Kansas City hasn't exactly been good to pro basketball. Ernest Brown is hoping this time around is different.

Knights School 

Kansas City hasn't exactly been good to pro basketball. Ernest Brown is hoping this time around is different.

The collision that sent waves of pain jolting through Ernest Brown's body was more of a nudge, the kind of physical contact an elephant might experience when a bird lands on its butt. At 7 feet and 255 pounds, Brown is not easily mistaken for an elephant. But on the basketball court, he is a natural force, a potentially immovable object. Brown's triangular frame -- a generous wingspan tapering to slender hips, a pair of taut reeds for legs, and catcher's mitts for hands -- makes him ideally suited for the sport at the highest level.

But at just 21, Brown has a body that won't fully cooperate with him. The moment on December 3 when his left shoulder popped out and back into place was proof enough.

It was the third day of practice for the Kansas City Knights, a new team in an upstart professional basketball league called the ABA 2000. Brown, once a prized but controversial recruit for Iowa State University, went after a loose ball at the Penn Valley Community College gym, the Knights' practice site. Playing timid since the start of training camp in an effort to protect the previously injured shoulder, Brown made a halfhearted lunge at the loose ball and doubled over in distress the instant another player grazed him.

Brown let out a wail, several of them, and clutched his shoulder as if he had been swatted with a nail-studded 2-by-4. He held his left arm to support the shoulder and hunched off the court. He was finished for that day. And the next. He sat on the sideline with an ice pack to soothe the stretched ligaments that had been damaged during summer workouts in Los Angeles. The injury was keeping him from going full tilt, the way a player should perform when his job is on the line.

This was the inauspicious beginning of Ernest Brown's tryout with the Kansas City Knights.

In June, Brown was a second-round draft choice of the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat. But coach Pat Riley told the rookie he needed more time to develop his skills and his body: Brown would have to get his size-17 feet wet playing in a pro atmosphere, either overseas or in one of several stateside leagues. Some talent scouts believed Brown would have been smarter playing in the Big 12 for a couple of years against such rivals as the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and the University of Missouri instead of trying to jump immediately into the NBA right out of Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Just as Brown was trying to decide where to go until the Heat or some other NBA franchise called his agent, the ABA 2000 came along. Promoting itself as a return to the old ABA, made famous by Julius "Dr. J" Erving, the league has pulled the red-white-and-blue basketball out of mothballs and promised to give fans an affordable "alternative" to the NBA.

The Knights are scheduled to open their season the day after Christmas on the road against the Memphis Houn' Dogs. The team's first home game is against Memphis the following night at Kemper Arena.

Brown has joined a cadre of former KU players -- Knights head coach Kevin Pritchard among them -- in another attempt to see whether a pro basketball franchise can succeed in the same town responsible for losing the NBA's Kings to far-flung Sacramento, California, 15 years ago.

Kansas City has long been enamored of college hoops, and in an apparent move to appeal to that fanbase, the Knights signed onetime Jayhawks Rex Walters, Darrin Hancock, Ryan Robertson, and Nick Bradford, who joined former local high school stars Derek Hood and JaRon Rush and the likes of ex-NBA point guards Haywood Workman and Anthony Goldwire.

Brown signed with the Knights after a three-game tour with a newly formed competitive squad of the Harlem Globetrotters, who played no-nonsense college exhibitions against Denver's Metro State College, Purdue University, and defending NCAA champion Michigan State University last month. Brown didn't play much in the game against the MSU Spartans on November 13, when the contest went into the history books as the Globetrotters' first loss after 1,270 straight wins; his shoulder kept him on the bench for most of the game, and he notched just one basket. A few days later, Brown was off to Kansas City to join a totally unknown franchise preparing to get off the ground. He thought about staying with the Globetrotters.

"Nobody has heard of this team," Brown says of the Knights. "You have to look on the Internet to find it."

After the whistle blew to start the team's first practice on the morning of December 1, the Knights were going to find out just how good Ernest Brown could be.

"Ernest, I'm talking!" coach Pritchard yelled during a break in the action. It was 11:47 a.m., just under two hours into practice, and Brown had become the first player in Pritchard's coaching career to draw his ire for not paying attention. "When I'm talking, listen to me."

Later, Brown asked Pritchard about a play the team was running, so it seemed the young center-forward was genuinely interested in listening to what Pritchard had to offer. But at the next day's practice, a familiar pattern of dialogue developed between Brown and Pritchard. Brown missed a shot or forgot to make a cut. Pritchard yelled at him. Brown lagged behind in the wind sprints. Pritchard yelled at him. Pretty soon, it sounded as if Pritchard had given Ernest Brown a new first name -- Hustle Up. As in "Hustle Up, Ernest!"

