Roberta Sweet-Brown, a Delta ramp agent at Atlanta International Airport, was off from work last Wednesday and having the oil changed on her truck when she got one of the most memorable phone calls of her life.
It was University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larrañaga, informing her that her son Bruce, a freshman guard with the Hurricanes, had been named to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Academic Team — an honor that requires a minimum 3.0 grade-point average.
Sweet-Brown burst into tears, and nearly broke down again when she discussed it a few days later.
She said that news was more exciting than watching her son score 30 points against North Carolina, more thrilling than seeing him scorch Duke for 25 points or record the second triple-double in UM history.
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That phone call was so wonderful because it was so unexpected. Sweet-Brown had wept over Bruce’s grades many times over the years, but they were never tears of joy. They were tears of deep concern.
Brown’s grades were poor his first two years at Boston’s Wakefield High School, which turned away some college recruiters and broke his mother’s heart because she had stressed education from the moment her six children could speak.
“I was a teen mom myself and you want something different for your children,” said Sweet-Brown, 47, who ran a day care for 22 years in Boston before moving to Atlanta. “I always told my kids, and all the kids in my day-care program, that education is everything. Some people push drugs. I pushed grades.
“That is why I am so very proud of Bruce right now. He’s really loving college, and I just cannot believe it, like ‘Wow,’ he’s playing great, keeping up his grades. Being down there, a young man, all the girls throwing themselves at him. South Beach, coming from freezing cold to girls halfway dressed. But he is so focused. I cannot express how happy this makes me. Oh, my goodness.”
The Canes play their ACC tournament opener at noon Wednesday against Syracuse at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Sweet-Brown will be there, as will Brown’s father, Bruce Sr., a retired City of Boston mechanic; older brother Daryl, a former Division II football player with whom he’s very close; and Gregory Grant, a family friend and mentor. Brown’s parents divorced when he was young, and he remains close with both. But it was his mother, he said, who is the disciplinarian.
That is why I am so very proud of Bruce right now. He’s really loving college, and I just cannot believe it, like ‘Wow,’ he’s playing great, keeping up his grades. Being down there, a young man, all the girls throwing themselves at him. South Beach, coming from freezing cold to girls halfway dressed. But he is so focused. I cannot express how happy this makes me. Oh, my goodness.
Roberta Sweet-Brown, Bruce Brown’s mother
When Bruce was 6 years old, she enrolled him in a program called “No Books, No Ball” at the Roxbury YMCA in Boston. The program was started 25 years ago by Anthony Richards, a bridge inspector.
Inner-city parents waited in long lines on registration day for a chance to put their kids under Richards’ tutelage. Shabazz Napier of the Portland Trail Blazers and Jalen Adams of the University of Connecticut were among the players who came up through the program.
“In order to play, they had to provide their report cards every quarter, and if their grades were good, they’d get a green light and be eligible,” Richards said. “If not, they’d have to sit and watch. It was that simple. No books, no ball.”
Brown kept decent grades through middle school, but when he got to high school, he said he got “distracted.” He was a four-sport star (basketball, football, baseball, soccer) and let his grades slide.
“My GPA was below a 2.0, to be honest,” Brown said. “I’d see my Mom hurt looking at my report cards, not being able to talk to her friends and aunts about my grades. I saw her cry over my grades. I felt really bad.”
Sweet-Brown was known to call AAU coach Leo Papile regularly to request he be held out of games because he didn’t do well on a chemistry test or didn’t clean his room to her liking.
“Bruce’s mom was tough, not an enabler,” Papile said.
Never mind that he was playing for the prestigious Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC), an AAU program whose alumni list includes Patrick Ewing and Nerlens Noel. If Mom said Brown couldn’t play, he didn’t.
Same rules for football, where Brown was a standout wide receiver from his days in Pop Warner with coach Daryl Simmons, one of several mentors Brown leans on to this day.
“Bruce’s mom is tough; she doesn’t play,” said UM assistant coach Jamal Brunt, who was closely involved in Brown’s recruitment. “That toughness, sternness is the reason he is the person he is. He is not afraid of the moment. He isn’t intimidated by anyone, and he wants the ball in the big games. He stays on task, on the court and in the classroom. Bruce wasn’t the guy who was super-heralded as a young player. When he saw he could be pretty good at basketball, he became a good student.”
After struggling through his sophomore year in high school, he transferred to Vermont Academy, a prep school known to get athletes to hit the books. “I needed the change,” Brown said. “From the minute I got to Vermont, my grades improved. I started focusing, and the teachers helped me prepare for college.”
When he arrived on campus, he noticed that captain Davon Reed had something he coveted: a UM “Book Buster” T-shirt, given to athletes with 3.0 GPAs.
“I wanted that shirt, wanted it bad,” Brown said. “I really wanted the black one, but that’s for 4.0. Maybe some day.”