The sounds of squeaking sneakers and a bouncing basketball echoed through the A.C. Jackson Wellness Center gym on Bibleway Church’s Atlas Road campus on a cool afternoon. On the court, 10-year-old Brice Cohen squared up, one-on-one, against his instructor, whose words – by turns cajoling, critiquing and encouraging – challenged the youngster to beat him to the rim.
“Bang, bang, wait bang, bang!” Marseilles Brown shouted as Cohen started a drive, stopped abruptly, spun, executed a between-the-legs dribble and drove again through a maze of orange cones on the court. “And he’s just gone!” Brown said, grinning, as Cohen finished with a layup.
“That’s that corkscrew move,” he told his student, adding with a laugh, “Ask your mom what a corkscrew is.”
Yolanda Cohen, Brice’s mother, sat in the stands and nodded approvingly as her pint-sized son demonstrated skills and moves beyond his years: spin moves, behind-the-back dribbling and a deft touch from almost 3-point range. “He wakes up with his basketball,” she said. “His dream is to become an NBA player.
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“We think he has special skills, and we want Marseilles to bring those out.”
Brown’s “Hoops and Life” business card, available at the gym’s front desk, identifies the 36-year-old as an “International Basketball Pro Skills Trainer.” One easily could add another line to his C.V.: “Architect of Dreams.”
Over the past five years, the Hampton, Va., native’s goal has been to help basketball players reach their potential. He says he’s worked with close to 3,000 players of all skill levels; others have viewed YouTube videos on his website (hoopsandlife.com) – recorded by Emmanuel Weston, a 19-year-old Limestone College student and Brown’s assistant – thousands of times.
His students range from “8 years old to pros,” Brown said. They include Devin Green, a one-time Los Angeles Lakers small forward now playing in Venezuela, and former South Carolina guard Devan Downey, scheduled to play in Qatar this season – as well as Cohen and 15-year-old Jack Wilson, whose goal, his mother Karen says, is “to make the varsity at A.C. Flora.”
Most intriguing, though, is a trio of local high school stars, whose potential career arcs are just beginning. In one of Weston’s videos, Brown works on drills with Dreher senior and VCU signee Tevin Mack (the cone shuttles, catch-and-shoots, ball-handling as Brown harasses his moves with padded gloves) before segueing to a highlight series of Mack’s moves and shots.
Seventh Woods, one of America’s top young rising stars, has worked with Brown since age 11. “He helped me with my ball-handling, shooting, a lot of things on the court, but also helped me with a lot of things off the court,” the Hammond School junior said. “He’s like family to me.”
Then there’s Spring Valley High’s P.J. Dozier, USC’s highest-rated recruit in years, whose coach/father Perry Dozier played for the Gamecocks from 1986-88. The elder Dozier says he never entrusted his 6-foot-7 offspring’s development to anyone other than his twin brother (P.J.’s uncle) Terry – until Brown, that is.
“A lot call themselves personal trainers; I question a lot of it,” Perry Dozier said. “But (Brown) is one whose work speaks for itself. ... What Marseilles did is, he took P.J.’s game to more of an aggressive/attack/NBA level.”
And if that was the end of this story, it would be a good one. But Brown, besides being a contributor to the Gamecocks’ future, also contributed to one of the lowest points in their past – one that sent USC basketball into a tailspin from which it is perhaps now, with players such as P.J. Dozier coming on board, starting to recover.
Brown’s life has come full circle since 1998: from high school phenomenon to college castoff, from self-admitted immature kid to self-made businessman, adult and father. For this story, it begins on a March afternoon in Washington, D.C.
SWEET MEMORIES OF BEATING USC
Melvin Watson remembers that day, if not fondly. In 1997-98, USC’s senior point guard, along with junior backcourt mate BJ McKie, had led the Gamecocks to a 23-7 record and second consecutive NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed. Eddie Fogler’s players saw the seeding as bittersweet redemption for the previous season, when the SEC regular-season champions and No. 2 seed suffered one of the worst upsets in NCAA history, losing in the first round to 15-seed Coppin State.
