BY NEAL ROTHSCHILD
Special to the Sun-Times
PLOIESTI, Romania — While the new-look Illinois basketball program is happy to be part of the Top-25 conversation, more than 5,000 miles away, Dee Brown — a mainstay on the last hugely successful Illini team — is keeping his career alive.
It has been a decade since that magical 2004-05 season that brought Illinois its best team in school history, a 37-2 record and a national-championship appearance.
Deron Williams and Luther Head went on to better NBA careers, but Brown was the face of the team. He was the lone first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. Brown was the player with the canyon-wide smile, the recognizable cornrows and orange mouthguard and the guy who set off the jersey-popping fad in college basketball that year.
Brown, 30, is in his ninth professional season, the last six of which have been overseas.
He played his rookie year with Williams and the Utah Jazz and sandwiched brief stints with the Washington Wizards and the Phoenix Suns in between shifts in Turkey and Israel. He followed with stops in Italy, China, Puerto Rico, Italy again, Turkey again, Latvia and, as of August, Romania.
He recently sat on his Illini-orange couch in his home in industrial Ploiesti, 45 minutes north of Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and considered his journey.
“People bring it up,” he said. “That’s what people don’t understand, they’re like, ‘where’s Dee Brown, what’s he doing?’ But I got longevity in this professional game going on a decade.”
The NBA offers just 450 jobs, but there are thousands of other well-paying positions to play basketball.
“If people look at it as a failure, they don’t understand it,” Brown said. “They don’t understand the business. With the chances of getting into the NBA, might as well go be a doctor or a lawyer.”
Brown and his wife, Delores, live in a spacious house in an otherwise bare, unkempt neighborhood. They have two daughters, 5-month-old Zoe and 3-year-old Michele, who is on her fourth country. She knows Turkish and a bit of Latvian. None of the students at her school speaks English. Delores is fine with that. She’ll learn Romanian better that way.
For Brown, the change of countries means nothing more than new teammates with whom to become familiar, a new coach and new currency.
“Basketball is basketball,” he said. “It’s the same game.”
At each of his stops abroad, Brown has been signed to one-year contracts. Teams aren’t so willing to commit to multiyear deals. He’s always the point guard. He plays it vocally, with passion.
He runs the show for CSU Ploiesti Asesoft, a Romanian League team that also plays in the midweek Euro Cup games, which feature the second-best competition on the continent behind the Euro League. He averages 12.9 points and 8.7 assists.
The crowds are tamer on Saturday nights in the Romanian League than his time in Turkey. Once, when Dee was having a big game, team management had to move Delores when opposing fans started to crowd around her. It wasn’t a diverse environment, so she was easy to spot.
Assembly Hall, this is not.
Over here, in Olimpia Sports Hall for a Romanian League game, coach Vladimir Arnautovic paces the sideline in jeans and sneakers. The crowd chants are accompanied not by a pep band but by an amplified bass drum. During opponents’ possessions, ear-piercing horn blasts contribute to the mayhem.
On this night, Brown doesn’t look for his shot. He is happy to feed his teammates, including the brother of Bulls center Nazr Mohammed, Alhaji, one of six American-bred players on the team. His team gets lackadaisical late and almost lets a big lead slip away before seizing a 81-77 victory.
There are still hints of Brown’s big smile, though it’s been tempered by world weariness. It became untenable to communicate on the court with his mouthguard.
The cornrows are gone, replaced by short hair, though with a little bunny tail in back. He still wears double and triple layers of socks but not as high as when he was in Champaign.
He won’t pop his jersey, flashing the letters in front as he used to.
That was an Illinois thing, too.