When a star of the court loses touch
How did a hugely promising US college basketball player end up, via Dublin, in a Kentucky psychiatric ward on suspicion of arson, asks Sean O'Driscollin New York
In Erik Brown's mind, the major troubles in his life began one minute into his first ever game for St Vincent's basketball club in Glasnevin. In a tussle for the ball with a Limerick Lions player, he fractured his thumb and was sent to hospital, where the CIA was waiting.
According to Brown, they inserted a microchip into his head to stop him playing well, at the behest of University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who, Brown claims, didn't want his former star player to be a success after leaving the Louisville side.
Since he went back to the US from Ireland, Brown has been convinced that the CIA has been listening to his thoughts. He allegedly burnt down his Kentucky apartment last August to destroy their listening devices. Unfortunately for Brown, he was on probation at the time, having pleaded guilty to theft at two gas stations.
He is currently in a psychiatric ward of a Kentucky jail getting treatment for what his lawyer, Herb West, has said is schizoaffective disorder. Most clinicians define the disorder as a type of reality-altering schizophrenia, according to the US National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Brown's incarceration on arson charges marks the end of what was once one of the most promising careers in US college basketball. At Louisville, Brown held the season record for the highest score of any freshman player in the US.
For basketball fans around the world, being on a Division One team such as Louisville carries a special significance: it's the platform from which big teams such as the Chicago Bulls pull their best players. Rick Pitino is a basketball legend in the US, and is considered one of the best college coaches of all time.
By 2003, however, after repeatedly switching teams and a series of petty disputes with Pitino and others, Erik Brown was playing for St Vincent's in Glasnevin, earning €1,000 a month and living for free at the home of current team captain David Donnelly.
FORMER TEAM-MATE Jermaine Turner, who is also African- American, had the most in common with Brown but didn't get much in return for his efforts to become his friend. "He was very quiet, very withdrawn. I tried to give him confidence but he always doubted himself," Turner recalls. "I found it difficult to get him to look positively on his achievements in Louisville, because he hinted that Pitino had instructed the other players not to pass the ball to him."
Turner had seen a videotape of Brown at the height of his career, and knew his distrust of Pitino and his college team-mates was "just nonsense", but Brown couldn't see through his suspicion. His anger sometimes erupted in front of other Glasnevin players.
During one training session, St Vincent's player Mike Trimmer successfully blocked three of Brown's shots. Brown became infuriated and threw the ball at Trimmer's back.
"I had to hold him back," recalls Turner. "I said, 'What is wrong with you? That's basketball', but he didn't see it that way and he didn't mix with the team. Any time anyone said anything to him, his response was always in one-word answers."
Brown's time with St Vincent's got off to a disastrous start when he dislocated his thumb at the Limerick Lions game. Turner started with the team a week later, replacing the injured Brown.
"He felt really threatened by my place on the team," recalls Turner. Brown was supposed to keep his thumb in a cast for six weeks but ripped it off on the sidelines of the next game against Belfast team Star of the Sea. "I thought that was really crazy," says Turner. "He wasn't anywhere near healed but he just had to get out there."
Brown struggled on, playing various club games, including "an absolute stinker" against a Cork side, in which he scored just four points. Before the season was out, he was dropped by St Vincent's.
Turner's girlfriend, Leesa Grennell, who plays on Killester women's team, remembers the shock in St Vincent's after discovering that this Division One US college star fumbled like he barely knew how to play basketball.
"He was a shell of a player," she said. "People joked that he must have stolen the real Erik Brown's identity. I kept thinking: 'What are St Vincent's doing with this guy?'" She recalls meeting Brown at the club's Christmas night. "He just said 'Hi, I'm Erik', and sat there all night without saying a word to anyone."
Brown's extreme fear of uncontrolled situations grew more acute throughout the season. David Donnelly recalls taking him to the Mater hospital for one of his regular check-ups on his thumb.
"I told him I would drop him off and he could walk the 10 minutes home after his appointment but he refused to get out of the car until I agreed to stay with him and drive him home."
According to Turner, Brown couldn't hold down coaching jobs with Dublin schools because he was afraid of getting lost. "I offered to meet him and said we'd go through it together but he was afraid of finding his way home, even when I said he could call me any time if he was lost." Brown, who stayed in David Donnelly's home for the entire season, was very withdrawn and "needed a lot of looking after", recalls Donnelly's mother, Bernie.
"He was quite immature, he wasn't as independent as some of the other American players, he had to be brought most places," she said.
SHE RECALLS THAT her husband gave her a gift voucher for a professional massage. "Erik was saying to me: 'Why can't I have a massage as well, I want one.' I had to say: 'No, that's for me, it's a gift.' You felt it was like dealing with a child sometimes. He wasn't a troublemaker but it was obvious that he was insecure and had problems."
When he was eventually let go by the club, that lack of comprehension came back once more, recalls Turner. "He turned up the next day like nothing had happened, still convinced that he was going to play that Saturday. I just looked around at everyone and they shrugged their shoulders. It was difficult to get through to him even then."
Rev James E Robinson has been counselling the Browns, a middle-class Kentucky family who are "absolutely standing behind Erik". Rev Robinson has known Brown for many years and is waiting for access to visit him in jail.
"This is not a bad kid by any means and his family knows that," he said. "This is someone who has huge potential who has gone very, very wrong. I just hope and pray he can find his way back."