Corey Brewer: The good life

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2007 - 7:06 PM

The rookie grew up in a trailer in Tennessee and now is living the NBA dream. Through it all, he's made the journey with a smile.

PORTLAND, TENN.

The plywood backboard is weathered and warped, the concrete court cracked and crumbling on the edge of what new Timberwolf Corey Brewer calls his "little country town" in the rolling hills north of Nashville.

Of course, this little patch of earth -- beside the ramshackle trailer where he was raised and the pen where his pet goat still bleats -- that cultivated a tiny tobacco worker and transformed him into a sinewy two-time NCAA champion and NBA lottery pick wasn't always this way.

"You should have seen Corey's face the day they came and poured it," his mother, Glenda, said, gesturing to a buckled 12-foot-by-12-foot section of cement.

Then as now, there was an incisor-revealing smile that has defined his life from those days when he toddled behind his father into the farm fields before the sun rose until today, when those who know him best suggest he sign his next endorsement deal with Colgate.

When he was young, his middle-school teacher telephoned his mother at work one day and asked her to fetch her son because he clearly wasn't feeling well.

Glenda Brewer asked what was wrong.

He's not smiling.

"All his life, if I go through his pictures, every one I've seen has got that smile," his mother said. "He was a happy child. There was a reason he smiled. I'm going to tell you why he smiled. See, I've found, we have love. We love each other. You've got to love each other."

The original basket on the Brewers' backyard court in the dirt was adjustable, and Corey and his older half-brother raised and lowered it and shot so much that it broke.

"Then we got another basket," Corey Brewer said, "and we broke that one, too."

So his father made his own by tacking plywood and a hoop to a metal pole.

"That one's been up there since I was 12," he said. "That was some good wood."

'I know how to work'

His dad's name is Ellis. But everyone in Portland -- an agricultural hub of Sumner County and a growing bedroom community of 11,000 people about 35 miles north of Nashville -- calls him Pee Wee.

Pee Wee hauled garbage, worked in a ladder-manufacturing factory and a slaughterhouse and farmed corn, soybeans and tobacco, whatever it took to earn a living.

Every morning since he can remember, Corey Brewer followed his dad into the nearby tobacco fields on his grandmother's 70-acre farm while his mother worked in the factories. They shared long drives through the countryside to sell pigs in Dixon, Tenn., and tobacco in Springfield.

"The only way to babysit," Pee Wee Brewer said.

Pee Wee wore brown overalls, brown boots and a brown hat, so little Corey did, too. Glenda Brewer's "baby" drove the tractor when he was 7 and walked the tobacco rows, chopping, carrying, spiking the crop when he grew old enough.

His father perhaps became a casualty of his own relentless work: Heart problems robbed him of his vigor, but not his spirit. Diabetes claimed his left leg and placed him in a wheelchair, from where he watches every game his son plays on a big-screen television in a cozy year-old home that sits 50 feet from the trailer.

Corey's work ethic carried him from the farm fields and the backyard court to Tennessee schoolboy stardom and the University of Florida, where along with his teammates he turned down big NBA money and followed one NCAA title his sophomore season with another his junior year.

"I didn't know any better; I didn't know most kids didn't work like that until I was in high school," said Corey Brewer, the tallest employee at Hardee's once he reached high school. "I know what work is. I know how to work. I have no problem with doing extra work because if you want to be something, that's what you've got to do. I played basketball so I wouldn't have to go to work."

An all-around gifted athlete

Awakened well before dawn to beat the summer heat, he worked the fields until past noon. In the lazy afternoons, into the evening and past midnight, he and his brother, Jason Rogan, played one-on-one basketball on the little court, the swaying pines shading them from the blazing sun, a utility pole outfitted with a spotlight illuminating their games all night long.

"They both bounced the ball through the house while I was trying to sleep," said Glenda, who worked in the factories before taking a teaching job at Portland High and who still follows her son just about everywhere to see him play. "I'd holler at 'em, but they never listened."

The day's loser of those one-on-one games cleaned the room they shared, wiped the dishes, hauled the trash. Jason is five years older and later played at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

"First half of my life," Corey said when asked how often he did the chores. "He used to wake me in the middle of the night to be his practice dummy. That's how I learned to play defense. I was getting killed. I was cleaning up the room every day."

A promising little league pitcher and pee-wee football quarterback and part of an elementary-school precision dribbling team that traveled the Southeast, he was short, skinny and gifted.

Despite all the manual labor in his youth, the skinny part -- too skinny for a windstorm, a cousin says --still applies.

"I don't know," he said. "High metabolism, I think."

The short part doesn't apply anymore. He grew 6 inches after the eighth grade, when his middle-school team almost never lost with him and went winless after he broke his hand. He grew another 6 inches between his freshman and sophomore years.

