In early November, during a game against the Bulls at Chicago's United Center, Heat forward P.J. Brown stood by himself at half-court while a teammate shot free throws. He must have cherished the solitude of the moment. In July, Brown—a relative unknown who had averaged just 8.4 points per game in three seasons with the Nets—had signed one of the year's most lucrative free-agent contracts, seven years at $36 million, and had then spent the next several months deflecting criticism from fans, the media, sourpuss NBA veterans and even his wife, Dee, a former collegiate player whom Brown had met while the two were at Louisiana Tech. "She took one look at the Heat's roster and said, 'Where are you going to fit in?' " Brown recalls.
But that night against the Bulls, as he leaned over at center court, he felt a player bump him gently from the side. "Hey," said Michael Jordan. "Congratulations on your contract."
"At the time a lot of people were saying, 'Who the hell is P.J. Brown, and how can he be worth this kind of money?' " Brown says. "But then the best player in basketball—who for a long time was also one of the game's most underpaid—was standing next to me, congratulating me on my deal. That straightened everything out for me pretty quick right there."
Brown offered Jordan a quiet thanks, then realized that players were running past him. "I got so caught up in what he'd said that I forgot about guarding him," he says. "I had to get back on defense."
Which is where he proved himself. In Miami, the 6'11", 240-pound Brown has come to be regarded as one of the league's most tenacious defenders and best role players. After beginning the season as the Heat's sixth man, he worked his way into the starting lineup and finished second on the team in rebounds (8.4 per game), blocks (1.23) and steals (1.06) while averaging 9.5 points.
"Playing for Pat Riley is like a match made in heaven," says Brown, 27. "With him, defense is first and scoring is second. He sees beyond stats. I guess if you know basketball and what the game's all about, then you love me. If not, then you just scratch your head and go, '$36 million?' "
Riley, who laid down Brown's role during a two-hour lunch with his new forward the day Brown arrived in Miami, pushed him for the NBA's All-Defensive Team this year, even encouraging the team's beat writers to vote for Brown—forgetting that the ballots for defensive-team honors go only to coaches. "There is not a better defensive power forward in the league night in and night out," says Riley, who as the team president scoffed at the numerous trade offers he fielded for Brown before the trading deadline in February. "A guy like that is one of the most valuable players to any team in the league. He does the little things that win games, and he does them selflessly."
Brown's intensity lends weight to his every play—every defensive stop, rebound or block seems to turn up the Heat. And so, more than guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning, Brown has come to embody Miami's transformation from NBA weakling to the team kicking sand in the faces of lesser clubs.
Brown fueled the Heat's eight-game winning streak in March, which helped lock up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He had 19 points and 15 rebounds in a 108-93 win at Milwaukee on March 11 to start the run. His career-high six blocks against Vancouver three nights later helped keep it going. He had three baskets in overtime as the Heat edged Golden State 93-91 on March 19. Then, after missing two games for the birth of his second daughter, Kalani Chanel, Brown returned on March 26 and, after taking an elbow in the lip and getting two stitches, provided the fourth quarter tip-in that snuffed out a rally by Sacramento and gave Miami its seventh straight win.
Though off the court he's one of the league's most mild-mannered players, Brown doesn't back down on it. He was ejected from a game in early April after scuffling with Nets forward Xavier McDaniel, and he also was in the middle of a melee between the Heat and the Knicks during their game on April 12. Brown didn't let up even in the final game of the season, with nothing on the line but pride. In Orlando last Saturday, he suffered a cut on his pinky finger that required stitches, but he was expected to be ready to go for the playoffs.