During a basketball career that took him from Buffalo to Syracuse University to the National Basketball Association, Damone Brown was never known as a troublemaker.
He was one of the best hoopsters ever to come from Buffalo, and he repeatedly said he felt it was important to serve as a positive role model for kids.
But Brown's good name took a major hit Thursday, when he was one of more than 30 suspects arrested in connection with the activities of a notorious East Side drug gang.
The 29-year-old athlete was arrested in Reno, Nev., where he has been playing for the Reno Bighorns, a minor league team. He is accused of felony money-laundering, setting up a safe deposit box where a drug dealer stashed $170,000 in alleged cocaine proceeds.
"He is charged strictly on a felony money-laundering count," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt P. Martin. "He is accused of signing up for the safe deposit box where [defendant] Glance Ross kept his cash."
Ross, 23, is accused of being a major drug trafficker associated with a gang known as 31, FBI agents said. Ross lives on Somerton Avenue in Kenmore with Brown's sister, Toria Hodge, 25, who is also accused of felony money-laundering, agents said.
Brown, whose case will be adjudicated in Buffalo's federal court, could not be reached to comment Friday. People in Buffalo's sports community who have known him since he was a youngster are baffled by his arrest.
"I am totally shocked by these allegations," said Fajri Ansari, the Buffalo State College basketball coach who coached Brown before he was in high school. "I've never known Damone to be in any kind of trouble."
Like many others who know Brown, Ansari describes him as a respectful, soft-spoken and mild-mannered young man. Federal court officials said he has no previous criminal record.
Prosecutors have not charged Brown with selling, using or possessing drugs, but he is accused of helping a major drug dealer hide his money.
Is it possible that Brown was unaware that drug money was being put in the deposit box?
According to court papers, Brown, Hodge and Ross "knowingly" used the safe deposit box that was rented at a North Buffalo bank branch to conceal drug money.
Agents from the FBI-led Safe Streets Task Force said they seized $170,000 cash from the safe deposit box on Dec. 11.
Officials of the Reno team Friday said they have released him from the Bighorns so he could focus on his personal business.
"It's just an unfortunate situation . . . It's under investigation at this point," said the team's coach, Jay Humphries.
Brown's arrest is especially disturbing to people who know him because he had gone out of his way over the years to present himself as a role model.
Those people say Brown grew up in a tough environment and could easily have entered a life of crime as a teenager, but his involvement in basketball helped him stay on a better path.
Long after his 2001 graduation from Syracuse University -- where he was a star forward -- Brown returned to Buffalo, where he appeared at basketball clinics and tried to steer youngsters away from trouble.
"I want to give back to the community and be a positive role model," Brown told The Buffalo News in June 2002. "I was born in Buffalo, and I've been in Buffalo all my life . . . I want to start the young kids out in the right direction."
The description that most of his friends use for Brown is laid-back. His youth basketball coach called him a most docile human being.
"The Damone Brown I know liked to give back to the community and would do anything for the kids," said a friend who requested not to be identified. "I don't know this other Damone Brown."
"I don't believe it," said Art Serotte, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer who coached against Brown. "It's hard for me to believe. I can only say good stuff about him, I can't say anything bad."
Others echoed Serotte's sentiments about Brown, calling him an individual who is so quiet you wouldn't know he's around other than the fact that he's 6-foot-9.
"He's just a quiet guy, a quiet individual," said Leonard Stokes, who played at Turner-Carroll and later at Cincinnati.
Brown was drafted into the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round in 2001, making him one of the highest NBA draft picks ever to come from the Buffalo area. He bounced in and out of the NBA, playing with six different teams and compiling a career average of 2.8 points per game.
He then played several seasons overseas.
"He was one of those guys who enjoyed playing," Stokes said. "He wasn't caught up in the lifestyle of staying in the NBA. He just loved the game and loved to play no matter where it was."
Brown organized a summer league at the Delevan Moselle Center that was considered the city's best since the Randy Smith Summer League. The summer after he was drafted, Brown hosted a camp for youngsters in Buffalo. He was a fixture at the annual Gus Macker 3-on-3 Tournament.
"He never came across like he was big-timing anyone or above anyone," Ansari said. "He always took time to speak and took time out to give back to the community."
That's what makes Thursday's news about Brown even more shocking to Ansari, Serotte and others.
"He's a wonderful kid," Serotte said.
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