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DAMONE BEATS HOOP ODDS

It was a life-defining moment, sealed by a handshake and followed by two bellies full of laughter.

Damone Brown sat with his best friend, Terrell Ware, at the Eastern Invitational basketball camp six years ago, listening to statistics that spelled out how he had about the same chance to win the lottery as to make it to the NBA.

"Man, that number was small," Brown said. "But I remember looking at (Ware) and saying, 'Yeah, I'm going to make it.' "

Ware extended his hand until it met Brown's and the two just sat there, laughing. Now, Brown hopes to have the last laugh and a new job come tonight at 7 when the NBA draft kicks off at the Madison Square Garden Theatre in New York.

"It's a dream, a dream finally coming true," Ware said. "I was thinking, man, that's really tough. But Damone always believed he would make it."

NBA scouts and draft analysts have recently been affirming that belief. Most agree that Brown will get drafted in the second round. His agent, Andre Colona, said Brown's "draft universe" is anywhere from late in the first round to midway through the second. NBAdraft.net predicts Brown will be taken by the Detroit Pistons with the 38th pick. Sportsline.com dubs him the 13th best small forward available.

If the predictions hold true, the former Syracuse University and Seneca Vocational standout will be the highest drafted Buffalo-area player since Christian Laettner of The Nichols School was taken with the third pick in the 1992 draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Brown would also be the highest drafted public-school player since Cliff Robinson, from Riverside, went to the Portland Trailblazers as the 36th pick in 1989.

"It's special for Damone. It's special for the city of Buffalo," said University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, who has seen plenty of the area's talent never advance to basketball's promised land. "There's a lot of kids that can look at what Damone did and see what they're supposed to do. He's paid his dues. He works really hard at it. That hard work has paid off.

"That makes it really, really special, especially for this area."

It's been three months since the Orangemen were drubbed by Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the former Section VI player of the year has embarked on the "Damone Brown World Tour."

The first stop included two-hour daily workouts with Syracuse assistant coach Troy Weaver while Brown completed his Information Science and Technology degree. Appearances at the Nike Desert Classic in Phoenix and the NBA's annual pre-draft camp in Chicago followed in June. Then Brown took part in individual workouts with Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Even Brown's father, Michael Respress, finds the process overwhelming.

"A little? Very," Respress said. "But I just try not to put all my focus on the draft even though I think about it all the time."

Most experts say Brown's play at the pre-draft camps has cemented his status in the draft, although it has not necessarily swayed scouts to use a higher pick on the 6-foot-9 forward. Weaver said teams have been "pleasantly surprised" at Brown's ball-handling skills and shooting ability. Brown wasn't able to showcase those skills while averaging 16.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game last season, when the Orangemen suffered from a lack of height which forced him to spend time at power forward and center.

The buzzword for Brown, so far, is versatility because he can play a number of positions, something that scouts said will be necessary against zone defenses in the NBA next season.

"He can do everything," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. "I think he's going to get drafted in the second round. I think he can make a team. He's got long arms, he's a great competitor, and he works hard."

Bob Zuffelato, the Toronto Raptors' director of basketball operations, came away equally impressed after Brown worked out with Bradley's Jerome Robinson and Michigan State's Zach Randolph.

"He's got a decent game overall," said Zuffelato, who maintains Brown is still in Toronto's draft mix. "He drives pretty well. He's got a nice looking shot. He plays with intensity. He's a nice all-around player."

Brown will also be affected by the 47 early entrants in this year's draft, including several highly-touted players making the jump from high school to the NBA. Colona and Weaver both said he would have been a first-round lock before. Brown sighs when asked about the early entrants, but declines to discuss particulars, saying only that four years in college gave him experience he can use right away next season.

Still, despite Brown's all-tournament honors in Phoenix that Colona said drew the interest of six more teams, some analysts said his performance in Chicago helped to reinforce some doubt among NBA scouts. Teams remain concerned with Brown's weight (202 rail-thin pounds, he says) and his passing ability.

"I still think he's a second-round pick," said Andy Katz, a draft analyst for ESPN, who noted Brown lacked aggressiveness in Chicago. "He didn't stand out enough in Chicago. He had a shot to move up, a lot of guys did. But he wasn't able to really do it."

If Brown goes in the second round, his contract will not be guaranteed, but it offers him the opportunity to make a team and provide for his 4-year-old son, Damone Jr., along with his parents and nine brothers and sisters.

Those thoughts weighed on Brown's mind as he criss-crossed the United States in search of a job. All the workouts are the same, Brown said, an endless collage of psychological tests and jump shots. Weaver said teams focus on shooting, ball handling and footwork, along with strength tests and games of one-on-one or two-on-two. Brown squared off with Arkansas' Joe Johnson and Notre Dame's Troy Murphy among other former collegiate stars.

"You get a little worn down," Brown said of his tour stops. "If you have back-to-back-to-back workouts, that can take a little toll on your body. Flying here, stay in this hotel, work out, fly out. You get a little tired."

Weaver, Syracuse strength coach Corey Parker, and SU trainer Brad Pike have done everything possible to put Brown in a better draft-day position.

But Brown's been training for the NBA since he was 13 years old, when Seneca volunteer assistant coach Stan Martin took Brown, Ware and their friend, Phil Jones, under his wing. It started with "Midnight Madness" workouts where the quartet would play at a local court where only the moonlight and a street light more than 20 feet away provided visibility.

Sometimes they had to climb the fence to get in. Once, Brown worked out until he vomited. But they were there, for every single night during the summer, working toward a goal, rap beats providing a soundtrack. Along the way, they formed "The Family," a local powerhouse that garnered the 21 trophies that surround Martin's fireplace.

Martin calls it "Rocky Balboa techniques for basketball," things that helped keep Brown away from the same trouble many of his friends found themselves in.

"Those guys, they were just animals," Martin said. "They were just basketball junkies, basically. You know, leave one game and go to the next. Leave one park, go to the next. That's all it was.

"I told them to use Midnight Madness as a tool. A tool to keep off the streets. It's rough growing up in the 'hood. It's rough playing basketball without light. But I told them that if you can do all that in the dark, imagine what you can do in the light."

Now, under Martin's tutelage, Brown is a Buffalo success story.

Adrian "Butter" Paisley, who works with the Randy Smith basketball league, watched Brown's progression, always thinking in the back of his mind that Brown would one day end up in the NBA. Now, Brown returns to his roots, teaching kids that it is possible to make it. Paisley said every time Brown returns to the local courts kids stop playing and run to him. Kids watch Brown on Sportscenter and try to emulate him, and his fame reached a new level recently when a piece of floor board he signed in Phoenix was put up for auction on eBay.

And Brown succeeded despite being surrounded by constant reminders of why the Buffalo public school system is not known for its basketball success stories. Brown saw his friends succumb to drugs and peer pressure, some ending up in jail. He saw competitive athletes in the summer leagues continue to fail to make it to the next level.

But Brown rose above all of that, knowing he'd given his word with a simple handshake. Now, he must sit and wait, knowing that in the next 24 hours the dream that started on the streets of Buffalo may finally be realized.

"It's a testament to Damone, no matter where he goes," Weaver said. "For a guy that wasn't a highly recruited player to be going in the draft, that's just a tremendous story within itself. A guy came in (to Syracuse) and worked for four years, he graduated and, now he's going to be drafted. That's a great story."

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