The Richfield Spartans were playing an early-season game at Minneapolis South in December 2004. The basketball was pushed ahead to Ray Brown in the open court.

The fans on the visitors' side rose and Brown did not disappoint, soaring a foot above the rim and delivering a two-handed dunk.

Four months later, that team took Richfield to its first state tournament since 1974. The stars were Ray Brown and Travis Brown, unrelated Division I signees.

Travis played four seasons at Northern Iowa. Ray went to Bradley and, as a freshman, accompanied the Braves on a run to the Sweet Sixteen. That's when things got complicated.

The NCAA administers drug tests to selected players. Brown was among the selectees and came up positive for marijuana. "A bad decision at a bad time,'' he said.

NCAA rules called for a school to declare an athlete ineligible for 365 days. "Bradley supported me and filed an appeal," Brown said. "We lost. I missed the whole season."

Brown came home after school ended in May 2007 and let it be known he was looking for a fresh start. "I thought I'd hear from some of the Division I schools that had recruited me before," he said.

The best offers he received came from Division II schools Missouri Western and Chaminade in Hawaii. "I had a son and didn't want to be that far away from him," he said.

That's how he wound up in St. Joseph, Mo. "I didn't like the school that well and the team was in a situation where everyone played for themselves," Brown said.

Brown found out he was going to be a father again, and also that his father was sick, and he came home in February -- 22 games into Western's season.

"I was down myself; didn't want to play basketball again,'' he said. "I went to insurance classes, to become an insurance agent, but didn't finish. I worked landscaping in the summer. I didn't know what I was going to do."

Last summer, Brown was living in St. Paul, near the Hamline campus. He joined in a few pickup games in the Hamline gym. Eventually, he told Chris Hopkins, a Hamline assistant: "I might be interested in playing here."

Hopkins took the message to Nelson Whitmore, Hamline's third-year coach.

"The first thing we had to do was to check Ray's academic status and see if he could get admitted," Whitmore said. "Once he was in school, we first went to the NCAA and then to the MIAC to make sure he was eligible."

Brown was cleared by both entities and joined the Pipers for fall practice. He has been a force for Hamline in its rise to the MIAC's first division. Based on all games, he's third in the MIAC in scoring (17.5 points), fifth in rebounding (7.6) and No. 1 with 55 three-pointers.

"I didn't play much basketball for a year, but it didn't seem to bother my shooting stroke," said Brown, a 6-7 forward. "I guess it's like riding a bike for me. I've always been able to shoot."

The Pipers have won six of seven going into tonight's game at St. Mary's. They are 11-6 in the league and 15-7 overall. They have become enough of a factor that an anonymous party recently mailed a letter to Dan McKane, the MIAC's executive director, claiming Brown was an ineligible player.

Copies of the letter were forwarded to the league's athletic directors and a couple of media members.

"I didn't know about the letter, so I don't have a reaction," Brown said Tuesday.

Then, he laughed softly and said: "Actually, I'm hoping to get another year of eligibility to play here. We're basing it on 2006-07 [drug suspension] not being a year of competition. I know it's a long shot, but this is only my third season of playing college basketball."

Whitmore had this reaction to the letter questioning Brown's eligibility: "When a program has been down, like Hamline's, and you start competing, there are people that want to question why.

"The letter's a shot at my integrity and makes me mad. And it doesn't change what we plan to do at Hamline. We plan on winning."

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •