Once upon a time, Florida didn't have two back-to-back national titles. Billy Donovan was still Billy the Kid, not Billy the King. The Gators were an upstart program that pestered Kentucky in the SEC and made a stunning run to the NCAA Tournament final in 2000.
But, off the success of that 2000 season, Donovan put together the best recruiting class in Florida's history, the class that earned some insane hype as the best in college basketball in a decade, one that promised to allow the Gators to step up to the pinnacle of the sport.
Joe Schad, then at the Orlando Sentinel, wrote the definitive story on that class in November 2000 — it was published on November 5, the Sunday before a little election became the only story in Florida anyone cared about. It portrayed the Gators' three-man class, of Kwame Brown, David Lee, and James White as a collection of stars destined to take Florida to glory.
It didn't quite work out like that.
Even in high school there were legitimate questions about which of the three players was the best — and arguments for each of them.
Brown, from Brunswick, Georgia, stood 6'11", had could dribble effectively, and possessed a post game any college coach would have loved to refine. In a class that included Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, Brown was some recruiters' No. 1 pick, given his athleticism and seemingly limitless potential, and it was Donovan's greatest recruiting coup to have secured his commitment to come south to Gainesville.
A product of St. Louis' Chaminade Prep, Lee was the best white player anyone had seen in years. It was damning faith praise from an industry that compared him to Larry Bird despite his athleticism, relentlessness, and hunger for contact under the hoop looking like the makings of a low-post presence. He was told he could be the first white player to leap from high school to the NBA Draft — in 2004, Robert Swift would become the first and only white player to do so — and framed as the latest Great White Hope in a sport that has a new one every few years or so.
White was the best athlete in the whole class, an electrifying dunker who drew deserved Vince Carter comparisons. He was also the "troubled" recruit, the one taking a circuitous path to college that has become more common in recent years, having hopped to three schools in four years and ended up at Hargrave Military Academy. Even then, his feats were legend, a touch beyond what reality had deemed: Schad relays a story from one of White's coach that had him taking off from between the free throw line and the three-point line and throwing down a dunk. His nickname was also perfect: Simply, he was "Flight."
Individually, they were better talents than virtually anyone Donovan had been able to bring to Florida; Jason Williams, Mike Miller, and Donnell Harvey all had arguments to the contrary, but not great ones. Together, they were the future.
Brown was the first to shatter that future. In November, he told the Sentinel in no uncertain terms that he was coming to Florida, not going to the NBA.
"I know I'm not really ready for the NBA. I'm not ready for that lifestyle, to have someone constantly in my business. Many pro athletes fail because they're not prepared properly. I don't think I'm physically or mentally ready for the rigors of an 80-game schedule."
By April, Brown was reconsidering; in May, a day before his senior prom, he declared for the NBA Draft. Brown's talents proved as alluring to NBA executives as they were to recruiting analysts and Donovan, and he was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, becoming the first high school player to ever go No. 1. He signed a four-year, $18 million deal.
And as the Wizards were then run by Michael Jordan, serving as their President of Basketball Operations, the sky was seen less as Brown's limit and more as his floor.
Brown had told the Sentinel that White might choose to follow him to the pros if he leapt, but the dunker made it to Gainesville despite his good friend's suspicions. And he and Lee kept plenty of the hype for themselves, thanks in part to what many still regard as the finest non-NBA dunk contest ever.
At the 2001 Sprite Slam Dunk, part of the 2001 McDonald's All-American Game, White and Lee dueled into the finals, throwing down mind-bending dunks that had every Florida fan who knew where to find a high school slam dunk contest on television salivating over their potential and that would have broken Twitter several times over if it had existed. Lee prevailed in the end by tossing the ball in the air, removing his jersey, and throwing down, but the spectacle didn't diminish White's star, it just burnished Lee's: The best white baller in recent memory had bested the best dunker outside the NBA.
And both would attend the same college. One just wouldn't stay for long.
Neither White nor Lee were more than super subs in the 2001-02 season, nor were they expected to. Lee was blocked by senior Udonis Haslem and junior Matt Bonner down low; White was behind guards Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton, and behind better shooters Bonnell Colas and Orien Greene. He would have been behind Teddy Dupay had Florida's pint-sized scorer not been kicked off the team in September 2001. The Gators had plenty of offense without their touted freshmen, regardless: With Nelson, Colas, and Bonner helping fuel the three-point parade, Florida averaged 80.5 points per game, still the seventh-best mark in school history, and topped 100 points four times. (Dupay's absence was felt, if only barely: Florida's scoring was actually down in 2001-02, having neared the school record at 83.8 points per contest in 1999-2000 and fallen only to 80.9 in 2000-01.)
