Credit: Xavier Bonilla - Getty Images | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas
Credit Xavier Bonilla - Getty Images | BasketNews illustration/A.Zaikauskas

Too short to be a center, not capable of stretching the floor as a four-man. European GMs and coaches put labels on big man John Brown III that made his basketball journey difficult.

3-pointers this season

Points made: 9,0
Accuracy: 37,5%
Place in standings: 8
Record max: 15
Record min: 3
Most made 3FGs: Isaiah Canaan

They just couldn't find a spot for such an unorthodox player. But soon, he fulfilled the courts and hearts wherever he landed throughout his career.

John Brown became the EuroLeague sensation this year. 

Recently he almost stunned the regular-season leaders FC Barcelona with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals. The following week, his 20-point and 5-steal performance was too much for the EuroLeague champions Anadolu Efes.

That just established an incredible run of his team, UNICS Kazan, holding the 5th seed in the EuroLeague.

But more than his numbers, other things gained the respect of the EuroLeague community.

His enthusiasm for every loose ball, his willingness to make a defensive stop, his ability to cover positions from 1 to 5, his nuclear energy, passion in every possession, dunks, screens, deflections, steals, rebounds, underrated offensive skills, including improved mid-range shot and passing, his team-first mentality made him a perfect high-level weapon for any coach.

Today, nobody questions Brown's quality and impact as he became a game-changer piece in the EuroLeague.

But a few years ago, there was a time when even the first division teams from Germany, Italy, or Australia were questioning his potential in pro basketball.

Probably the only GM that followed John Brown

"What is his real position?"

"Who do I play next to him?"

"Isn't he too small to guard opponents at 5? He doesn't shoot threes, so do I need a stretch 5?"

When Dave Gasman, the founder, and president of Overtime International Sports, recruited John Brown III and saw him in college for the first time, he had no questions.

As Gasman recalls, John turned a close game his team's way. 2.02 m forward was out there chasing down the other team's guards, applying massive pressure, chasing down steals, or causing turnovers.

It didn't matter who the opposition was, he was out there as a free safety. In American football, it's a defensive back player who's usually free from an assignment to cover a particular player on the opposing team.

You had to be aware of him at all times, no matter what position you played on the other team.

"I realized JB cannot be defined by a position. He's a basketball player and a winner", Dave Gasman told BasketNews. "But it took professional teams time to learn that because they often feel a need to label players by their position or role."

"As people have learned, you have to see him to understand and believe in what he does," his agent Dave Gasman told BasketNews.

Most of them in Europe just couldn't.

In 2016, John injured his foot during the Big South conference tournament his senior year and missed the Portsmouth Invitational. It's a four-day tournament for college basketball seniors, attended by many European basketball managers and scouts.

He could participate only in the last week of the NBA predraft workouts. After three workouts, Brown, 24, went undrafted. He played only 12 minutes on the Charlotte Hornets Summer League roster, and it was apparent that he'll need to find a job in Europe.

Everyone saw his highlight tape with Vince Carter type of dunks. But Europeans weren't sure how he'll translate his skills to help them win games, not slam dunk contests.

On August 12, 2016, Brown signed with Virtus Roma, the second Italian division team. Italians paid him $40k for his rookie season.

"I was probably the only GM in Europe that followed John Brown after his college career," Simone Giofre, a former GM of Virtus Roma and currently the GM of Brindisi Basket, told BasketNews.

"Can he take his game to the 1st division?"

Giofre followed every of 350 Division I colleges across the United States. Known for his scouting, Giofre discovered many hidden gems in years, including Bryant Dunston or Achille Polonara. This time he got an eye on a star of the High Point. The underrated NCAA program, in the words of Giofre.

"John didn't attend Portsmouth. He was on the Summer League roster, but he didn't play much. So I was lucky because no one knew him (in Europe) before," Giofre recalls.

Brown's first overseas experience was full of adventures. He didn't have a US passport, so it took another month to land in Italy. When he came to Rome, Brown was scared of heavy Italian traffic. Brown had a driver's license, but he didn't drive a car before.

"He was scared of every car, bus, and every single transportation," Giofre smiles to this day.

