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Philadelphia 76ers guard Charlie Brown Jr. doesn’t let anything overwhelm him. This time last year, the 25-year-old from Northeast Philly had just seen his contract with the Iowa Wolves in the G League expire, and the future of his career was uncertain.
Now, he’s in the NBA Playoffs as a member of his hometown Sixers.
“It’s been the craziest year of my life,” Brown told Billy Penn, the week before the playoffs started. “I journal about everything. So when I go back and read it, I get emotional because I know all the hard work I put in.”
Brown’s journey to the NBA was uphill all the way. He was barely recruited out of high school, got injured in college, went undrafted, and bounced through five different teams in three years. Throughout it all, he remained calm and focused, partly due to his devout Christian faith, and also due to his confidence in his game, sharpened through a lifetime of playing ball across Philadelphia.
Fitting, then, that he’s finally coming into his own with the 76ers. He’s made an impression on his teammates and head coach Doc Rivers, who called Brown a “heck of a defensive player.”
Brown said he’s long respected Rivers, and even cites the 2008 NBA Championship Boston Celtics as his favorite team, as sacrilegious as it seems for a Philly kid.
“There’s an aura about him, you know what I’m saying?” Brown said. “It’s crazy how he’s the head coach for me now. And I try to listen to everything he says. I just watch what he does. You just learn from him.”
During the season, the Sixers secured the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, and play the Toronto Raptors in the first round starting tonight.
Brown said people would be surprised by the team’s lighthearted dynamic as they prepared for the playoffs.
“Joel’s pretty much the quiet one. During practice, he doesn’t really say much. He works hard, of course, but on a plane and on a bus, we really sit back and have good laughs,” Brown said. “James Harden is actually really funny. Tobias is hilarious… He’s very cool on his team, very laid back.”
Brown credits growing up in Philly — especially playing at Tarken Rec Center — with making him tough enough to handle the volatility of the NBA.
“I still go down [to Tarken Rec], I have some OGs down there that I got really close with,” Brown said. “They always used to beat me up and push me and do all that stuff to make me better and prepare me for this life I’m chasing now.”
Battling past a broken wrist
Brown began manifesting his hoop dreams at Tarken in Oxford Circle, as well as playing at Lawncrest Recreation Center and for St. Williams in Lawndale.
He spent his first two high school seasons at basketball powerhouse Imhotep Charter, but failed to make varsity. Upon transferring to George Washington High School in Somerton, he made an impression on St. Joe’s assistant coach Geoff Arnold, who passed Brown’s name along to former Hawks head coach Phil Martelli. Martelli offered Brown a full scholarship, assuming he could round out his high school credits at a boarding school in Connecticut. At St. Joe’s, Brown impressed during his initial year.
The joy that accompanied his first successful college season would be short-lived.
Brown fractured his wrist, and missed the entirety of the following season. But even while he sat on the sidelines for 10 crucial months, he never stopped working or believing in himself.
“Even when I was hurt, I was still in the gym,” Brown said. “They had to kick me out of the gym because I was playing with a broken hand and stuff like that. I was just doing certain things to get myself prepared for what I’m going through right now.”
He returned the following year and averaged 19 points and 6 rebounds en route to earning 2018-19 All-Atlantic 10 Second Team honors.
Brown declared for the NBA Draft in 2019, but went undrafted, then signed with the Atlanta Hawks on a two-way contract. He spent most of his time with their G-League affiliate, but played in a handful of NBA games. He cherishes the handful of veteran mentors who guided him along the way during the beginning of his career, including Chandler Parsons, Clint Capela, former Sixer Evan Turner, and eight-time All Star (and greatest dunker of all time) Vince Carter.
In Brown’s first pre-season, the Hawks scrimmaged the Orlando Magic, one of Carter’s former teams. The 20-year NBA veteran took the team to his mansion, where Brown saw the kind of life that comes of turning sweat equity into stardom on the hardwood.
“We had a practice in his house,” Brown said. “He’s got like one full court, he’s got a weight room. From the entrance, we had to walk around the house. It took us legit like five minutes to get there. It’s legit five acres.”
Called up to the big leagues
Brown emphasized the importance of remaining prepared for when the right opportunity arises.
For him, that opportunity came last October, when he was traded to the Sixers G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, where Brown averaged 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds in 11 games.
Earlier this season, NBA teams were allowed to sign extra players due to a COVID outbreak across the league. The Sixers remembered Brown’s work with the Blue Coats, and gave him the call he’d dreamt of since he was a kid: He would play for the team on two non-guaranteed 10-day contracts.
“I was on the phone with my agent and it was like, 1 or 2 in the morning… They had a game the next night in DC!” Brown said. “I didn’t go to sleep that whole night, bro. Like, from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., I was up. And I had to travel the next day to go to DC.”
On the 10-day contracts, he impressed Sixers management with his play, and they offered him a guaranteed contract for the rest of this season. He got the news from Blue Coats staff, and one of his mentors, St. Joe’s Hawks legend Jameer Nelson.
“They called me, and they were like, ‘Yo, we got this opportunity for you. This is not something that happens often.’ And they give me a long talk, like, 30 minutes to just keep working,” Brown said.
He said playing for his hometown team was a long-held dream.
“From an early age, I always wanted to play for the Sixers. Julius [Dr. J] Erving and AI were some of my favorite players growing up. My dad played basketball as well, so he always had the Sixers playing. We always had Sixers gear and stuff,” Brown said. “It’s a dream come true, bro. That’s the most I can say.”
Brown is proud at how figuratively far he’s come from hooping at parks around Philly. But he also feels “blessed” that physically, he hasn’t gone very far at all.
“I’ve got a really good support system, and a strong faith in God, that gets me through my rough days.” Brown said. “I love the challenge that I’ve been going through. I have a big belief in myself.”