Lee averaged 7.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game; White put in 6.1 points and grabbed 2.9 boards per game. He also threw down against Kentucky.
It would be among his final highlights as a Gator, and a high point in a disappointing year, as Florida failed to defend SEC titles it had won in 2000 and 2001 and suffered a shocking first round loss to Creigton in the 2002 NCAA Tournament. In November 2002, Florida announced that White would transfer, with Schad reporting for the Sentinel that he had dealt with a knee injury and off-the-court troubles, and fallen behind his Gators teammates.
Two years and a week after Schad's first feature on the Gators' vaunted 2001 recruiting class, only Lee remained at Florida.
With Haslem gone, Lee would get more playing time and develop significantly in his sophomore year, raising his scoring average to 11.2 points per game and snaring 6.8 rebounds per night. He wasn't Florida's go-to player — that was Bonner, who played wonderfully as Florida's fulcrum. But he also wasn't the most exciting player Florida had, and maybe not even the most exciting white player Florida had: Such was the power of the freshman seasons Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson had. Walsh and Roberson, both perimeter players perfectly suited to Donovan's three-happy offense, each averaged more than 12 points per game in 2002-03. Florida would deal with another March disappointment in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, bowing out to Michigan State in the second round despite earning a No. 2 seed, the program's best seed ever.
Lee's next and final two years at Florida found him as the core of Florida's post game, and still third in scoring to Walsh and Roberson. Roberson averaged more than 17 points per game as a sophomore and junior; Walsh topped 15 per outing in his sophomore year, and still scored more than 14 per game despite doing more distributing and getting hurt as a junior. Lee did nearly average a double-double in 2004-05, adding nine rebounds per game to his 13.3 points, but Florida kept failing to get over the hump in March: 2004 saw the Gators get wiped out by Manhattan as a No. 5 seed, and 2005 ended without a Sweet Sixteen berth, too, as Florida lost a second round game to Villanova.
David Lee came to Florida as part of the school's best recruiting class ever, and left without ever playing in a Sweet Sixteen game or winning an SEC title. And still, his four years from 2001 to 2005 beat those lived by Brown and White.
Brown was expected to help Wizards return to prominence, but a funny thing happened on the way to his future: Michael Jordan decided it was his future, too. After the September 11th attacks, Jordan made his second return to basketball; he would lead the Wizards in scoring in 2001-02, and average more than 20 points per game in 2002-03, but he also stunted the growth of a young team that needed to grow more than it needed to play with the greatest player in NBA history.
And he probably ruined Brown's career.
One of the funniest-in-retrospect stories in Sports Illustrated history is Ian Thomsen's 2001 piece on Brown, one teased with the tagline "In 19-year-old Kwame Brown, Wizards boss Michael Jordan may have drafted a player whose competitive fire rivals his own." It cites Brown turning fury at having his name misspelled into fuel that allowed him to beat Tyson Chandler in a pre-draft workout, but it also calls him "levelheaded": One of these things is Jordanesque, and the other is decidedly not.
Jordan rode Brown and the rest of his Wizards teammates mercilessly, much as he did his Bulls teammates in the 1990s. But Jordan's Wizards teammates were not the veterans that helped him to six titles; they were more like Toni Kukoc, softer and more malleable. Brown was putty; Jordan reduced him to paste, tagging him repeatedly with a gay slur and challenging his manhood.
Presumably, Jordan had done this before; this was lion-in-winter stuff. Brown responded like a lamb at the slaughter, playing timidly and poorly in his first and Jordan's last two seasons, getting outrebounded by Jordan in both. He improved with Jordan removed from the Washington rotation in 2003-04, but that was after a DUI arrest, and he didn't improve that much, merely getting 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Take away his shining moment — a 30-point, 19-rebound explosion that helped deny the Sacramento Kings their 50th win — and he would have averaged almost a half-point less per game on the year.
After 2004, Brown could have signed a five-year, $30 million extension to stay with the Wizards. He declined to do so, got hurt, and regressed in 2004-05. (His 2003-04 averages remain his career bests in scoring and rebounding.) When he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in August 2005, it was clear: Kwame Brown experiment in Washington was over. And it was a failure.
