[In the late 1960s, David Brent seemed to have it made. He was a legitimate 7-foot high schooler, ran like the wind, scored at will with a sweet turnaround jumper, and all the colleges wanted his services. Brent signed with Jacksonville University, following in the immediate footsteps of the great Artis Gilmore. “He was an unbelievable athlete and basketball player,” a Jacksonville coach remembered of Brent. “As tall as he was, he could handle the ball like Magic Johnson.”
But early in his debut sophomore year, Brent was kicked in the leg. A bone snapped, and Brent sat out most of the season. He returned for Jacksonville’s third-place showing in the National Invitation Tournament in New York. That’s when Brent, young and naïve, made a big mistake.
“I’m going to sign with the ABA,” Brent whispered to a teammate in the locker room after Jacksonville was eliminated.
“Yeah, man, I’m going to sign. They’re giving me a [Lincoln Continental] Mark IV.”
Dave Dorr, a fantastic reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, documents what happened next—and why today you’ve probably never heard of David Brent. Dorr, later inducted into the writers’ wing of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, filed a two-part story chronicling Brent’s saga and the dark side of 1970s college and pro basketball. The series ran in March 1974, and I’ve transcribed both installments. As an added bonus, I’ve also included Dorr’s February 1991 follow-up profile of Brent, then about to hit age 40. This story adds several important details not mentioned in the two-part series.]
The David Brent story begins in a shabby apartment a few blocks from Sumner High School on Cote Brilliante Avenue, St. Louis. Brent would sit on the front steps and dream. He dreamed of hook shots, of sleek sports cars, of closets filled with clothes, of wide-eyed boys lining up for his autograph. One day, he would make it big. He would be somebody. He would flow, and it would be “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Today, Brent sits on the steps of an apartment on Laclede Street in Jacksonville, Fla. He’s not playing basketball now, but he waits and hopes and dreams. He is disillusioned, confused, bitter.
Brent was not the first St. Louisan to sign a professional basketball contract. It is doubtful, though, that any other St. Louis athlete ever encountered the incredulous twists and turns that the David Brent story has taken.
His story is a web of accusations and denials, of inflated contract figures, of surreptitious maneuvering among rival player agents, of frustrations and tears, of trust and mistrust. In a period of six months, Brent went from No. 1 draft choice luxuriating in stardom to the ranks of the unemployed, his dream world shattered.
And so today he waits. And he hopes.
Brent played on Sumner High’s Missouri Class L championship basketball team as a junior in 1969. As a senior, he was a high school All-America. The only 7-footer ever to play in the Public High League, he became the prize in a recruiting tug-of-war between St. Louis University and Jacksonville University that ended with the Billikens as losers, and bad feelings on both sides.
In the 1970 freshman-varsity game at Jacksonville, Brent outscored 7-foot-2 All-America Artis Gilmore, 45 points to 21, and matched him in rebounds with 23. “David could become the best to ever play basketball,” said Gilmore.
Brent went on to lead the freshman team in scoring (25.8 average), rebounding (20.5), and field-goal percentage (.571). He blocked 11 shots a game and was named the outstanding freshman in the South.
Misfortune struck early last season, when he was a sophomore. He suffered a broken right leg in the second game. He returned late in the season and helped the Dolphins finish third in the National Invitation Tournament. Brent applied for the American Basketball Association hardship draft and was selected in the first round by the Memphis Pros.
After the NIT in March, he signed with the Pros for what he thought was a five-year, no-cut, $1.1 million contract guaranteed by the ABA. It wasn’t. In August, after Charlie Finley bought the financially shaky Pros and changed their name to Tams, Brent was traded to the Carolina Cougars for Wendell Ladner.
Brent reported for the first morning of the Cougars’ preseason training camp on Labor Day in an Appalachian retreat near Boone, N.C., but left suddenly at the end of the day after a mysterious phone call—and dropped out of sight. Carolina placed him on the suspended list.
So, he hasn’t played one minute of professional basketball.
What happened? Was Brent used by some who saw him as a pawn in a get-rich-quick scheme? Was he a victim of what Tom Meschery, former pro basketball player and coach, calls “the big money disease that is ruining sports today”? Or was Brent to blame? Did he fail to take enough legal precautions to protect himself?
Brent has been represented by three player agents. The first was Herb Rudoy, a Chicago attorney who said he had spoken to several teams about Brent and was in the process of working out a deal after the NIT when Brent bolted him and switched to Clifford Paul, president of National Sports Inc. of Houston. Paul negotiated Brent’s contract with Memphis.
Shortly after Brent was traded, he was flying back to North Carolina from Buffalo, N.Y., where he had played against the touring United States Olympic team with some Cougar rookies. Ladner was on the plane, and Brent told him of his disappointment with his contract. Ladner suggested that Brent contact Tom Meehan, an agent in Fresno, Calif. Brent did, and now Meehan his handling him and backing him financially.