But John Brown was the one to be scared of on the basketball court.

He averaged 19.9 points, 8.1 rebounds (4.2 ORB), 1.9 steals, and 1.8 assists, becoming the top scorer and the most efficient player on his team. He led his team to the Serie A2 playoffs.

"I remember the film session and meetings before the game and the coaching staff telling us, "this kid plays hard." Yeah yeah, you hear that 1000 times," Serie A2 legend Mike Hall recalls. "But I used to peek down at my matchup during pregame warmups to notice small tendencies of players, and this kid was warming up at FULL SPEED!"

"I knew he would be special from his season in Rome…" Hall, the top rebounder of Serie A2 that year, adds. "Played for the team, always made the right play, was always positive with his teammates, and had limitless energy."

"He's a very special guy. He was very kind, emotional, and a fighter in a single part of his life, not just basketball," Giofre told BasketNews.

Talking about fighting through obstacles, John's father was rarely around, his older brother went to prison, and he was the first member of his family to make the college.

John was very close to his mom, Zarenia Dorsey, but she passed away in 2014. It happened just before the important NCAA game at James Madison University. John flew back home to check how his 5-year-old little brother Ja'Ron was, but he quickly rejoined his team to attend the game, scored 24 points to lead the High Point Panther to a victory 80-71, and broke down crying in the locker room.

"I knew my mom would've told me, 'Don't stop your life for this,'" Brown said to Sports Illustrated. "I chose to keep going. I chose to play."

During his redshirt year at High Point in 2011-12, his grandmother Sharon, who was also very important in raising him, passed away. John had a dream to suit up in college in front of his grandmother's eyes.

But when it was no longer possible, Brown realized that you could never know when someone might be watching you play for the last time. So he decided to go all-out at every opportunity in her honor, per Sports Illustrated.

Italians started to recognize his golden heart.

"On the court, he's a unique player. When I say unique, it's really unique," Giofre told BasketNews. "There is no other player like him because he's like a snake on the court. He can defend every position from 1 to 5. He doesn't have a real position. He's not a 4. He's not a 5. He's not a 3. He's positionless. This is what made him a very powerful player."

He wanted to resign Brown, but Virtus didn't have enough money to keep him. So he suggested Brown's name to some of his friends, coaches, or the GMs of the Serie A.

"After his rookie season, I told everybody that if I sign tomorrow for a EuroLeague team, the first signing I do is John Brown. Because he's unique. But no one trusted me," Giofre said

"He's too short to play in the first division."

"He doesn't have an outside shot."

"Can he take his game to Serie A?"

Serie A general managers and especially coaches continued doubting him.

According to Dave Gasman, after his rookie year, Brown had a chance to move up to Serie A. But he decided to stay in A2, where some of the top foreign players are paid as well as in the Serie A. He signed with the legendary Treviso basketball club.

Once again, he was the top in points and ranking at Treviso (16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds., 1.2 assists, 1.4 steals) and led his new team to the Seria A2 semifinals.

Slowly the legend of John Brown started to spread in the second Italian division. People began to fall in love not only with John's game but his unique spirit.

"I remember he loved Michael Jackson. Sometimes he put his songs in the locker room. I like him too, so I never said anything," Bernardo Musso, his former teammate in Treviso, smiled.

"I never said anything because when John joined us, he never stopped. Every time he went on the court, he was never tired. He was always giving 100%."

There was one 3 on 3 practice, where no matter which side of the court the offense or defense played, after the rebound, the offensive team had to run a fastbreak to the other side of the court.

"John got the rebound maybe 10 times in a row to start a fastbreak. It was incredible," Musso, 35-year-old guard, told BasketNews. "That's why he is where he is right now."

There was another fantastic Treviso legend of John Brown.

People who know John and especially one lovely countryside elderly couple in Treviso smile to this day. They say that sometimes John just went to their house, went upstairs, sat down, and ate pasta at lunch. That couple didn't speak English, and John didn't say a word in Italian. But they treated him like their son.

The joy and happiness of John Brown

Finally, Brown got a call up to Serie A in 2018. That was Giofre calling. He was already a GM of the Brindisi team.