Brown had been one of three 7-footers at the Knights' camp -- the others were Northern Arizona's Dan McClintock and Slovenia's Vladamir Stepania. Brown's spot on the Knights' final roster wasn't considered a shoo-in, says Pritchard. "For a guy like Ernest, I don't care what happened to him before he got here and before he signed. I don't focus in on that. Now that he's here, he's under my umbrella and he's a part of the Knights' organization. We are going to try to make him feel comfortable and try to make him play his best. My job is to get a good team of good players and get them to play harder and smarter and more together than any other teams. That's my job. Very simple."

"I don't think he likes rookies," Brown said of Pritchard after practice. "But he's a rookie too."

By the end of the second day of practice, Pritchard was counseling Brown on the finer points of making a back-door cut: "I want you to roll and break to the bucket." Brown nodded his head, and for the most part, he did as Pritchard asked. On successive plays, he spun toward the hoop, took passes from Walters, and whipped the net with one-handed dunks.

His leaping ability did not go unnoticed by Knights assistant coach Reggie King, a former player with the Kansas City Kings.

"When Ernest dunks the ball," King marveled, "he doesn't touch the rim -- he throws the ball through it."

But when Pritchard asked Brown to shoot a free throw that would decide whether the team would run extra wind sprints, Brown declined, choosing to accept "rookie" ribbing from his teammates for bowing out of the challenge. Brown shrugged it off.

And it didn't take long the next day for Brown to get Pritchard's attention again and again. He twice forgot to run down the court for a third series of passes during a three-man weave drill.

"C'mon! Think, Ernest!"

On the next series, Brown fumbled the ball away. Practice was barely an hour old and Brown was stooping to catch his breath. When Brown missed the assignment to set a pick, assistant coach Bob Foley clued him in on what had gone wrong.

Brown finally got warmed up during half-court scrimmages, and after a couple of defensive lapses, he went to work on offense. He got a dunk in traffic and scored on a spin move inside. For the first time in camp, he looked confident and fresh. But then Brown's luck ran out. His left shoulder, patched up with tape, dislodged in a scramble near the free-throw line. Brown took a seat.

The founders of the ABA 2000 want to make the organization's talent pool comparable to those of European leagues and superior to those of other U.S. pro leagues, including the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). And they want to keep the ticket prices low. But since its inception earlier this year, the league has been handicapped by an on-again, off-again merger with the International Basketball League (IBL) -- it now has teams in eight cities (down from the 14 it would have had if the IBL merger had gone through). It's also fighting the public's general belief that any pro basketball other than the NBA isn't really pro basketball, so league officials have been spin-doctoring in Dr. J's name. Basketball fans are hungry to see pro talent without having to take a second mortgage, league officials say.

"The NBA is the highest ticket in pro sports, and the average is $50," says Knights general manager Tom Cheatham. "And that's $200 (for a family of four) before you ever pay for parking, souvenirs, and a Coke or whatever."

The original American Basketball Association was known as a run-and-gun counterpart of the NBA, but it never commanded huge audiences or big TV contracts. It wasn't until after the ABA merged with the NBA in the late '70s that fans realized the league with the renegade rep boasted some serious talent, including Erving, Connie Hawkins, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, George McGinnis, and George Gervin, who coaches the ABA 2000 team in Detroit. And today, with the NBA's attendance and TV ratings slipping, the new league wants to make a dent in the NBA's market.

"The NBA is going the other way a little bit with its image problems," Cheatham says, "and I think we can compete with them."

But in Kansas City?

This town's record with pro basketball over the past 40 years has been ignominious at best. In the early '60s a team named the Steers played in the old American Basketball League (ABL) -- and gave its fans and players a bum steer in fewer than two seasons. Gene Tormohlen, who's spent 17 years as a scout with the Los Angeles Lakers and was an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, was a center on that team.

"As I remember, it was between Christmas and New Year's of 1961 going to 1962 and the team folded," Tormohlen says. "It wasn't a good Christmas gift."

Tormohlen, who lives in Atlanta and met his wife in Kansas City while playing for the Steers, had a productive NBA career with the St. Louis Hawks after the ABL folded. "The Steers were my first pro team," Tormohlen says. "I played two years with the Cleveland Pipers, and when (Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner took over the team, he took one look at me and traded me to Kansas City. In those days, you were young and full of vinegar, and you would go any place to play. It was a big break to be traded to Kansas City because they used me as a starter. I loved Kansas City and still do to this day."

