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Sports >  International sports

Former Gonzaga forward Ira Brown charts unique path to Olympic Games

UPDATED: Wed., July 21, 2021

Every Olympic athlete has a notable story. Ira Brown’s is inspiring, implausible and one of a kind.

“Absolutely not,” Brown responded when asked if he dreamed of becoming an Olympian during his hardscrabble childhood in Texas. “My whole life has been unbelievable.”

That becomes apparent when one considers he’s representing Japan in the Olympic debut of 3x3 basketball, he turns 39 next month, he was once a promising minor league pitcher throwing in the mid-90s, he saw limited minutes during two seasons in a Gonzaga basketball uniform and he struggled to break into professional basketball.

The twists and turns of Brown’s early years could fill a Hollywood script. He grew up in Corsicana, Texas, and once told an interviewer he “wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”

Brown said his parents frequently used drugs. He lived in a three-bedroom house packed with roughly 15 relatives. He got into fights with classmates and kids that lived nearby.

The house burned down after someone allegedly tossed an explosive device inside. Brown relocated to another home with 15 family members, but often would stay with friends.

Brown finally found a stable environment at age 14 when he moved in with Earl Mitchell, who had coached Brown in youth baseball, in Conroe, north of Houston. Eventually, the Mitchells legally adopted Brown.

“Just growing up in a poor neighborhood, not having money, no electricity at times, mom and dad on drugs,” Brown recalled of his formative years during a phone call from the Olympic Village. “And then meeting the people that would become my adopted parents when I was about seven. When they moved away, I was just living with friends until I was about 14 and I moved in with them.”

Brown thrived on the baseball diamond and was selected in the eighth round by the Kansas City Royals in the 2001 draft. He spent five seasons bouncing around the minors, including a stint with the Spokane Indians in 2002.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brown eventually turned to basketball. He had played pickup ball in Phoenix, which led to a connection with Phoenix College’s coach. Brown played two seasons at the junior college before signing with Gonzaga.

Brown, who was 25 when he suited up for his first GU game, didn’t find much playing time in two seasons, but he averaged nearly 10 minutes on a talented 2009 squad that lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. The highlight of his senior season was playing a key role as the Zags rallied past Oklahoma State at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.

His introduction to professional basketball required patience.

“It was tough trying to find a job,” Brown said. “It took almost nine months. I got an opportunity in Mexico on a travel team and then I got picked up by a Mexican team for $2,500.”

The sport eventually took him to Argentina, the Philippines and Japan, but his first exposure to the 3x3 game came in the summer of 2012. Brown was skeptical at first when he received a phone call from a friend about a chance to represent USA Basketball, but decided to give it a shot.

Brown’s team won the tournament and a month later represented the U.S. at the inaugural FIBA 3x3 World Championship in Greece.

“I was really shocked,” Brown said. “I used it as an opportunity. We didn’t have any professional players at the time. Here in Japan, three of the four are professionals. Back in 2012 we didn’t have any experience. We felt we were just playing pickup ball.”

FIBA’s goal was to get 3x3 into the 2016 Olympics. It eventually happened for the 2020 Games, which were pushed back to this summer by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s very fast, score as quick as you can, play defense,” Brown said of 3x3. “Being a forward, we’re primed for this type of game, playing inside and outside.”

Brown, who turns 39 next month but is diligent about his training, has carved out an impressive 10-year career in Japan. He recently signed a two-year deal to continue playing for Osaka Evessa.

“I’m probably going to play as long as I can,” said Brown, who completed a two-year process to become a naturalized Japanese citizen. “There’s definitely a lot of mileage on the body, but I feel great.”

Japan opens pool play Saturday with games against Poland and Belgium. The eight-team tournament wraps up Wednesday. Japan is No. 7 in FIBA’s 3x3 power rankings of Olympic teams. Serbia is No. 1, followed by Latvia, Netherlands, Poland and Belgium.

Brown’s teammates include Tomoya Ochiai and Keisei Tominaga, a sophomore guard at the University of Nebraska. Brown said Ochiai is a legendary figure in 3x3 in Japan and Tominaga is an excellent shooter.

“I honestly think we can medal,” Brown said. “There are some really good teams, Serbia, Latvia, Netherlands. We’re the underdogs.

“Being able to play for the USA (in 2012) and to play here and represent Japan, it’s an unbelievable experience. Not only that, the American team didn’t make it. I am kind of both.”

There won’t be fans in the stands because of COVID-19 restrictions, but Brown knows he has plenty of support. He is a popular player in Japan and his family has pulled together.

“We’re good with all my family,” Brown said. “Over the past four years, we’ve gotten close. We do bible studies together, everybody has turned the corner. A couple of my aunts started getting together and wanted to have family reunions and everybody started to come. It’s just been great.”

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