MOSCOW, Idaho – Their friendship took form, almost instantly, in 2007.
Brandon Brown was a new member of the University of Idaho men’s basketball team. Will Blackburn was living in Moscow and happened to grow up with one of Brown’s junior-college teammates.
They realized the connection after being introduced and right away started joking about their mutual friend.
“That’s how we really hit it off right there, man,” Blackburn recalled this week. “Ever since then we’ve been tied at the hip.”
Over the past month Blackburn has forged an even tighter bond with Brown – but for reasons he rather would have avoided. Brown, a 25-year-old former Vandal guard from Philadelphia, remains in a coma after a disagreement allegedly turned violent with a friend at C.J.’s nightclub in downtown Moscow on Dec. 16.
He was hospitalized at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston until Thursday, when he was transferred to Northern Idaho Advanced Care Hospital in Post Falls.
Lammar Burney, 25, pleaded not guilty Monday to a felony aggravated battery charge for his role in the altercation. His trial is set to start for March 1. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.
Brown, who came off the bench for the Vandals for parts of two seasons, is expected to have permanent brain damage if he recovers, Blackburn said. He has been unconscious since the fight, and early on doctors removed part of his skullcap because of swelling in his brain.
Since then, a permanent shunt has been placed in his brain and tied to his digestive tract to drain excess fluid. Meanwhile, his skullcap has been reattached and he’s undergone two other surgeries – one on his jaw, the other to install a feeding tube.
Brown’s debilitating injuries came, according to court documents, during a brief exchange of blows with Burney.
After 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, the friends were inside C.J.’s – where Brown worked as a bartender – planning a party that was set to take place at the bar. Eventually they started to argue about the role of a third person in the party, specifically as a disc jockey.
The disagreement escalated to the point where, according to Burney’s interview with Moscow Police, Brown punched his friend in the bar. After the two scuffled inside C.J.’s, their fight extended into an alley behind Main Street.
That’s when Burney knocked Brown to the ground and punched him between three and five times, according to the investigating officer’s interviews with multiple witnesses.
Burney told the officer, Cpl. Dustin Blaker, the fight lasted approximately seven seconds. By the time police arrived, Burney had what appeared to be a broken nose and Brown was unconscious, bleeding from the head and having difficulty breathing – almost like he was snoring, Blaker noted in his report.
Brown was taken to Gritman Medical Center in Moscow, where a CT scan was performed. Once the results came in, he was quickly flown to Lewiston.
The altercation took place just a few weeks after Burney and Brown went to Blackburn’s home for Thanksgiving. The three were close friends, Blackburn said.
Asked if the fight between Burney and Brown came as a surprise, Blackburn said, “It really was to be honest with you.”
As Brown’s closest friend in Moscow, Blackburn was on the “front line” within 24 hours of the altercation – at Brown’s side at the hospital and spearheading fundraising efforts to pay for medical bills since Brown has no medical insurance.
From the start, Blackburn realized the seriousness of Brown’s situation. And now he said others are starting to understand as well.
Davonna Brown, Brandon’s mother, came from Philadelphia a week before Christmas and has been with him since.
“It’s not like he’s just out and we’re all hoping he’d come back,” said Blackburn, 24. “But now it’s getting to the point where there’s a possibility he might not.”
Brown’s condition has incrementally improved in recent weeks. But the troubling sign, Blackburn said, is that his brain does not appear to be recovering.
“Right now, we’re just waiting,” he said. “We’ve been doing the waiting game for a while.”
Idaho men’s basketball coach Don Verlin said members of his staff visited Brown in Lewiston, and he keeps close tabs on his status as well.
As a senior during Verlin’s first year at UI in 2008-09, Brown grew disenchanted with his playing time and left the program in what Verlin called a “mutual departing.” But he remained enrolled at the school and graduated with a general studies degree.
“He was a Vandal,” Verlin said. “He graduated from our program. I’ve known Brandon a long time. (A situation like this) always hits close to home, especially with someone you know. We feel awful about it and hopefully he makes a full recovery.”
A bank account has been set up to help pay Brown’s medical bills, and Blackburn said the response from local business owners and others who want to help financially has been very positive.
Various fundraising events are scheduled, including an all-ages benefit on Jan. 25 at C.J.’s. More information can be found at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/brandonbrown