But how much Kansas City loved pro basketball was another question. The Kings, which had started in 1948 as the Rochester Royals and spent time in Cincinnati and Omaha, ended their 13-year Kansas City run in 1985 by moving to Sacramento in a deal that was hastened by squabbles over the lease at Kemper Arena (which recently announced expansion plans to accommodate the Big 12 basketball tournament, though there was no mention of making the venue more attractive to pro basketball fans). Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Kings' coach when the franchise was sold to three New York businessmen, says the Kings might still be playing in Kansas City if the right local investors had stepped up to the line.

"I always felt the Kings would have still been in Kansas City if Lamar Hunt had been interested in basketball and the Hall family had been interested in basketball," says Fitzsimmons, a K-State grad who spent six seasons at the Kings' helm and now works as an executive and TV commentator for another one of his former NBA teams, the Phoenix Suns. "Not to put down the Kings' owners, but under the right leadership and ownership, they could have survived in Kansas City."

In the fall of 1995, Kansas City picked up a CBA team to satisfy the cravings of local pro hoops junkies. But the Sizzlers fizzled after one season -- their failure was attributed to mismanagement -- and moved to Topeka for four more years. The team then relocated to Yakima, Washington, and became the Sun Kings, winning the CBA championship last season.

"I always thought the label that Kansas City was not a pro basketball town was wrong," says Jerry Schemmel, a former play-by-play announcer with the Sizzlers who has been a broadcaster with the NBA's Denver Nuggets for nine seasons. "I think the Sizzlers were fairly successful as far as CBA teams go, but minor league sports is tough."

ABA 2000 league bosses, however, don't want to be considered minor league. And they are not intimidated by the area's competing wealth of college basketball. Some fans are still mourning the fact that Kansas City lost the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament, once a premier showcase for college hoops before the NAIA abruptly relocated to Tulsa eight years ago.

"I think you have a diversified population here that will support major league basketball like ourselves," says Cheatham, a former broadcast executive with the Chiefs and Royals. "We have to do a good job of marketing ourselves. Our target is not the KU fan, but, needless to say, what we want to do is win. From my history here, this is not a football town, this is not a baseball town, this is not a town any different than any other city. It's a winning town."

Don't tell Fitzsimmons it's a "winning town." When the Kings made a couple of playoff runs during his reign, he remembers, there were thousands of empty seats at Kemper.

"You talk about disappointment," Fitzsimmons says. "We were battling the Suns to go to the western finals (in 1981), and we came back to Kansas City for game six, and I think 9,600 fans showed up. That's all. And we didn't draw for the Houston series after that. That leads to a lot of speculation and a lot of questions. Is it a good sports town? You have to question it."

Jerry Reynolds, a former Rockhurst College coach who has been employed by the Sacramento Kings since the move, says he thinks the Kings could have made it here -- if they'd played in a different venue.

"Kemper was never a good location," says Reynolds, the Kings' director of player personnel, who squeezes in duties as the team's TV color commentator and general manager of the WNBA's Monarchs. He thinks the basketball team should have had a facility at Truman Sports Complex. "The Kings had a real chance of getting over the hump in KC, but if you are going to compare the ABA 2000 to the NBA, it's a mistake. If anybody believes it's close, they don't know what they are talking about or watching. You might as well be comparing Missouri Western (State College) to Kansas, and the gap there is much closer."

Unlike the CBA, which owns a long-standing working agreement as a feeder system for the NBA, the ABA 2000 has no such partnership to expedite call-ups. And there is talk the NBA is working to put together its own developmental league. But the Knights -- even the club's name indicates it's a notch or two below the old Kings -- are going after major-league recognition.

Pritchard says the Knights have not had difficulty attracting high-quality players. With a salary cap of $900,000 -- an average of $90,000 per player for a season -- the ABA 2000 pays better than the CBA. "I thought in the beginning it would be hard convincing players to play in the league. That's been the easy part. We're getting guys this close (to making NBA rosters). I call them situational players, players who could be in the NBA in the right situation," Pritchard says.

Darrin Hancock, a 28-year-old former NBA player and draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets, has played in a number of minor leagues and in Europe, including the Dodge City (Kansas) Legend of the United States Basketball League. He had been playing in Italy for two months when he decided to give the Knights a shot. "If I have a chance to move up back to the NBA, I will," Hancock says, "but if I have to stay here and play, I will."

