March 29, 2002 – Jabahri Brown has come a long way from playing pickup games on the neighborhood basketball courts of St. Thomas to competing in the NCAA Final Four.
Brown, the Oklahoma Sooners' 6-foot-10-inch sophomore center, will take the court Saturday night in Atlanta in the national semifinal game against Indiana. Basketball fans on island say they will be glued to their televisions to watch him take the biggest stage in college basketball.
After a game of hard-fought two-on-two at Emile Griffith Park on Thursday, 14-year-old Lindelle Davis said he was working hard to follow in Brown's footsteps.
"This is Jabahri's home court right here," said Lindelle, who plays junior varsity basketball at Charlotte Amalie High School, where Brown used to play. "I'm rooting for Oklahoma all the way. Jabahri's my personal inspiration."
Brown is the territory's latest basketball player to reach the national spotlight. Several Virgin Islanders are currently playing in Division I college basketball and in the NBA, including San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, a native of St. Croix.
Sitting in the crowd to watch Brown on Saturday will be Cyril Benjamin of St. Thomas, coach of the youth all-star team Brown played on in summer tournaments on the mainland. After getting attention at those tournaments, Brown was recruited to play his last years of high school basketball at Champagnat Catholic High School in Hialeah, Fla., where he was an all-state player in 1999.
After a year at Florida International University, he transferred to Oklahoma, where he became eligible to play in December.
CAHS basketball coach Pedrito Estrill, who coached Brown for two years before the youngster transferred to Hialeah, said he's "been keeping up with Jabahri's progress, just like everyone else." He added, "You won't be able to move me from my TV on Saturday."
Estrill said, "Anytime you have that kind of height, you have the opportunity to make it big. He's aggressive, and not a lot of big guys can run like Jabahri. He can handle the ball, too." With only two public high schools on St. Thomas, the coach said, Brown needed the higher level of competition he got in both high school and college in Florida to prepare for playing at Oklahoma.
Estrill and others compare Brown's high-flying game to Duncan's, but his coaches note that Brown still has a lot of work to do. "Jabahri needs to get bigger and stronger," Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson said. "But he's proven he can play at this level. He can score; he can rebound. He's a 6-foot-10-inch shot blocker, and that's something we haven't had."
Brown has averaged 4.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, and he has 40 blocked shots this season. Although he now plays a supporting role to Oklahoma stars Aaron McGhee and Hollis Price, his fans here believe Brown has what it takes be a star in his own right.
"People hope he'll make it to the NBA and be our next representative," 17-year-old Ashiel Smith said as he practiced his 3-point shot at the Winston Raymo court in Hospital Ground. "Jabahri shows that if you have a goal and work hard, you can reach it. It's all within yourself."
Lindelle Davis and his two-on-two teammate, Paul Grande, said that whenever Brown comes back to visit St. Thomas, he always stops by the Emile Griffith court to encourage the younger guys to keep working on their game and to keep hitting the books in school.
"He never forgets his roots," Paul said.
"It's great to actually see someone you know making it big. That's really inspiring for me," Lindelle added. "I just have to keep focused and keep working at it, too."
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