Hoops star from our ‘hood: Peekskill native Elton Brand
By: Rich Mintzer
Brains, Brawn, and a Big Heart
From the projects of Peekskill to multi-million dollar NBA contract, LA Clipper Elton Brand hasn’t forgotten his roots
By Rich Mintzer
He honed his game in the playgrounds of Peekskill and after school on the RiversideChurch’s AAU team in New York City, and today he goes up against Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and the best of the best in the NBA. Indeed, Elton Brand is the epitome of local boy makes good, going from the housing projects of Peekskill to his current six-year, $84-million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. A two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year award winner, the 28-year-old power forward has made his presence known on the court with a 20-point career average and 10 rebounds per game over eight seasons, putting him among the top rebounders in the league.
By the age of 13, Brand was already generating attention, being touted as a “can’t miss” prospect by college scouts. He was the best player on his team in his freshman year at PeekskillHigh School and by the following season he was considered the best player in WestchesterCounty. In his senior year, he was elevated to the level of McDonald’s All-American. (Each year, McDonald’s selects the nation’s 48 best high school players who go on to play for various charities.)
“Getting to the NBA was a dream, but guys from my area had never made it to the pros,” Brand says. “The closest were a couple of guys from Mount Vernon in the 1970s. I thought I’d get a great job with Morgan Stanley in New York and move my mom out of public housing,”
However, while playing college ball, he found he could score and rebound without great difficulty. “When I played against Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and all these other guys, I started thinking, Hey I’m pretty good; I can play this game.”
As a sophomore, he was the dominant presence for a Duke team that was widely regarded as one of the most talented teams in recent NCAA history. After leading Duke to the NCAA championship game in 1999, in which the team was upset by the University of Connecticut, Brand was named National Player of the Year. He left college early to enter the NBA draft; he was the first player selected. “If it wasn’t for the situation at home, getting my mom out of the projects, I would have stayed the whole time,” he says. “The NBA is more like a job, but that college experience was pure; it was so much fun.”
Giving Something Back
In the summer of 2006, Brand married Seneca Shahara, an interior designer he met at Duke University and to whom he had proposed via hiring a skywriting plane to spell out the words “Will You Marry Me?” over the beach while the two vacationed in Los Cabos, Mexico. Today, he still maintains connections to Westchester and visits regularly. He frequents restaurants along the Peekskill riverfront to catch up on old times with his buddies, who still live and work in the area. He and his friends used to emulate their favorite stars including Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and, of course, Michael Jordan. “When I got into the NBA, I got to play against a few of these guys. Of course, they were not in their prime, but it was so cool playing against them, especially Jordan, who came back at age forty but was still hitting buckets.”
Five years ago, Brand founded The Elton Brand Foundation, which sponsors an after-school program in Peekskill in which high school students come in for tutoring or to do homework in its computer lab. The program, known as the Comprehensive Action Model of Peekskill (CAMP), also offers a scholarship program where kids learn how to fill out applications and write college essays. “The essays are the calling cards to get into most colleges,” says his mother, Daisy Brand, who now splits her time between Peekskill in the summer months, where Elton bought her a townhouse, and Los Angeles during the NBA season, where she watches her son play. Having tutored while raising her boys (Elton has a 37-year-old brother, Arthur McGriff), she helped develop the program and remains active in CAMP. “We try to help kids focus on their education, which has always been a concern of Elton’s,” she says.
Brand, along with his brother Artie, also heads up a basketball camp for one week each summer in Brewster. “We mentor young kids who are learning the game. We give them some drills and some inspirational talks.” Out in Los Angeles, Brand provides tickets to Clippers games to underprivileged children who attend as “Brand’s Bunch.”
Starting Up a Team
The most recent project of Elton, Artie, and Mom, is the new ABA minor league team (no affiliation with the old ABA professional league), called the Westchester Phantoms, which will tip off for the first time in early November on a 36-game schedule. It was actually Daisy who, with Elton’s support, got behind the project as franchise owner, with Artie as the general manager.
“It’s not just about basketball,” says Daisy, the second NBA mom to own an ABA team, along with Allen Iverson’s mom. “I saw the influence basketball had in Elton’s life.”
Brand’s “Reel” World
If an NBA career isn’t exhausting enough, not to mention the time in philanthropy, why not add filmmaking during the off-season? Perhaps the tallest producer in Hollywood, at 6’8”, Brand ventured into the film business with nightclub mogul Steve Marlton. They formed a film production company, Gibraltar Entertainment, and earlier in July, their first feature-length film, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, was nationally released by MGM.
“I was always a big movie fan,” says Brand, who recalls waiting in line to see Rocky III and going with his mom and his brother to see the Ninja Turtles at the Peekskill Movie House. His film tastes are as broad as his shoulders, noting film favorites ranging from Casablanca to A Clockwork Orange.
Staying in Shape
How does he find time to stay buff?
“During the off-season, I work with a fitness trainer doing cardio from five am for about an hour, followed by lifting weights. Then I hit the courts for an hour or two and by about nine or ten o’clock, we’re done and I have the rest of the day,” says Brand, of a four-hour workout routine that would put many mere mortals back in bed for the remainder of the day. While he enjoys the workouts, it caught up with him this past summer, when he ruptured his Achilles tendon, sidelining him for six months, including the first three months of the upcoming season. He is, not surprisingly, anxious to return to the court and help the Clippers make a playoff run.
Playing Against the Best
His toughest opponent? “Tim Duncan,” he maintains, of the World Champion San Antonio Spurs. “Duncan is kind of frustrating. He plays so well, yet he’s so quiet. Garnett is real tough, too, but at least he screams and yells and grunts out there, so you know he’s working real hard. Duncan is so fundamentally sound that he makes it look kind of easy, and I don’t like that. It makes me mad.”
Mad enough to retire—soon? “I’m not thinking about golf yet. My financial people and my agent love golf, but they’re always at the chiropractor.”
For now, however, he’s making Peekskill very proud. In fact, another well-known Peekskill native, former Governor George Pataki, says “I’ve always looked up to Elton Brand, and I think our young people can as well.”
Rich Mintzer is a magazine and web journalist and author of more than 40 nonfiction books. He’s been a basketball fan since he was 11 and his son, Eric, now plays on the local MountKisco team.