"We're not to the point yet where we are doing battle with the NBA, but we hope to grow to do that in a smart way," says Cheatham. "The NBA is the most susceptible major league out there right now, bar none, without a doubt. They've got the largest image problem, and in another two or three years they could very well go on strike."

But the Knights already have had to overcome their franchise's first taste of an image problem. Paul Mokeski, the team's inaugural head coach, was fired after his July arrest in Wisconsin for misdemeanor possession of cocaine and municipal citations for drunken driving and speeding. Mokeski, a former KU player and journeyman NBA center for a dozen years, says the team didn't give him a fair shake.

"Obviously, hindsight is 20-20 and what happened happened," says Mokeski, who left an assistant coaching position with the University of Southern California to take the Knights job. "There's a lot of people who made a lot of mistakes, and 99.9 percent of them are not in the paper or are on TV. There's a lot of people on benches and in front offices that have made mistakes too."

Cheatham, who replaced Mokeski with Pritchard, says Mokeski's arrest necessitated the firing. "I wouldn't say it was an image move, but I would say it was a move we felt that was appropriate and we felt we'd do it with due diligence to be fair to Paul and to be fair to ourselves. With something like that you don't get a second chance. The example we want to make is that you get rewarded for not needing a second chance."

But for Ernest Brown, the ABA 2000 does represent another chance.

For a long time, Ernest Brown has had a lot riding on his broad but delicate shoulders. During his junior year of high school at St. Raymond's High School for Boys in New York City, a separated shoulder forced him to miss several games and eventually required surgery. But when Brown was a senior, his shoulders took on a much heavier responsibility than basketball. He fell in love with the unwed mother of an infant boy.

Brown met Alisa Scott through a mutual friend on September 27, 1996. Her address was 1189 Sheridan, his 1164 Sheridan. Alisa had seen Brown in the neighborhood, and she figured he was not like most of the guys. He didn't hang out on the corners, and he didn't appear to be a gang-banger. From Alisa's vantage point across the way on Sheridan, she didn't realize Brown was a basketball player. To her, he was simply tall and cute.

"He went to work, home, and school, and he didn't socialize with a bunch of people," she says. "He mainly stuck to himself, and that's what I liked."

The first day Brown walked across the street to visit Alisa, there were sparks.

"We started talking and I kissed him. I did it. He didn't even expect it," she says.

That kiss was the hook shot for Ernest Brown. He and Alisa became a couple, and he started looking after her son, Quashawn, whom she'd had when she was 16. Brown's senior basketball season was approaching, but he had other priorities.

Soon Alisa was pregnant, and she moved with Brown into his family's cramped apartment. Brown's mother, Edith Stubbs, and stepfather, Alexander Smallwood, slept in one room. Brown's uncle and his uncle's girlfriend slept in another room. One of Brown's uncles, his uncle's wife, and their five children stayed in the living room. Ernest, Alisa, and Quashawn had a room of their own, although, Brown says, "We really didn't have that much privacy."

Brown started his senior season of basketball at St. Raymond's. But his interest in the game began to trail off. The 17-year-old Brown was more interested in providing for his family than in dunking basketballs -- he was washing and waxing trucks for a fencing company, and loading trucks and doing paperwork for a downtown-Manhattan delivery service.

Brown says he had played one game as a senior when coach Gary DeCesare dropped him from the team. In December 1997, within weeks of his departure, his son Anthony was born.

"He was going through some rough times," DeCesare says. "It was a mutual situation, and he needed some time for himself. He needed to get his priorities in order. He knew he was going to play ball eventually."

Despite missing most of his final year of high school basketball, Brown was one of New York City's most coveted recruits. He signed a national letter of intent with St. John's University but failed to meet the school's academic standards. He would have to sit out another year until he could qualify.

"I didn't want to sit out two years in a row," Brown says.

By then a father of two, Brown decided to resume his playing career at Mesa (Arizona) Community College, where he could start immediately as a freshman. Alisa and the children moved with him, and for the first time the family lived together on its own.

"I was working and he was at school, and we rarely saw each other," Alisa says. "The kids were in day care, and if he had some free time, he would get them from day care and take them home and be there until I got off from work. He did a lot of things with the kids that I didn't tell him to do. He would make them snacks, and he held it down until I got home. I don't know how he knew how to do it, but even when it came down to changing their Pampers, he knew what to do."

