How a Poor Kid From Texas Courted Stardom in Japan

Why you should care

Because this African-American forward could be dunking all over the 2020 Olympics … for the home team.

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Ira Brown is used to sticking out. It could be for his high-impact, up-tempo game on the basketball court. Or as a homeless Black kid raised by white adoptive parents in the Houston suburbs. Or, most certainly now, as an undersize power forward on Japan’s national basketball team. But in the past seven years, the naturalized Japanese citizen has become a basketball institution in his adopted home.

As host, Japan is expected to receive an automatic berth in the 2020 Olympic basketball tournament. And with the eyes of the world on Tokyo for the next Summer Games, one of that country’s most popular — and least likely — basketball stars could find himself in the global sports spotlight. “It’s a blessing, the fact that it’s even here in Japan,” says Brown, 35. “I’ve been trying to get as much use out of this old body as I can so that I can play.”

Wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. We were bottom feeders.

Ira Brown

Brown recently led his current club, the Okinawa-based Ryukyu Golden Kings, to the conference final of the Basketball Japan League. He came to Ryukyu after three seasons apiece with the Toyama Grouses and the Shibuya Sunrockers. He’s also been a mentor on the Japanese national team since his naturalization, a two-year process that required he learn Japanese.

It’s all a world away from Corsicana, Texas.

“Wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” he says. “We were bottom feeders.” Brown describes a three-bedroom childhood home with seven or eight adults and 14 to 15 children, where running water and electricity were not a given. Brown’s family was involved with drugs and gangs, he says, and his life splintered when a homemade bomb destroyed the house. The firebombing came courtesy of a rival family in the neighborhood and the incident was never investigated by local police, Brown says.

Though no one was killed in the attack, all of Brown’s family’s possessions were lost. Brown went to live with his grandmother; after her death, he effectively wandered from couch to couch. That’s when an old baseball coach provided Brown with his first sense of stability.

Earl Mitchell had been coaching Brown since he was 7, taking him to and from games and occasionally inviting him to church. Without a stable home, Brown went to live with Mitchell at age 14, joining his wife, Susan, and their three children near Houston. Former Christian missionaries, the Mitchells, who are white, legally adopted Brown when he was 18. Brown found his path, and a family who went to great lengths to defend him.

Ken West, Brown’s basketball coach at Willis High School, recalls a game against “a tough, rough team” from the inner city. A powerful Brown dunk turned into a scuffle. All of a sudden, a spectator sprinted across the court. It was Earl Mitchell. “He grabs Ira and hauls him off the court before anything can happen,” West says. “The coaches and the athletic director from the school we are playing sort of look at me. And I said, ‘It’s OK; it’s his dad.’ It was priceless.”

Brown was a tenacious worker who drew the unenviable assignment in one high school game of guarding Kendrick Perkins —a future NBA champion who had 6 inches and at least 35 pounds on him. Brown held his own, but fouled out of the game.

His future appeared to be on the baseball diamond, where Brown was a fireballing pitcher. He was drafted in the eighth round by the Kansas City Royals out of high school in 2001. Dipping into his $92,500 signing bonus, Brown tried to make things right with his biological parents. He offered to help them leave their underserved surroundings and get into drug rehab. Brown’s mother, Brenda McDade (née Brown), refused the offer. She died five years ago. His father, Ira McDade, accepted and stayed clean and sober for eight months before relapsing. Today, Brown and his biological father talk almost daily. “He’s more like a best friend, honestly,” Brown says. “He took that opportunity. It showed me how he did want better. My mom, she did not care to have better.”

After five years of pro baseball and no real progress toward the majors, Brown returned to basketball, enrolling at Phoenix College before earning a scholarship at Gonzaga University. He never became a star for the mid-major powerhouse Zags, but he rediscovered his feisty game — leading to a well-traveled pro career. After going undrafted by NBA teams, the 6-foot-4 Brown played in Mexico, Argentina and the Philippines before landing in Japan, where he met his wife, Ayaka, and became one of the country’s most popular basketball stars.

“He’s got respect from his peers, his Japanese teammates, the fans really like him,” says Ed Odeven, a sports writer for the Japan Times. “He’s a friendly guy. He’s humble. He signs autographs. He smiles.” That Brown is beloved in Okinawa is remarkable considering its complicated relationship with the U.S., from a World War II occupation to the unpopular current-day presence of about 26,000 American troops in the area.

Still, you won’t find sprawling billboards bearing Brown’s likeness or television ads in which he peddles product. At the league’s All-Star Game in January, Brown collected 14 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, numbers that easily could have earned him game MVP honors. When fans in Kumamoto instead voted hometown star Shintaro Kobayashi the game’s top player, Brown was one of the first people to congratulate him on the court. On the national team, Brown has blossomed into a starter and important cog. But he’s still in the hoops hinterlands: Japan lost its first four games in qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and is ranked No. 48 in the world.

Yet Brown comes off as a man completely at ease with his life. He plans to compete well into his 40s, meaning he’s ready to flash his infectious smile on the Olympic stage. “To be able to represent my country would be a dream come true,” Brown says of a home that hardly feels adopted anymore.

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