Watson, now the boys coach at Rock Hill’s South Pointe High, says that 1997 experience had taught the Gamecocks not to take any opponent for granted. But perhaps, he muses now, the loss had also left him and his team with a sense of unease at what could happen.
“When you’re ranked (nationally) all year for two years, you kind of get the big head a bit,” he said. “And then you run into a guy who (figuratively) punches you in the mouth, and you can’t recover.” Watson sighed. “I wasn’t as aggressive, a little tentative I was playing not to lose. And he was so confident, came right at me.”
“He,” in this case, was Marseilles Brown, No. 14 seed Richmond’s sophomore point guard. He entered that game at the MCI Center averaging 9.4 points, fourth-best for the Spiders, and a team-best 3.6 assists. For the season, he had hit 46 3-pointers.
Against USC, Brown made five – in five first-half attempts – as Richmond jumped to a 34-29 halftime lead. He finished with those 15 points, plus four assists and a steal. Watson, who guarded Brown and was guarded by him, had six points on eight shots (and 10 assists). The Gamecocks rallied, led 52-48 with 6:51 to play, but gave back the lead and lost, 62-61, when McKie (25 points) missed two close-range shots late.
Sixteen years later, Watson recalls the pregame scouting report on Brown – “solid point guard, could shoot it, good quickness” – and how the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder played much bigger and better that day. “I wasn’t ready I was, but he had a better game,” Watson said. “Once a guy like that gets in a groove, it’s hard to defend” him.
Brown’s game haunted Watson for a while, he said. “Even when I went overseas for tryouts,” he said. “One thing Marseilles had taught me was always to be aggressive, not passive, (to play) the way I’d normally played. That’s one thing I would do differently.”
Brown’s memories are, obviously, sweeter.
“I had seen Watson, BJ the year before. I thought (before the game), ‘We’ve got to play them?’ ” he said. “I respected USC, Melvin, and BJ was the man. They were some of the best I ever played against.
“But I was confident I could play with them.” In the game, “I just remember I was hot,” he said, laughing. “I shot a lot (13 attempts, 12 of them 3s); I had games I’d get hot. I was streaky, not pure. When I hit a couple (early), I got in the zone, and coach (John) Beilein didn’t tell me to stop.”
In fact, said Beilein, now coach at Michigan, entering the game, Brown “was not playing very well. It had to do with his conditioning his habits, actually,” he added, significantly.
But that game, “all of a sudden, he caught fire like earlier in the year. Out of the blue, he was knocking down big 3s.”
The win was a moment Brown hadn’t known since high school, when he averaged 31.14 points as a senior to break the state scoring record of another Virginia Tidewater-area guard of note: Allen Iverson. “After the (USC) game, me and (teammate Jarod Stevenson, who scored 24) were called for interviews,” Brown said. “Before we walked out, Jarod said, ‘This is what it’s all about, big fella.’ ”
All these years later, Brown only can smile ruefully. “I was laughing and joking. My five minutes of fame.”
Indeed. Not long after Richmond’s second-round loss (to Washington State in a blowout), Brown and a teammate were suspended for “repeated violations of team rules.” Brown declines to be specific about his transgression, but his Richmond career was done.
“(Assistant coach) Phil Seymour told me, ‘You might as well leave (school),’ ” Brown said. “My dad talked to the dean, but my scholarship was gone.” Transfer options? “There weren’t a lot of takers,” he said.
One was his hometown school, Hampton University of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Steve Merfeld, now the coach at Creighton, was putting together a MEAC powerhouse of transfers. Brown sat out a semester before joining a squad that, his senior season, “beat teams by 50” en route to a 25-6 conference title and an NCAA No. 15 seed.
Then history repeated itself for Brown. Hampton stunned No. 2 seed Iowa State, Brown finishing with 14 points and five assists. “It was better (than the USC upset),” he said. “I was so angry about being thrown out by Richmond but my anger was misplaced.”
That realization, Beilein said, is an indication of Brown’s growth since. “He burned the candle at both ends (at Richmond),” the coach said. Brown, in fact, has written this on his website: “(Brown) became complacent and more interested in having a social life (he) feels like he under-achieved his entire college career.”