Suddenly 6-8 and unstoppable, he attracted satchels of college recruiting letters after he joined the Tennessee Travelers AAU team. He transformed his hometown high school from a traditional football power into a basketball school when he led the Portland Panthers to their first state tournament his junior season.

The championship years

His mother wanted him to stay home and attend the University of Tennessee. So, too, did his neighbors and friends. Raised near the border, he coveted a scholarship offer from Kentucky but said Tubby Smith never offered one.

Convinced by a recruiting visit, he chose Florida, where Billy Donovan initially transformed a McDonald's prep All-America and 29.4-point scorer into a defensive specialist.

Distinguished from teammates Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green by his defensive reach and an unknown father, Corey turned down NBA millions when the entire crew changed its collective mind after winning that first NCAA title and returned to defend the championship after receiving a thunderous reception back in Gainesville. The fathers of Noah, Horford and Green all were professional athletes; Brewer said his dad always was famous to him.

"Money makes things harder if you think about it," he said. "People expect you to do things for them. Money's good and it's bad. I never felt like I was missing anything when I was growing up. We had a house. We had school. My pee-wee football team went undefeated two years in a row. My [youth] basketball team won the championship two years. I had a lot of friends."

That's home

A sign on the highway that leads from the interstate into Portland proclaims the town the home of country music star Ronnie McDowell and 2007 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Corey Brewer. Only the old-timers remember McDowell, who achieved fame 30 years ago with a song called "The King is Gone," released just after the death of Elvis Presley.

Everyone in town knows Brewer, who signed autographs for 2½ hours in the high school gym when he was honored last spring following that second NCAA championship. He returns to speak to children and remind them that they can do big things even though they're from a small town.

"Everybody tells me it'd be easier to say I'm from Nashville," Brewer said. "That's not where I'm from. I'm from Portland, Tennessee. I love going home. I love where I come from."

He returned to Portland and the high school gym last summer -- between an NBA draft-night appearance in New York City, Las Vegas summer-league play and some commitments with sponsor Adidas -- and worked with his former coach for more than two hours daily, a practice routine that included 200 shots from behind the three-point arc in each court corner.

In July, after he signed a contract that pays him $2.5 million this season, he disappeared all afternoon one day. When he returned that evening, he hurried his mother along while she prepared herself for a family dinner out. A new ruby-red Lexus wrapped in a ribbon awaited her when she stepped outside.

"It was the first thing he bought," Glenda Brewer said. "I'm not much into materialistic things -- a big house just means there's more to clean -- but it was for his mama. That's the reason I love it so much."

She encouraged her son to buy something for himself, so he now drives a Range Rover. He leased a condo in downtown Minneapolis, where he lives just down the hall from fellow Wolves rookie and former Florida teammate Chris Richard. The two still share a cell-phone plan they had in college.

Glenda Brewer has repeatedly suggested the family replace the old basketball hoop and crumbling court with something better.

Corey Brewer refuses.

"I've been playing there ever since I can remember," he said. "I know my spots on the court. I don't want to mess it up, so nobody can beat me there. That's my home court. That's home."

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  • WOLVES SEASON OPENER 7 p.m. Friday vs. Denver, Target Center, Ch. 45, 106.1-FM COMING THIS WEEK Tuesday: NBA season preview: Is the East on the rise? Friday: Meet Al Jefferson and the rest of the new Wolves THE BREWER FILE Height: 6-9 • Weight: 185 pounds Position: F/G • Age: 21 (born March 5, 1986) College: Florida • Acquired: No. overall 7 pick, 2007 draft ON COREY BREWER The Wolves’ first-round pick himself and those people close to him on the two-time NCAA champion: Wolves teammate and former Florida teammate Chris Richard on Brewer’s hometown of Portland, Tenn.: “I’ve never been there. If Corey ever had some kind of charitable event, I’d go because I love doing those. But just for my leisure time, just to go for a vacation? Under no circumstances. Why would I? I’m from Florida. He’s small-town Tennessee. He has goats. We don’t have goats. I had a couple, two dogs, but no goats.” High school coach Tris Kington on the move from two-time national champ Florida to a completely remade, youthful Wolves team: “Minnesota’s going to have a rough year. I don’t know how he’s going to handle it. He’s never been a loser. In junior high, he won. Here, he won all the time. I’ve talked to him about it. One of my favorite sayings is you find out who your winners are when you lose. Guys that are losers get their heads down, start blaming their teammates, start blaming the coach. I’m going to be calling and talking to him and do everything I can. I hope he doesn’t get his head down.” Pee Wee Brewer on his son: “He loves to work. That’s probably why he plays ball so hard.” Corey Brewer on Corey Brewer: “I don’t know. I don’t lose. I don’t think about losing. I can’t worry about that happening.”
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