ST. PETERSBURG — To play with Gibbs' Barry Brown is to know a flurry of points are certain, a victory is more than likely and the ball might be an inch from your nose if you look away at the wrong moment.
The junior point guard is spinning the Gladiators on his nimble fingertips, leading them to a 6-1 record and helping them become a bona fide state title contender.
"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 said he started playing basketball in recreation leagues when he was 4. Barry Brown Sr., a former standout at Lakewood 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 guard 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 class. As a result, his father pulled him off the team for the final two regular-season games, including one against St. Petersburg that cost the Gladiators a chance at 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 grade point average.
"I've definitely put in the work to get everything in order academically," he said.
On the court, his free-throw shooting needs fine-tuning. Brown Jr. missed a free throw near the end of regulation in a loss to Daytona Beach Father Lopez last month. A week ago, he missed two in a tie game against Gainesville The Rock as time expired. The Gladiators 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, District 8 game. It is a reunion for Brown Sr. and Spartans coach Anthony Lawrence Sr., who were teammates and best friends at Lakewood. 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."