“He was a really fine young man, great support from his family, as good as you get,” Beilein said. “But he made some bad choices; when it happened again, he was gone.”
Brown graduated from Hampton in 2001, then discovered that 5-10 guards were not a hot commodity. He turned down an offer to play professionally in the Netherlands (“$26,000; I wasn’t going over there for that,” he said). Then, he said, “I realized I should’ve worked harder,” he said. “I was like, what do I do? I had no idea.”
He worked first for NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., editing highlight videos, before Turner Broadcasting bought the company and he was laid off. After another TV job in New York ended, he returned home to Hampton, Va., where he volunteer-coached and worked in a telemarketing center. “I bounced from job to job,” he said.
Along the way, he became involved with a former Hampton co-ed and had a son, Mekhi. When they broke up, the mother, a Columbia native, returned home with the baby. “The worst mistake I ever made (was) when I left him,” said Brown, who two years later followed them to the Midlands.
He again went through a series of low-paying jobs, riding buses to work because “my car went out.” He once lived with his ex’s grandparents (Arthur and Flossie Gayton, now deceased) for a time to save money. Sometime during his financial and personal struggles, and after “reading my Bible and meditating,” he says he “had a vision to train young athletes.
“I saw myself training kids, affecting lives (telling them) not to do stupid stuff like I did.”
Then one day in 2009, while searching the Internet for ideas, Brown found someone else doing what he wanted to do. And he made a phone call.
DOING WHAT HE LOVES
As with many 21st-century enterprises, personal training uses social media to find clients. In the case of Florida-based Ganon Baker, YouTube videos were the tools of choice to spread his basketball-skills brand across the U.S. It was such a video that led Marseilles Brown to reach out to Baker, also a Hampton native.
“(Other job approaches) weren’t working. I wasn’t doing what I loved,” Brown said. “I went with my heart.”
Baker sent Brown DVDs to observe, then met him in Orlando and hired him to work a basketball camp. Brown brought what he learned back to Columbia, and settled on Bibleway’s A.C. Jackson Center as his “home court” for training. “Rev. (Darrell) Jackson let me come in and build this thing,” Brown said. “And (A.C. Jackson supervisor) Antoine Jackson saved me, he’s like my brother.”
With sponsorship connections with Nike and some family help – older brothers Milan and Morocco are the basketball coach at The College of Holy Cross and a vice president with the Cleveland Browns, respectively – Brown built a brand, traveling to work the Olympic team from the British Virgin Islands at one point. But after two years working for (and sending a percentage of profits to) Baker, “I wasn’t making enough money to make ends meet,” Brown said.
Three years ago, he began Hoops and Life, obtained a business license and slowly began building a client base – “I did it for free to start” – mostly by word of mouth. That’s how he wound up with Seventh Woods, perhaps his most acclaimed pupil.
Louis Woods and wife Monica had heard about Brown from other parents whose youngsters had trained with Brown. “And I knew about his connection with Ganon Baker,” the elder Woods said. “We told him, ‘We’ll let you train Seventh, see how you handle him.’ After a couple of weeks, we liked what we saw and have stayed with him since.”
Seventh Woods has been rated a once-a-generation talent since he first touched a basketball, but Louis Woods says he liked that Brown wasn’t content to ride that talent. “He was detail-oriented; if a foot or the body was turned wrong, he’d stop (Seventh) in the middle of a drill and say, ‘Let me correct that now.’ ”
Woods says Brown also kept Seventh motivated, not always easy with the gifted. “He keeps everyone going 100 percent, and Seventh picked up on that,” his father said. “He also took his ball-handling to another level.”
Hammond coach Mark McClam can attest to that. He met Brown when his top player was an eighth-grader and considers him a friend (Brown also uses Hammond’s gym for training). “I invited him to work at my camps, and I’ve sent lots of Hammond kids to work with him,” said McClam, a former College of Charleston point guard who learned under another famed teacher, John Kresse.
“He’s a good Christian fellow and has a nice relationship with the kids,” McClam said. “He adjusts his drills to their skill levels, but he still pushes them to improve. They know they’re there to get better.”
