At 4 a.m., a chartered bus makes its way down a dark, near-empty Interstate 81 in southern Virginia. Nearly everyone on board is sound asleep, but two former GW basketball standouts are wide awake, sharing their insight in between fighting for Colonial bragging rights.
The two are Mike Brown ('85), a 39-year-old GW alumnus and former NBA player, and SirValiant Brown, a 21-year-old guard who left GW after his sophomore season to pursue his yet-to-be-fulfilled NBA dreams. A few rows behind them, another GW alumnus, Mike King ('01), is asleep in his seat.
This is not some kind of Colonials basketball reunion. This is just a day on the road for the Roanoke Dazzle, a Virginia-based team in the NBA's version of the minor leagues, the National Basketball Development League. The team heads to Mobile, Ala., for its game against the Mobile Revelers Thursday night.
Graduate King and Val Brown, then a sophomore, both left GW in May 2001 with hopes of starting pro careers and maybe even finishing with one like Mike Brown's. A year and a half later, the two are back together as teammates for the Dazzle under the tutelage of assistant coach Mike Brown.
"It's just like college again," King said. Except it's not.
"When you're in college, you're still a young adult," he said. "Leaving school, you have to turn around and be more responsible."
For Val Brown, that turnaround came all too soon. After ranking second in the nation in scoring as a freshman in 1999-2000 with nearly 25 points per game, his production dropped to just over 17 points per game as a sophomore. He left school to enter the NBA draft anyway, but went undrafted and found himself looking for another chance.
"Life changed when I left GW, going into the real world," Brown said. "Leaving GW, it was a mistake. I got a lot of bad advice, with agents and people telling me I was going to be a first-round pick."
But Brown said he is trying to move on from his decision and is still hopeful of making it to the NBA.
"Learning from it is the biggest thing," he said. "Nothing in this world is going to be handed to you, so you just have to work for it. Everything before I left GW was handed to me."
After brief stints with an NBA summer league team, two exhibition teams, the Pennsylvania Valleydawgs of the U.S. Basketball League and overseas play, Val Brown said he has now found what is likely his best shot at the NBA, the Dazzle. King, who made the team after playing briefly for the Gary Steelheads of the Continental Basketball Association, as well as a professional team in Germany, agreed.
Val Brown described his conversation with Mike Brown on the bus over the phone Wednesday, indicating the close relationship the two have already formed. He also said he and King have become closer friends since reuniting in Roanoke.
"We're roommates and we've become better friends now than we were in college," King said. "He and I both have the same
Mike Brown, who knows as well as anyone how to get closer to those dreams, will assist head coach Kent Davison on the Dazzle bench. Before earning a reputation as a workhorse in the low post during his 11 seasons in the NBA, Brown became GW's second all-time leading scorer and rebounder and was later named to the GW Athletic Hall of Fame and the Colonials All-Century basketball team.
"I just try to relate to them that besides being lucky by being a free agent for the right team at the right time, it's a lot of hard work," the coach said. "The biggest mistake guys make, is once they get to a level where they're getting paid for basketball, they relax. And I tell them, that's when the job gets even harder, because there's always someone behind you working to get your job."
King said playing for an assistant coach that went to the same school is tougher but beneficial for him and Val Brown.
"He expects a lot out of us, coming from the same school," he said. "So when you're playing bad, he's going to be on you, but you have to be on yourself too, because it's the pros and they switch up players every day."
In between tough practices and serious basketball-related discussions, however, coach Brown said the three have a good bond and even a playful relationship at times.
"See, Val's always interested in statistics, so he's always, 'Well, you know, coach Brown, if I would've stayed in school, I would've broken your records,'" he said. "And I said, 'Yeah, yeah, but you didn't, so right now you're behind me.'"
The three former Colonials began their season together last Friday when the Dazzle opened with a 63-66 home loss to the Huntsville Flight. The team split the next two games and plays its next game Thursday night at Mobile, the fourth of a 50-game season that runs through March.
With half those games away from the team's home, the Roanoke Civic Center Coliseum, players and coaches will often find themselves on the road between seven other small-town venues from Fayetteville, Ark., to Asheville, N.C.
King has had more success than Val Brown early on, averaging 3.3 points in just over 13 minutes per game. Brown's playing time has been even more limited at three minutes per game and he has scored only one basket so far. But Mike Brown emphasized that the learning experience is what matters most for the two right now.
The coach said King plays defense well but needs to work on his shot and get a little stronger. Val Brown has what King lacks in shooting ability and has put on about 20 pounds of muscle since leaving GW, coach Brown said. But he said the biggest challenge for the 6-foot-1 guard is making the transition from shooting guard to point guard, since the average NBA shooting guard is at least 6-foot-4.
"Val needs to work on the thinking part of playing the point," he said. "He's still thinking, 'shoot first, pass second' and, on this level, to make it to the pros, you need to have the reverse."
While Val Brown may not get much playing time behind former NBA point guard Corey Alexander, the Dazzle's leader in points and assists, he said he will learn a lot about playing point guard from backing up the veteran.
King said he needs to play with more enthusiasm and aggression, but emphasized the importance of a team concept.
"I don't think anybody wants a player that loses," he said. "Pro teams like guys that are winning, so we have to win because then everybody on our team will get looked at."
Until they do get looked at, Val Brown said he is enjoying his time with the Dazzle.
"Growing up on my own for a year and a half has been challenging, but I love it," he said. "It's not like other guys, where this is their last go-round, because I'm still so young, so I'm still having fun with it."
He added, "I'm not planning on being here long, I just need to learn this point guard position, and once I master that, I feel like I can still make it to the NBA."