ST. PETERSBURG — To play with Gibbs’ Barry Brown is to know that a flurry of points are certain, that a victory is more than likely and that the ball might be an inch from your nose if you look away at the wrong moment.
The junior is spinning the Gladiators on his nimble fingertips, leading them to a 6-1 record and helping them become bona fide state title contenders.
“I’ve become more confident as a player, and so has everyone else on the team,” Brown said. “We knew we could get to the level where we are playing at.”
Brown has always been unfailingly unflappable. He started playing basketball in recreation leagues when he was 4. Barry Brown Sr., a former standout at Lakewood who is now the principal at John Hopkins Middle School, said his son started playing earlier than that.
“I think it was more around birth,” Brown Sr. said.
Brown Jr. also grew up playing football, starting with flag leagues when he was 7. He ended up concentrating on basketball after his freshman year at Gibbs, a decision that came with a slight nudge from his father.
“I noticed that Barry wasn’t giving his full concentration in football, like he did in basketball,” Brown Sr. said. “He was naturally drifting toward basketball and I just tried to let him see that.”
In the past two years, Brown has been given the ball and a team to direct. This season has been full of promise. On one side of the court, Brown Jr. has Shaq Speights, his teammate of two seasons, ready to drive and shoot. On the other, Quincy Ford, a 6-foot-11 forward, is poised to soar.
So far, the Gladiators are surging, the campus is buzzing and Brown Jr. is blessed with orchestrating it all. He has blossomed into a clutch-shooting playmaker with a team-leading 15.3 points and 4.8 steals per game.
Still, there are things Brown Jr. has had to improve — on and off the court.
The first was grades. Last year, he got a D in one of his classes and his father pulled him off the team for two games at the end of the regular season, including one against St. Petersburg that ultimately cost the Gladiators a chance at appearing in the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship game.
“I don’t mess around with grades,” Brown Sr. said. “I needed to send a message and took away some games — some pretty important ones, too — to make sure he was redirecting his focus.”
Brown Jr. got the message. He currently has a 3.2 GPA.
“I’ve definitely put in the work to get everything in order academically,” he said.
The one part of his game that still needs fine-tuning is at the free-throw line. Brown Jr. missed a critical free throw near the end of regulation in a loss to Daytona Beach Father Lopez last month. A week ago, he missed two more in a tie game against The Rock as time expired. The Gladiators eventually pulled out the win in overtime.
“That’s just a matter of putting in the time to get better at free throws, and I’ve been doing that,” Brown Jr. said.
Tonight, Gibbs plays Lakewood in a big Class 5A-8 district game. It is a reunion for Brown Sr. and Spartans coach Anthony Lawrence Sr., who were teammates at Lakewood and best friends. Their sons also played together on AAU teams.
“The games mean more because we all know each other so well,” Brown Sr. said. “It feels weird rooting against Lakewood and against Anthony. And his son, it’s like rooting against a nephew. But we all know we’re family and that’s all that matters in the end.”