Seventh Woods sees that, too. “He pushed me to be as good as I could be, and nobody else pushed me, so that helped a lot,” he said. “He just threw away all the hype, treated me as a regular player.”
The Doziers came on board about five years ago for the same reasons. “No. 1, he could do everything he was telling the kids to do,” Perry Dozier said. “Second, the enthusiasm he had, and the heart and desire to make kids better. He makes these kids believe in what they’re doing.”
For P.J. Dozier, mental toughness might outweigh skills – that and Brown instills that toughness without being a martinet. “The main thing (is) the mental aspects – giving your all, 110 percent of the time – he lets you know it pays off in the long run,” P.J. said. “(But) he’s not a guy to yell at you to the point that it’s not motivation. He drives you to do better.”
There’s also a sort of “sensei” relationship to Brown’s approach. Pupils are taught to eventually surpass the teacher. Both Woods and the Doziers say perhaps their most significant milestones came when Brown decided to no longer take on each of them one-on-one.
“He always likes to challenge his better players,” Perry Dozier said, chuckling, “but he refuses to play P.J. anymore, because P.J. got bigger (6-foot-7) and better. It’s the same with Seventh Woods.”
The reserved Woods flashed a rare smile when the topic was raised. “I beat him for the first time last year,” he said. “But we still played sometimes after that.”
Jack Wilson, in all likelihood, will never know that day. A 5-foot-8, church league player who failed to make teams at Crayton Middle School and Flora, he has had one session with Brown – individual workouts run $100 per hour, comparable to what a golf pro would charge for a one-on-one lesson; group rates are less – but his mother says it was memorable.
“Afterward, Jack had his shirt off, sweating, red-faced, breathing hard,” Karen Wilson said. “I asked what he thought, and he said, ‘That was great, Mom!’
“He gave Jack six drills to go home and work on, told him to perfect those skills. I liked that he puts responsibility on the child; if he’s not willing to do the drills, no point in coming back. He knows what he’s got to do if he wants it to work.”
Soon afterward, Karen Wilson said, Jack played in a church league game and hit a big shot. “He told me, ‘Mom, that was coach Brown.’ ”
Father and family
Where does Marseilles Brown go next? McClam – who says his friend deals with back-pain issues now – wonders when Brown’s on-court fireworks will be filed away under “remember when?”
“He’s feeling the effects of playing vs. younger kids,” McClam said. But even so, Brown’s brain, and character, will fill in the gaps. “I’ve watched him work out with Seventh and other kids, and I’ve learned some new tricks” in coaching, the coach said.
The Doziers remain friends with Brown, but it’s the Woods family that considers him part of the household. “He calls and checks on Seventh, talks to him, makes sure he keeps on the right track,” Louis Woods said. “He’s like his big brother.
“At Thanksgiving, we knew he didn’t have any family (in South Carolina), so we took him some turkey. He could’ve come to the house, too. We love him a lot.”
The family that matters most to Brown – his son – is closer to him than ever. Though he lives with his mother, “she’s good with letting me see him,” Brown said. No surprise, Mekli also is learning basketball skills from his father. Watch him a while, and you know this is not your typical 9-year-old.
That’s Brown’s mission, he said – with his son, with all his players (including girls; he has worked with former USC player Ashley Bruner and former Lower Richland High product Morgan Stroman, both now professionals, and tutors Kameron Roach, a Lower Richland sophomore). He has skills to impart – and life lessons, too.
“I want to help kids not make the same mistakes I did,” he said after his workout with Brice Cohen – who, his mother later said via email, recently brought home a report card with seven A’s and two B’s. “I want to make them better basketball players, have them work at it tirelessly. But I also try to tell them about relationships, a spiritual life.” His session with Cohen began with a short prayer.
Beilein, who once booted Brown off his team, now talks about his “great, purposeful life. He had peaks and valleys in college, but he’s turned those around,” the coach said. “You talk with those he’s worked with, they tell you how he’s told them everything” about his past failings.
“He’s a great person,” Seventh Woods said. As for his ability as a basketball instructor, well, the proof is in the product.
Marseilles Brown might want to add “architect of dreams” to his business card. After all, he’s already fulfilled one for himself.