Brown made an instant impact at Mesa Community College. He earned junior college All-American honors as a freshman by averaging 22.7 points per game and leading the nation in field-goal accuracy (78.4 percent) and rebounding (15.3 per game), but his off-court situations continued to be problematic. Joedy Gardner, his coach at Mesa, says Brown started missing classes at the end the 1998-99 season. Brown eventually told Gardner he was going to leave school, transfer to Indian Hills, and commit to playing Division I basketball at Iowa State University. Gardner says he thought Brown was influenced by one of his former assistant coaches, who had taken a job at Iowa State that year.

Gardner says he questioned Brown's "loyalty and consistency" as a basketball player. But his own relationship with Brown spun a web of controversy. One of Brown's teammates alleged that Gardner had been altering players' grades to prevent them from leaving school and that Brown was one of those players. The National Junior College Athletic Association conducted an investigation into Brown's transfer to Indian Hills from Mesa. And when Brown announced he was going to Iowa State, the NCAA jumped into the mix and investigated the Iowa State Cyclones, later clearing them of any wrongdoing. Back at Mesa, however, Gardner was fired as a result of the situation with Brown and his program. On the floor, Brown had a disappointing sophomore year at Indian Hills, where he was only the team's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Brown was not the offensive focal point on the team, which also included early entry draft pick Cory Hightower.

Brown says he wasn't happy with the stay at Indian Hills, evidenced by his comments to a Sports Illustrated reporter, criticizing Ottumwa, Iowa, for not having enough cultural outlets for African-Americans. He bypassed a chance to take his game north to Ames, Iowa, and declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.

Marty Blake, an NBA super scout, offered these words of warning: "He's got the ability, but the last thing he needs is to go into the draft. I can name 10 guys in Europe that would eat Mr. Brown alive. I'm sure you have all these street agents telling him, 'You're the man,' and 'You're ready.' He's light-years away from being an NBA center, and I hope he stays in school."

After making himself eligible for the draft, Brown signed with Los Angeles-based agent Gerald Duncan.

"I grew up in California and hung around New York," Duncan says. "I knew his family and his uncles. One of his relatives called me up when he was deciding to turn pro. They asked me to speak to him, and I know his career like the back of my hand. I advised him to stay in school. I wasn't sure where he was going to go (in the draft), but he had family issues and he had to make decisions. He told me he can't play college basketball anymore, and I would do what I could to give him drafted. But I thought he needed a couple more years of experience."

Something about being drafted by the Miami Heat made Ernest Brown sense he was destined to play in the NBA right away. It could have been the fact that he was the 52nd pick overall -- and 52 is his favorite number. It was his number as a grade-school basketball player, and it was the number he wore on his uniform at Indian Hills. A "52" tattoo on his left shoulder shares upper-body skin space with tattoos of a tribal leopard (to symbolize agility and speed), his zodiac sign (Taurus, the bull), his wife's first name, the names of his two boys, and that of the latest addition to his family, Taylor, a girl born nine months ago. "I try not to get the tattoos for the design," Brown says. "I try to get tattoos for meaning."

While he was in Miami for precamp workouts with the Heat, Brown married Alisa and told her he would always be at her side -- and she would always be at his, no matter where he went to play.

Brown's agent is confident his client will return to Miami to sign a fat contract within the next three years.

"Miami couldn't believe he was still available when they drafted him," Duncan says, "but when they snatched him up, they didn't really know what his true ability was. Basically, Pat Riley called me up and said they wouldn't bring him to camp or sign him to a contract so they could keep his rights. I was looking out for the kid in the long run and short run."

Duncan says Brown considered several playing options after the Globetrotters.

"I didn't want to send him overseas," Duncan says. "We wanted to give the ABA league a shot, and he will put up big numbers and get some valuable playing experience and experience playing against big players on a consistent level. This kid is 7 feet tall, and he turned 21 in May. Basically, he has no experience, and he's taking care of his family. For a kid to even get drafted, he's done something right. Everybody's saying he's a project, but I love kids that take care of their family. That's why I love this kid so much."

The Browns were staying in a three-bedroom condo in Scottsdale, Arizona -- courtesy of the Globetrotters -- when they packed their bags and headed to Kansas City. Duncan says the Knights initially said that Brown could bring his family along but then doubted the wisdom of letting his wife and children stay with him at the team's Westport hotel, where the room came with a standard king-size bed, a sleeper sofa, and no kitchen appliances.