Lee failing to take Florida to the promised land and Brown failing to become a star with the Wizards seemed actors being thwarted by their environments more than his their efforts. James White could sympathize — to a point.
White landed at Cincinnati after transferring from Florida, heading to a program known for national contention and Conference USA dominance, having won C-USA for seven straight seasons under Bob Huggins. While White was there, that reputation changed. Cincinnati couldn't match the highs of the Kenyon Martin era after Martin left for the NBA, and ebbed to 17-12 in 2002-03 as White watched after earning a No. 1 seed in 2001-02 while while was at Florida.
White became eligible in 2003-04, and contributed throughout his three years in Cincy. He was still a talented scorer, putting in over 1,000 points in his three years with the Bearcats. And he didn't forget how to dunk than shooter, and he led the Bearcats in assists in both his junior seasons less because of his skill than because of the program's lack of a point guard. It also lacked postseason success: Cincinnati made the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round in 2004 and 2005, then missed it and made the NIT Elite Eight in 2006.
After 2006, five years after his athleticism made him a tantalizing prospect, White's NBA stock had diminished considerably. He would have been a first-round pick in 2001, and perhaps a lottery pick, given that season's run on high schoolers, with four, Brown included, going in the top 10. White chose to go to Florida, then chose to leave it instead of sticking it out. He delayed his NBA entry, depressing his draft stock, likely lowered the ceiling on his development by picking Bob Huggins over Billy Donovan.
Decisions White made before he was able to legally drink probably cost him millions of dollars.
But he did participate in college basketball's 2006 slam dunk contest ... and finished second to North Carolina's David Noel.
After finishing his college career, White was taken with the 31st pick in 2006, and was immediately swapped from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers, who were looking to contend for a title after the suspensions handed out for their involvement in The Malice at the Palace, wanted veterans more than rookies, and cut White after their training camp, with Rick Carlisle lamenting the cut as the most difficult of his coaching career. Orien Greene, who had been one year behind White in both arriving at and transferring from Florida, made the team.
White ended up with the San Antonio Spurs, but they, like the Pacers, needed their roster space. He was sent to the Austin Toros of the NBA D-League, then brought up for his fresh legs during the Spurs' stretch run. White scored 17 points in San Antonio's meaningless 81st game of the year, then played in none of the Spurs' 20 playoff games. He got a championship ring, but also got waived in the summer. Without another NBA suitor, White took off for Europe, his career seemingly short-circuited before it began.
While White and Brown found themselves in exile and on the bench, Lee's career was taking off. He was a first-round pick in 2005, but only barely: He was taken by the New York Knicks with the 30th and final pick of the first round. He scored a modest 5.4 points per game in his first year, but flashed the skills to succeed in spot starts, and recorded four double-doubles despite making just 14 starts.
In 2006, he got both good and bad luck. An injury to Channing Frye freed up playing time for Lee early on, and he averaged 10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, and he won the MVP award of the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge. But injury limited Lee to just 58 games.
In 2007, he reprised a glorified sixth man role, with similar production; in 2008, giving a starting role, he blossomed, scoring 16.0 points and pulling down 11.7 rebounds per game.
But 2009 saw Lee's scoring numbers rise again, to 20.2 points per game, and 2009 produced his first All-Star appearance. 2009 allowed him to get a massive six-year, $79.5 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade between the Knicks and Golden State Warriors. 2009 paved Lee's road to financial security for the rest of his life, and a position in that same conversation about the best white American basketball players that he seemed poised to dominate.
On Sunday, Lee will play in his second All-Star Game. He is the Warriors' first All-Star this millennium. It took almost a full decade, but David Lee arrived. Of Florida's first Big Three, he's the one who unquestionably made it.
Of Florida's Big Three, Brown is the one who never never quite panned out.
After being traded to the Lakers, Brown became a punchline. He was booed lustily in his first return trip to Washington, and faced the same frustrations in Los Angeles that he did in the nation's capital when it came to demanding, relentless teammates, a passenger on Kobe Bryant's trip to the Shaquille O'Neal-less wilderness. A woman alleged that Brown sexually assaulted her in 2006, after a Lakers playoff game, but prosecutors declined to press charges. A man alleged that Brown stole his birthday cake and threw it at him in 2007, but he did not face charges; later that year, Brown was charged with disorderly conduct as a part of a police stop.
