Family game nights at the Brown household in Auburn, Ind. look a little different than most. For as long as Nate and Jenese Brown can remember, those nights always had the potential to be upended — literally — if their daughter lost.
If Leigha Brown lost any casual game, she’d knock the pieces off the board or storm out of the room.
Her reaction wasn’t out of anger toward her family but frustration with herself. Because if there’s one thing that motivates Leigha, in every facet of her life, it’s winning.
As Leigha grew up, board games gave way to a miniature basketball hoop at home, but still, the determination to win remained.
“Ever since she was walking, she just always had a competitiveness to her,” Nate told The Daily. “We had a little tiny basketball hoop we bought her as soon as she could start walking. … That turned into indoor pig and horse games between her and I, and broken picture frames. If I won, she would throw the basketball and go stomping out of the room.”
As she grew up, that competitive spirit grew, too. It carried her through elementary school basketball and travel ball where she started playing at least one year up before she even entered middle school. It carried her through high school, where she was described as a “once in a lifetime” player by her DeKalb High School coach Brett Eltzroth.
Toward the end of Leigha’s time in elementary school, the Browns realized that their daughter was going to be special. Beyond playing multiple years up on her travel teams and being the leading scorer on her teams year after year and game after game, Leigha took it upon herself to start watching any games she could get her hands on — her own film or whatever was on TV.
Ever since she was around eight, she would sit and watch basketball with her dad, and the two would talk about what they saw. For Nate, sitting and talking to his daughter about backscreens and off-ball movement at such a high level was “almost like talking to another adult,” even though Leigha wasn’t yet a middle schooler.
In elementary school, Leigha attended a local basketball camp. There was one other kid there, a boy in her grade at school, who she had a bit of a rivalry with. The camp had a one-on-one tournament, and when Leigha faced off against her rival, her competitive edge and basketball IQ shined.
“She won it all, beat that boy one-on-one in front of everybody,” Nate, who coached Leigha for much of her life, said. “That was just one of those proud moments, that you’re like, ‘that’s my kid’, you know. She just beat that boy that was like six inches taller than her and beat him by like five or six, and it was just such a great feeling.”
That same drive carried her right up to a moment that her dad had been dreading, a day that he knew would come, but was still unprepared for.
“She was a freshman in high school,” Nate said. “… I remember that one day when she finally did beat me (in a one-on-one game). And I just thought, you know, you always hope that day comes but then when it finally does, you’re like, ‘Oh crap.’ ”
And starting that freshman year, she developed into one of the best players in DeKalb High School history.
From the first moment she stepped foot into her high school gym, Leigha Brown’s innate competitiveness was displayed. She would always be the first player there and the last to leave, putting up extra shots to perfect her craft.
“There were different times that I would put her on the opponent’s best post player, I’d put her on their best guard,” Eltzroth told The Daily. “She was very versatile and she did whatever was asked of the coaches.”
Eltzroth could always rely on Brown. Not just because she wanted to win, and not just because she was happier after a team win on a rare bad shooting night than when she put up 53 points, but because it was easy to see that what mattered most to Brown was family. And in addition to the crowd of people that would cheer her on from the sideline every game, Brown’s team was also her family.
“She’s gonna care about everybody she’s around, she’s gonna make everyone around her better,” Eltzroth said. “… She’s just a strong character, family first type person, and I think that’s why she plays with such a passion because she sees her team as an extension of her family.”
With her intense desire to win driving her forward, Brown always made sure to lead by example. For all four years that he coached her, Eltzroth can’t remember a single time she lost a post-practice sprint.
“It’s every coach’s dream to have someone like that, that can be a coach on the floor, that has that court vision to set people up,” Eltzroth said.
Whether it was creating her own shot or setting one up for her teammates, Brown’s coaches always knew they could rely on her.
“You just can’t go wrong with Leigha Brown because she just makes things happen,” Eltzroth praised.
Now at Michigan, Brown still plays the same way: with that fundamental desire to win and that eye for setting those around her up for success. Once again, she’s guided by family — both the family she grew up with and the team she’s embraced in Ann Arbor.
In high school, Brown committed to Nebraska, where she spent her first two years of college. In that time, she garnered significant accolades, including Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year in her sophomore season, in which she also led the team in scoring.
For someone as family-oriented as Brown, however, being over a 10-hour drive from home was difficult. And so, after her sophomore year, she realized she wanted to look at options closer to home.
As she explored those options, one school stood out. It was the team that knocked off the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Tournament: Michigan
“I had people come up to me after the (Big Ten Tournament) and they were like, ‘You need to play for a school like Michigan, just their culture, the way they interact, how hard they play, the passion that (Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico) has,’ ” Brown said on Oct. 25 at Michigan Media Day. “I talked to some other schools in the transfer portal, but the whole time I kept telling my parents ‘It doesn’t compare to Michigan.’ I think the whole time I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
By coming to Ann Arbor, Brown was trading in a 10-hour drive from home for a two-hour one.
At that new home, her teammates, coaches and family were quick to praise who she is on the court; They were equally quick to praise who she is off of it, too.
Whether it was spontaneously driving to Ohio to go to Waffle House with some teammates, adopting two cats or inspiring her younger sister to get a tattoo after getting her own, Brown has always had a knack for showing those around her how much she cares and how invested she is in creating memories.
“Once she knows you care about her, she will do anything for you,” Michigan assistant coach Harry Rafferty said. “And she’s an amazing teammate in that sense. She’s amazing to coach in that sense because in the hardest moments, you know she’s going to stick by it and fight it out. We’re lucky to have her back here for her fifth year of college basketball and leading this group.”
Entering her final year at Michigan, it’s easy to see why Brown chose to use her extra year of eligibility as granted by the pandemic. She wants to win, and she wants to do so alongside her teammates.
“I just knew that I wasn’t really done yet,” Brown said on Oct. 12 at Big Ten Media Days. “I wanted to continue to build myself as an individual player, but also, I wanted to continue to make history with this team, my teammates, my coaching staff.”
For many players, deciding to return to college for a fifth year is a difficult decision. But for Brown, the decision was made early on. After battling through various injuries last season, she’s especially excited for the opportunity to see all her hard work pay off.
“She was the first person in my office (saying) ‘Coach, I need to talk to you,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “She’s like, ‘Can I come back for that extra season?’ I mean, no one was even thinking about it at the time, but I was like, ‘That’s great.’ ”
Beyond having the player who Barnes Arico regards as “arguably one of the best guards in the country” back, Brown also brings years of experience back to the Wolverines.
“She’s so driven. She wants to be the best at everything she does,” Rafferty said. “I think she raises the competitive spirit of her teammates because she’s so wired like that. … She has been really, really awesome to be able to coach so far.”
In the 2021 NCAA Tournament, when Michigan was in the bubble in San Antonio, the Wolverines played some low-stakes card and board games to pass the time. When Brown lost one of those games, she stormed out of the room. Because, just like when she was younger, if she was playing, she was playing to win.
When she stepped back onto the court, though, what happened in those board games never mattered.
Because when she’s playing alongside her teammates, she’s doing everything in her power to make sure they win. And it’s clear there’s nobody she’d rather do it with than her family — both the one that raised her and the one she’s found along the way.