in that Ohio State community does: they told each other they loved each other.

“He was soft-spoken, just down to earth, just loved the camaraderie of a team,” Lee said. “He just fit like a glove, and he was just a genuine guy. There was no airs with him. He wasn’t pretending to be anything he wasn’t. He was who he was, and he owned it.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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