He became a throw-in in the deal that brought Pau Gasol to L.A., then became a Piston for two years, then became a Bobcat, then joined Lee with the Warriors, then was a throw-in in the deal that brought Andrew Bogut to the Bay, then, before the 2012-13 season, joined the 76ers.
Brown has played in 21 games this season, recording season highs of six points and eight rebounds in a 100-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks in November. Basketball-Reference suggests Brown has made nearly $60 million playing basketball in his 12 years in the NBA, less than Lee will make over the course of his deal with the Warriors.
Brown is tall, and a decent defender, and no more a character risk than dozens of other players despite his run-ins with the law. He will continue getting his shots to earn paychecks for being a tall, decent defender in the NBA for as long as he remains in shape, even if his story will always seem incomplete.
Kwame Brown is not on Twitter. There are at least seven Kwame Brown parody Twitter accounts.
James White is playing his redemption song.
White spent a year in Turkey playing for Fenerbahce in 2007-08. He came back to the United States and played for the NBA D-League's Anaheim Arsenal in their final year in Anaheim in 2008-09. But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance: White made it back to the NBA. Twice.
In 2008-09, White caught on with the Houston Rockets, earning a 10-day contract. He played in four regular season and five playoff games with Houston. But he missed all six of his shots in one six-minute appearance in the Rockets' first round loss to the Lakers, and would be shipped off to the Denver Nuggets in September 2009. He spent the preseason with Denver, but would be waived again in October 2009.
Some players would give up after two failed NBA shots. White went to Russia's Spartak St. Petersburg in 2009-10, and to Italy's Dinamo Sassari in 2010-11, and to Italy's Scavolino Pesaro in 2011-12. But he came back again, joining the New York Knicks in 2012. And he made the Knicks, breaking camp with an NBA team for the first time at the age of 30.
White has scored in double figures just once this season, with 11 points against Joakim Noah's Chicago Bulls in a January loss. He's played more than 20 minutes just once, against Chandler Parsons' Houston Rockets. But he's finally going to get to do the thing everyone on Earth knows he can still do in just a few minutes, when he participates in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
White is the oldest participant, and is going up against fellow freakish dunker Gerald Green, defending champion Jeremy Evans, and a trio of young and athletic dunkers in Eric Bledsoe, Kenneth Faried, and Terrence Ross. As a result, White is everyone's sentimental favorite, and the guy most likely to stun the world.
All he has to do is fly.
This is a strange and wonderful time for Florida basketball, as Billy Donovan's team looks like a national championship contender on an All-Star Weekend with Gators everywhere. Parsons and Bradley Beal — the Wizards' second draft pick who was once committed to Florida, and a player who came to Florida from Chaminade High, Lee's alma mater — both played in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. Matt Bonner rode his affability and social media to a spot in the Three-Point Contest. White has his long-awaited chance to dunk on the NBA's stage. Lee and Noah will face off in the All-Star Game. And a week spent celebrating Michael Jordan's 50th birthday had me thinking about, of course, Brown, his most spectacular basketball failure.
When players leave Florida (or, in Brown's case, choose not to come), they don't leave Gator Nation; players who aren't at Florida still affect what happens at Florida. College basketball is a zero-sum game, in a certain sense. Brown, Lee, and White were all Gators at one point, and all had a hand in Florida's rise as a basketball power.
If Lee doesn't come to Florida, neither does Beal; if Lee doesn't stay for his senior season, who knows if Noah and Horford get his master class in rebounding in their freshman years?
If White doesn't leave Florida, Walsh and Roberson probably don't get quite as many minutes and step into their massive roles as freshmen.
If Brown doesn't eschew college, Lee probably doesn't get as many minutes as a freshman; if Brown doesn't leap to the pros in 2001, his career probably ends up radically different.
If Billy Donovan doesn't learn from the issues of that fabled 2001 recruiting class, he doesn't bring in the Oh-Fours, or win Florida's two titles. If Florida hadn't had its Big Three dwindle to Just David Lee, Donovan probably wouldn't have adjusted his recruiting to go after just the Big Two of Kasey Hill and Chris Walker that will comprise the Gators' most ballyhooed class since.
As you watch the All-Star festivities from Houston, and marvel at Gator after Gator being part of them, we can be proud that Florida has become a basketball power, and that Donovan and his many wonderful Gators made good on the promise of that 2001 recruiting class.
It just didn't work out quite like it was supposed to, is all.