The news hit hard. The bad kind always does. It slaps you in the face, crumples the knees and kicks you in the stomach, all at once.
That’s what it was like Wednesday upon learning Kevin Brown had been diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumor. With word already spreading, the Lexington native and Washington High School head basketball coach shared the news on Twitter.
He said he would be having surgery to remove the tumor, and added, “I have full confidence in my neurosurgeon that will be doing the work, and I hope to be on the sidelines if everything goes well with treatment.”
The surgery was Friday. By late Friday afternoon, he was in recovery and awaiting further tests in a Peoria hospital. Social media accounts have been filled with posts of support for Brown and his wife, Jodi, including this from mine:
“Kevin Brown is among the most passionate people I’ve covered in 40 years on the job. He’s a fighter with enormous heart and has a terrific wife who’s always in his corner. I would never bet against that team. Thoughts and prayers to you both.”
Yes, count me in as a Kevin Brown fan. Not everyone is, and he understands that.
His detractors will tell you he is too intense, that he pushes players too hard, that he only cares about winning. It’s why in May 2017 he had to fight to keep his job despite a record that has earned him induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Is he intense? You bet.
Does he push? Absolutely … he forces players to look in the mirror and into their hearts, demands that they do things the right way, not the easy way.
Does he only care about winning? Not for a second.
Otherwise, on March 8, 2002, as head coach at Central Catholic, he would have been a raving lunatic in a Carver Arena locker room after the Saints lost in overtime to Pleasant Plains in the Class A state quarterfinals.
He would have been in players’ faces for letting a 10-point third-quarter lead get away, or for not scoring on the final possession of regulation in a tie game.
Instead, in that gut-wrenching moment, he was the best friend and mentor those 12 players ever could have imagined.
How would a sportswriter know?
Brown allowed me to go along for the entire journey that day, from a rousing lunch sendoff at Central Catholic to that quiet locker room. The Saints were an open book and Brown let me write the words. The most profound came from him.
They came as tears welled up in his eyes and sweat showed through his dress shirt. He paced slowly in front of those 12 teenagers who had started that season 1-9 and ended within an eyelash of a state trophy. And he said this:
“You guys came out and fought your butts off and just came up a little short. That’s all. I’m so damn proud of everybody in this room, top to bottom … Everybody in here is going to be successful because of what you just accomplished. Everything you encounter in life, you’re going to have success at. That’s what high school sports are all about.”
Then, he said this:
“I’m only the one who pushed. You guys are the ones who succeeded and continued to go … I know one thing you taught me. I’ll never give up on a 1-9 team. Ever. There were a lot of people who did. But you just kept fighting.”
He left them with this:
“Think about the way you affected every young kid in that crowd tonight. There are a lot of 5-7 kids who will go home and play basketball in their driveway next week and think they have a shot to get to the state tournament. It’s because of you guys … because they saw the Saints get there at that size. Think about that for a minute.”
A lot of things come to mind when someone you know and respect suddenly is in a fight for his/her life. That night in 2002 was the first to rush back in regard to Brown.
He wrapped his arms around those teary-eyed sophomores, juniors and seniors, first with words and then for real, one by one as he worked his way around the room.
Now it’s their turn and, judging from social media, they’re hugging him back. They all are … former teammates at Lexington and Eureka College, former players at Central and Washington, coaches from around the state and, yes, those of us in the media.
Brown, 49, has told every team he’s coached that they’re in it together. He is not alone in this fight, either.