"He was my first pick," Giofre smiles.

It wasn't an easy call in the Brindisi organization. Giofre had a great relationship with his head coach, but he had to go through many discussions with Frank Vitucci, who wasn't sure if John's was good enough to play in Serie A.

It worked out perfectly. Vitucci used John to his strengths, and Brown showed his full potential. In his first year with Brindisi, Brown averaged 14.3 points, 6.42 rebounds (3.06 ORB), 1.52 assists, and one steal per game.

"He had an unbelievable season," Giofre added.

Brindisi fans quickly fell in love with JB. They even gave him an Italian nickname. In Brindisi, now they also call him Giovanni Marrone. Giovanni is like John in Italian, while Marrone means brown.

Teammates couldn't stop enjoying his presence in the locker room as well.

Raphael Gaspardo, former John Brown's teammate in Brindisi, remembers their locker room conversation the first day he met John.

"Let's fight and kick our asses off every day in practice," John Brown told Gaspardo. "He brought that energy every single day at every single practice."

"In the locker room, he was the best teammate you can ever have. Always positive, always with a smile on his face. Always loud, dancing, joking around. So even if you had a bad day or you didn't feel like going to practice when you got there, John was raising everybody's spirit," Gaspardo, 28-year-old Italian big man, told BasketNews.

Gaspardo remembers going through some bad days in the practice. So when he was back in the locker room, Gaspardo just wanted to take a quick shower and go home.

"But there's Brown with some joke, and I'm dying laughing on the floor for minutes," Gaspardo laughs. "That gave me joy and happiness again."

Those who weren't inside the locker room couldn't feel the actual value of John Brown. So when Giofre wanted to resign him for one more season, the president of Brindisi wasn't sure about improving the offer.

"No, president," Giofre replied. "If I have to put 20-30-40 thousand more, I have to do that because he's unique, and he can play everywhere."

Brown stayed, and he made his first International competition appearance in Europe next year. In FIBA Champions League, he averaged 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds (2.1 ORB) per night.

Over two seasons in Brindisi, he proved that he could play basketball anywhere. Brindisi wanted John back for the third year, but JB needed to move forward.

However, EuroLeague and EuroCup teams kept questioning until another Italian suggested his name for the head coach.

They weren't surprised

Brown wasn't a new name on Claudio Coldebella's, the sports director's of UNICS Kazan, scouting list.

Coldebella saw Brown more than three times visiting his hometown, Treviso. He liked the way he was playing and engaged with the local fans.

He continued tracking him in Brindisi, where he saw Brown lucky enough to work with coach Frank Vitucci. Again, John impressed everybody.

Coldebella was always a fan of underdog players. Such players always had a chip on their shoulders to prove people were wrong.

"They think I'm not too good, so let me show them. And JB is like that," Coldebella told BasketNews.

Just watch him in any iconic arena known for its fantastic fan support, Coldebella suggests. John likes to look around during the team's presentation. He wants to feel the atmosphere around the court. He takes that energy to boost his game to its limits.

"In the last few years, one of the first priorities I put when I try to find players is their desire to compete. I like to see them upset if they lose. This is something I put on top when choosing a player," Coldebella says.

He convinced coach Dimitris Priftis to sign John Brown to a one-year contract with UNICS.

20 points, eight rebounds, two steals, and 31 performance index rating (PIR) in the do-or-die EuroCup semifinal clash with Virtus Bologna.

25 points, 11 rebounds (8 ORB), four steals, and 36 EFF in the VTB League finals vs. CSKA Moscow.

Coldebella and UNICS realized how good John Brown was before putting superior numbers on a stat sheet because it was much bigger than points or the player's index rating on the box score.

UNICS backcourt players Isaiah Canaan and John Holland sat next to Claudio Coldebella during the first preseason game in Kazan. UNICS were playing Parma Perm in September 2020.

Canaan, who appeared in 235 NBA games, and Holland, with 25 NBA games in his experience, barely knew who John Brown was.

"Look, JB was coming from the second Italian division, and he wasn't a very well-known player. So they didn't know him. But soon they were shocked about this guy jumping and diving for every ball," Coldebella said.

