If Chaundee Brown Jr. has a trademark, it’s his smile.
Former Wake Forest assistant coach Steve Woodberry calls it infectious. According to senior guard Eli Brooks the smile, compounded with Brown’s energy, “goes a long way for the team.”
For a moment last season, though, that smile disappeared.
In the opening round of the ACC Tournament last March, thirteenth-seeded Pittsburgh edged twelfth-seeded Wake Forest in a battle of dormant programs. With 25 seconds left in the game and the Demon Deacons down eight, Brown had a corner 3-pointer blocked. Afterwards, he hung his head low, eyes deadlocked with the hardwood, the weight of three consecutive first-round exits sagging his shoulders.
That Brown, demoralized by losing, prayed for and dreamt of an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
This past weekend, he got his chance. On Monday night Brown — arms thrusted into the air, motioning toward a rocking crowd and jubilant bench, a smile on his face — lived out a moment he has long awaited.
“My mom was telling me before the game, ‘You prayed and dreamed about being in this position, so you just gotta make it happen now,’ ” Brown said late Monday night, hours removed from his heroics for Michigan. “And I feel like I did that.”
Against LSU, Brown served as a crucial spark off the bench, keying the Wolverines to a comeback victory with 21 points, including a pair of tide-turning 3-pointers late in the second half. Understanding the emotion that Brown displayed — the bounce in his step, the raised arms, the smile — starts with rehashing the burden of three hollow years at Wake Forest.
Brown committed to the Demon Deacons in 2016 as a top-40 prospect, aspiring to restore the glory days not seen in Winston-Salem since the days of Chris Paul. He declined offers from Kansas, Florida and UConn — all schools with significant pedigrees — in hopes of transforming Wake Forest into a perennial contender itself.
Three seasons, 35 wins and 58 losses later, none of that had come to fruition. The NCAA Tournament felt like a pipedream.
As Brown left the court last March in Greensboro, minutes after another deflating end to another disappointing season, he re-assessed his situation. His college career had reached its twilight, three fruitless seasons having passed. He didn’t want to endure a fourth.
“I just had a talk with my parents after my third year at Wake Forest, I just wanted to win,” Brown said. “And I feel like I made the right decision for myself and my career and things like that, and I’m in that spot right now. I’m so happy right now.”
In April, when Brown announced his intention to transfer, Wake Forest coach Danny Manning called his coaching staff; Manning wanted to jump in a car with his assistants. Together, they would drive down to Brown’s home in Orlando, a fleeting attempt to convince him to stay. The pandemic complicated matters, though. They never made the trip.
“Chaundee, he said he was accepting the challenge of really competing and trying to play in an NCAA Tournament and to make himself a better player and I respect that,” former Wake Forest assistant coach Rex Walters said. “You remember those things when you see a guy knocking down threes and defending at a high level, seeing what it takes to win.”
More than anything, Manning’s reaction highlights Brown’s value. Against LSU, on the biggest stage of Brown’s career, his importance grew apparent.
With 12:13 minutes left in the first half, Brown checked in as the first player off the bench. Michigan, in a seven point hole, struggled to keep pace with the Tigers’ high-octane offense.
Before the game, Brown, as per his pre-game ritual, gave himself a pep talk.
“‘Just be you,’ I told myself that ‘and great things happen,’ ” Brown said. “Keep me going, keep me motivated, keep me on my toes. I don’t wanna get lackadaisical or things like that and fall back and take a backseat. I do that to keep me on my toes. It’s been working my whole life, so why change now?”
On his first play in the game, Brown drained a baseline jumper. It made for a prelude for his performance to come.
Defensively, Brown flashed his constant aggression, hounding LSU’s Cam Thomas and offering height and energy at the top of Michigan’s zone. He slashed along the baseline for a key second half dunk. He drilled a trio of 3-pointers, one pushing the lead to four and another to eight, all but sealing the outcome in the Wolverines’ favor.
“Tonight, Chaundee had it going,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after the game. “Keep in mind, I’m not the one focused on or caring about the points. My focus is how you impact winning. … That’s how Chaundee has been all season long for us. He’s been doing a lot of special things to help us win.”
If there’s anyone who best embodies Howard’s approach, it’s Brown. A three-year starter in the rugged ACC, Brown, in his senior year, accepted the sixth-man role without batting an eye. He surrendered minutes, touches and statistics to invest in the team, the ultimate sacrifice for any player.
But if Brown wanted to pad his stats, he would still be middling at Wake Forest. Perhaps he would be leading the Demon Deacons in scoring, playing north of 30 minutes a game, maybe even boosting his NBA draft stock. Winning, though, took precedence.
In Michigan’s opening NCAA Tournament win against Texas Southern, Brown hardly made a dent. Across 16 minutes, he failed to score, attempting just one shot.
None of that mattered.
“In his mind, it’s ‘I didn’t score, but we get to play again,’ ” Woodberry said. “That’s just who he is. And if you’re disciplined at all times, no moment is too big for you.
“If you’re a college basketball player, it’s a perfect example of a player not pouting about not playing, or not playing as much and then always being ready. It’s a good story. Such a happy ending to his chapter in college basketball.”
If Brown has his way, his chapter is far from over.
“Like (Howard) says all the time, we want to rest on April 6, that’s when we win a natty,” Brown said. “As long as we keep winning, I’ll do whatever for this team.”
After the win, in a euphoric locker room, it was only fitting that Brown had the honors of placing the “Michigan” sticker in its Sweet Sixteen spot on the poster-size bracket. His teammates, cheering and filming with their phones, watched on.
Behind his mask, the smile radiated.