There is a saying in Brownsville, Brooklyn – home of the Manhattan College Jaspers’ basketball superstar Rhamel Brown – that by age 25, you’re either dead, in jail or just finishing up the gang life.
Brown is the back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Defensive Player or the year – the first Manhattan College basketball player to ever receive the honor – and was 10th in the country with 3.03 blocks per game last year.
He even broke the school record for most blocked shots in a single season last season breaking the record held by…well…himself.
Brown is an offensive player’s worst nightmare.
But growing up in the rough neighborhood of Brownsville, it’s no wonder why Brown is such a defensive minded basketball player – he’s been defending himself his whole life. With one year left, Brown will have his last chance to win a MAAC Championship and lead the Jaspers to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004 – an accomplishment that seemed unimaginable when he was growing up.
Brownsville was ranked the fourth most dangerous neighborhood in New York City, and Brownsville 73rd Police District reported the highest murder rate ever in the city in 2011, according to the crime reports compiled by DNAinfo.com.
It is the home of boxing great Mike Tyson and 3.2 miles away from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the home of Jay Z.
Students have to pass through a metal detector before entering school and only 15.3 percent of the population actually graduated high school, according to citydata.com.
It is not a safe place to live.
“You don’t ever want to end up like some of the people that I know,” Brown said. “A lot of them, a lot of them in gangs, sell drugs. I know people that have killed people.”
One of those people, a 23-year-old Brownsville man, was indicted last month in connection with the widely reported shooting death of a New York City toddler. Police believe the toddler’s father was the intended target, and the shooting may have been gang related, according to the Associated Press.
Brown said he and the man grew up together.
“It was all over the news,” Brown said. “You see that, and all you can think of is ‘that could have been me had I gone down the same path.’”
Brown was introduced to basketball at a young age by his older brother Ronnie. But when Ronnie’s bone popped out of his shoulder in high school, his career would never be the same, and it was up to Brown to finish his brother’s basketball legacy.
Basketball was nothing more than a hobby for Brown starting off. But once Brown started getting good, basketball was everything but a hobby.
It became all he had.
At age 13, Brown and his family got evicted from their home and were forced to move in with their relatives for a week.
“It was a struggle, you know?” he said. “Trying to go to school in front of my friends and act like everything was regular and normal, but nothing was the same. I saw my family falling apart…I felt like giving up a lot of times, but the only problem with giving up was what was I giving up to? There was nothing else out for me out there. It was either play basketball or have a horrible life.”
Life didn’t get any easier when he saw his friends falling victim to their environment and started to sell drugs and join gangs.
But luckily, Brown had something others didn’t have: a humble personality and a gift on the basketball court. Transit Tech High School basketball Coach Mike Perazzo noticed that the first day he met Brown.
“How important is it for you to dunk the ball?” Perazzo asked him when they first met, testing the maturity of a young kid, who he knew had potential.
“Well, it’s only worth two points,” Brown, a 14-year-old at the time, said.
Perazzo was impressed, and he knew he had a mature kid on his hands from that moment on. Brown kept working hard despite all the trouble going on around him, and in his junior year he finally had a chance to prove himself.
All the hype and attention was on Abraham Lincoln High School superstar Lance Stephenson – now a member of the Indiana Pacers – when Brown and Transit Tech played them in the 2009 quarterfinals of the Public School Athletic League city championships.
Stephenson had led his team to three consecutive city championships, and Transit Tech was just going to be another victim.
But surprisingly, Transit Tech put up a fight led by Brown who altered Stephenson’s shots all night and kept his team in the game. Brown made himself known under the bright lights that focused on the superstar status of Stephenson in an unexpected tight game. But when Brown fouled out, Lincoln went on a run, broke away and ended up winning 86-80.
“I think that was when a lot of people in the city realized just how good a player he [Brown] was,” Perazzo said. “He is definitely a big game player. He is a young man who performs well in a big spot.”
There is another saying in Brownsville that is “never ran, never will.” Despite all the struggles Brown had to face growing up, he never ran – even though the temptations were all around him. He had basketball.
“It was the thing that kept me on track and kept me occupied,” he said. “If I was too busy playing basketball, I couldn’t be getting into trouble.”
Only 10.7 percent of Brownsville residents attended college for a year, according to citydata.com, and in 2010, Brown earned a scholarship to Manhattan College to play basketball which was the happiest moment of his parents’ lives.
His parents attend games when they can, and his mother even stormed the court with the students on Feb. 15, 2013, when the Jaspers beat the Iona Gaels in a double overtime game on national television where Brown stole the show with 21 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks.
Brown has gone on to dominate the MAAC in just about every defensive statistical category and was named second team All-MAAC last year for the first time.
Brown has also made his presence off the court, a popular figure around campus becoming somewhat of a 6-foot-7-inch, 230 pound social butterfly.
“He is honestly one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Tiffany Goodwin, a friend of Brown before college, said. “It’s funny because his exterior looks very intimidating, but he’s not at all. He’s one of the most caring and humble people. He’ll always put someone before himself.”
It’s true. Brown lives by the motto “TBM” which stands for “team before me.”
The Jaspers Head Coach Steve Masiello said he finds it amazing that such a talented player never demands the ball and has no ego. He once tried to run more plays for Brown in a game, and Brown insisted he would just get rebounds and block shots to open up the court offensively.
Brown will have his last chance to win a MAAC Championship this year and seal his legacy as one of the greatest players to ever put on a Manhattan uniform. The task will not be an easy one, but nothing has ever come easy for Rhamel Brown.
Brown will hope to graduate in the spring, something only 7.9 percent of Brownsville residents have done, according to citydata.com.
And then hopefully the NBA will give Brown a call.
“I’ve been around this game for 15 years and been involved with 25 pros,” Masiello said. “I know he can play at the professional level. It’s whether or not he can come out and translate that to the court every night.”
There are 351 Division I college basketball schools and over 4,500 players. Fewer than 60 of those 4,500 plus players get drafted. Do the math.
But Brown has been blocking the odds his whole life. Why doubt him now?
“I saw the positives basketball had on me and my friends and the community, it changes people,” Brown said. “It makes you a better person.”