During the game, there was one moment when the referee stopped the action for a while. John Brown was doing pushups during that break.

"Centrale Nucleare," a coach and friend of Coldebella, once called John Brown. The nuclear power plant, as we say in English.

"He brings that kind of energy. Think about nuclear things. He's like this. And I don't know where he finds it," Coldebella smiles.

After averaging 10.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.9 steals in the EuroCup, he made All-EuroCup Second Team. Also, he won the VTB League Defensive Player of the Year award.

UNICS didn't have any doubt on resigning Brown to a two-year extension.

Today he's destroying the EuroLeague powerhouses, such as FC Barcelona (21 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 24 PIR), the current EuroLeague champions Anadolu Efes (20 points, 3 rebounds, 5 steals, 28 PIR), or an elite AX Armani Exchange (19 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 27 PIR).

It's hard to find a bigger heart on the EuroLeague floor than Brown's. That's why he quickly became one of the favorite players among the EuroLeague fans.

UNICS made the headlines becoming the biggest surprise of the year, reaching the Top 5 of the EuroLeague midway through the season. 

Anybody from the UNICS scoring trio – Isaiah Canaan (14.5 PPG), Mario Hezonja (14.2 PPG), or Lorenzo Brown (13.2 PPG) deserves to be on the All-EuroLeague team this season.

But they won't be mad if you say that Brown was the glue guy who had an enormous impact on Kazan's early success.

And you know what's funny? His success didn't surprise anybody, who followed JB's journey since the beginning, from these early crazy Rome traffic days with gloves on his hands developing ball-handling 30 minutes before the practice.

"We exchanged numbers that first year and talked a few times here and there…" Mike Hall recalls. "I just remember telling him, "don't worry about your shot and unorthodox mechanics, put the work in, and that will come. But that hustle and heart that comes naturally to you will take you anywhere you want to go!" It's really cool to see him playing at such a high level, and I know he has a whole new level he still hasn't cracked yet."

"I wouldn't say it's all about his improvement over these years. I mean, he was already the EuroLeague player when he played for Brindisi," Simone Giofre, who calls him his second son, said to BasketNews. "The key is that he's a unique snake on the court. He can compete at any level. Now he shows that he can play in the Euroleague, and probably he's one of the best players in the league. The only limit for him is the sky. He's unique. There's no player in the world like John Brown."

"John knows exactly who he is as a player. He loves to play, and he burns to win. He wasn't sure that he would love how he would be used as he moved up in competition. But he's got a really high basketball IQ, and he learned quickly that his game is tailor-made to be an elite complementary player at the highest level," Dave Gasman told BasketNews. 

"Also, he has a quality that cannot be overlooked. He has heart and just wants it more," Gasman continued. "He told me once early in our relationship that people often ask him how do you defend everyone and how do you stay at 100% effort for so long. He said, "My stamina and body aren't special… I just try harder, and I push past being tired". He's got a very strong mind. Mentally, he's very, very tough. He believes in himself, and he always did even when others weren't sure he was "ready."

In summer, Claudio Coldebella was walking in Treviso and was stopped by a random basketball fan. He greeted him for signing Brown to UNICS.

Brown left something special on everyone's heart who followed him. But that's not the end of his journey.

"A lot of people passed on him because they couldn't find him the position on the court. That was the biggest doubt that everybody had. But as Dave convinced me, you don't have to find his position on the court. He'll find. 

I think we matched him with our desire to compete. We always looked for fighters like him. Okaro White was that type of player. Jamar Smith was a great competitor. John Holland, Melvin Ejim, Trent Lockett… Budget-wise we couldn't have the EuroLeague players except for this year. We made a step forward, signing Mario and Lorenzo. Our will was to have some EuroLeague players teach others. 

JB matched a lot with Kazan's mentality. We're JB's style. And he found his place there.

We have to respect guys coming from a challenging environment. That's the beauty of sport. That's a path that can change lives."

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John Brown

John  Brown
Team: UNIKS Kazan
Position: SF, PF
Age: 30
Height: 203 cm
Weight: 98 kg
Birth place: United States of America