"I told them his family didn't have anywhere to go," Duncan says. "I told them he would have to bring them. They (the Knights) were like, 'None of the other players brought kids.' But this is life. I was like, 'If you want him there, you've got to bring the whole family.' They have been together since high school. Why do anything different?"

Last week Brown finalized plans to move his family out of the hotel. He was worried they would be stuck there for Christmas, but they moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Mission. As long as they are together, he says, he will put up with just about any inconvenience. Basketball has gotten him this far, and there is no turning back.

"I think having my kids puts us in the right-now," Brown says, "so we're really bearing with it. But to be honest, if I didn't play basketball, if I wasn't tall like this, and I didn't meet Alisa, and I didn't have any children, (being from) the neighborhood we was at, I'd probably be selling drugs, or dead, or locked up."

After the fourth day of practice, Pritchard makes his first two cuts. He releases former University of Missouri-Kansas City point guard Eddie Smith and former University of Nevada-Las Vegas forward Evric Gray.

"I've been with 17 NBA teams," Gray says, "and I know I can play. Kevin and I are friends; we've played against each other a few times, and I'm sure he will be a good coach and all that good stuff. He said he would make a call to some other teams, but that's okay. I've got two offers, one in Turkey came up two days ago, and I'm waiting for the guy to call. I've also got one in Spain and one in Belgium. I didn't tell Kevin that because I don't want to burn any bridges. Right now, I'm going back home to Park City (Utah) and going to the World Cup skiing this weekend. I'm gonna hang out and watch the snow bunnies."

With Gray gone skiing, Kansas City's first look at the Knights comes on the afternoon of December 10, nine days after the start of training camp. Ernest Brown, who has been fitted with a special brace to protect his shoulder, begins the scrimmage at Penn Valley much like he's done in the team's practices -- looking a step slow in both the feet and the head. On his first field-goal attempt, Brown's reverse layup is blocked solid by fellow 7-footer McClintock, who has been hobbled by a sore foot throughout camp.

The guards dominate from the outside. Experienced NBA players Walters and Goldwire and former Texas Tech ball-handler Rayford Young trade baskets and get an early buzz going among 500 or so spectators. Brown scores on a jump hook from the lane for the Gold team, but he misses an 18-footer from the top of the key, which results in a slashing transition basket from JaRon Rush, whose play has been erratic for most of camp. Brown fouls Rush on the play, and seconds later, the exhausted Brown is benched.

In the second quarter, the Black squad builds a narrow lead as Rush continues abusing Brown near the basket. Brown has just two points at the half, and his team trails 65-60.

The second half doesn't start any better for Brown. While cutting through the lane, teammate Goldwire lofts a perfect alley-oop pass in Brown's direction, but Brown ignores the free gift and the ball sails out of bounds. Goldwire and assistant coach Foley shout in Brown's direction. "Ernest, get the ball! Talk to him!" Foley implores.

Brown begins to talk only to himself.

"I was tired, I was tired," Brown says later. "I didn't warm up or nothin'. I needed a half to warm up."

With his team still down by five, Brown ignites his own frenzy with a power dunk and a rebound basket to help cut into the Black lead. From then on, Brown takes over the game at both ends, feeding teammate Trent Pulliam with a no-look pass for a layup.

On defense, Brown becomes active in the lane and changes several opposing shots. And then the fans take notice, as Brown tests the strength of his shoulder by whacking it with his right fist during a trip up the court.

"That boy ain't gonna stay long (in the ABA 2000)," a man in the crowd says, giving Brown an NBA fan's stamp of approval. Brown rewards him by mashing a two-handed monster dunk. "Pat Riley be all right! That boy be awesome!"

But the loudest cheers for Ernest Brown on this day come from his teammates and coaches who witness his prolonged intensity for the first time since camp began. Pritchard likes what he is starting to see.

"We talked to Ernest at halftime," Pritchard says, "and when he focuses and he's into the game, he's absolutely spectacular. He has the ability to slide into the position of going with the flow and not being involved," Pritchard says of Brown's unpredictable concentration, "but he's not healthy yet."

Brown says he doesn't want to hurry progress. His shoulder is starting to feel better, and as a precaution he needs to spend more time loosening up before practices and scrimmages.

Last week, the Knights traded JaRon Rush, a potential local drawing card, to the Los Angeles Stars. And some sports insiders say that the ABA teams may not even play because the league hasn't had enough time to promote and market itself. If the ABA delivers on its promises, Ernest Brown will find out just how good basketball can be for him in Kansas City.

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