At issue is Brent’s contract. Was Brent burned because of his lack of business knowledge? There was no one in Brent’s family tree whom he could lean on for guidance. Paul insists that Brent understood the contract was not a no-cut. Brent disagrees.
“It (the contract) was a flat zero,” says Brent. “It wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I could make more money digging ditches than that contract was worth. They told me a pack of lies.”
When he signed, Brent received $10,000 in cash and a 1972 black Lincoln Continental Mark IV with a gold nameplate on the driver’s door. Who was to get an additional $10,000 in October.
Through Paul, Brent borrowed $10,000 from a Houston bank, which he used in part to make a down payment on an expensive home for his grandparents, his mother, and two younger sisters, and a brother, on Brenthaven Lane in Florissant. (“Notice the name on the street?” David says, proudly.) Paul said his firm has since paid the bank loan.
Brent bought a $1,000 diamond ring with the initials “DB.” sent his mother and grandmother $1,000 each for Easter, and turned over to his grandfather his orange Pontiac GTO with “The Judge” painted on the side.
“My family came first,” said Brent. “I had to get them out of the ghetto, so they could live like human beings. Nobody will ever know the good feeling I had down inside when I bought that house for them.”
Brent was to soon find out he was not the instant millionaire he thought he was. His contract was based, for the most part, on deferred bonus payments and contingencies. Said Bob Bass, the Memphis coach who traded Brent: “Every time I see Dave quoted as saying his contract was a no-cut, I’ve got to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Who’s he trying to fool?’ On the bottom of his contract, it clearly stated that it was NOT a no-cut. It was the first contract I’ve ever seen written in big letters like that.”
However, a copy of the contract obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows no such wording. The contract reads: “If the club terminates this contract under the provisions hereof . . .” Clearly, the word “terminates” gave the club legal rights to trade Brent.
Here is what the contract called for:
–$10,000 bonus to be paid at signing.
–Automobile of player’s choice, not to exceed $8,400 in value.
–$10,000 to be paid to player in October.
–Salary of $40,000 the first season, $50,000 the second, $60,000 the third, $75,000 the fourth, and $100,000 the fifth.
–$225,000 bonus to be paid over a period of 23 years, starting at age 40.
That adds up to $578,400. The contract also included this very “iffy” stipulation:
–$25,000 for each year he led the league in rebounding, $25,000 each year he led the league in scoring, $10,000 if he was named to the league All-Rookie team, $10,000 each year in the four years of the contract that he was named to the ABA All-Star team.
At most then, Brent’s so-called $1.1 million contract was worth $878,400—and he wouldn’t collect the last dollar until age 63.
In addition, the Post-Dispatch obtained copies of two promissory notes that Brent signed with National Sports Inc.—one for $30,000 at 8 percent interest and another for $57,000. Paul said the notes covered contract and negotiation service fees, but he would not discuss the details. Brent said he did not receive any money based on the promissory notes.
Paul also said he advanced David $2,000 in cash following the NIT. “I was satisfied with the contract,” said Paul. “We did everything we could to help David. But we have lost a lot of money in this. We haven’t collected a penny from him. Ask him if we have put any pressure on him to repay the promissory notes. We have not.
“We’re going on with business as usual and not bothering with the David Brent situation right now. We don’t know if he’s going to play. He seems to be a mixed-up young man. I hope he can get himself together and go on and become a great star. I have no animosity toward the young man. We wish the best for him.”
Brent’s original agent, Rudoy, said he had a National Basketball Association team that was willing to give Brent a $1 million, five-year, no-cut contract with a $100,000 salary the first season. “They bought him for $2,000 (the money advanced by Paul),” said Rudoy. “For 2,000 lousy bucks he cost himself $998,000. It’s as simple as that. His contract was a phony. It was the sorriest, saddest thing I’ve ever seen. This kid is wiped out, and I blame Cliff Paul and Bob Vanatta.”
Vanatta, former University of Missouri basketball coach, was general manager of the Pros and was instrumental in drafting Brent. When Finley bought the team, Vanatta quit and now is head coach at Delta State College in Cleveland, Miss. “I got back to Memphis from the NIT on a Sunday,” said Vanatta, “and Paul introduced himself to me as Brent’s agent. We went to work immediately on the contract. Cliff then went back to Houston, where he had Dave. Along about 9:30 Monday night, when it looked like we were going to get together on the contract, I suggested he get Dave up there (to Memphis). So, they got on a plane and flew to Memphis.
“When they came into the room, it was about midnight. They went over the contract, the two of them. The club lawyer and I were in the room, but we went off to one side so they could have some privacy. We were drinking coffee and not listening to the conversation. So, what transpired between Paul and Brent, I have no way of knowing. It looked to us as though they were going over the contract, item by item.
“After an hour or two or something like that, they said, ‘We’re ready to sign.’ I remember it was 2:30 Tuesday morning. We did not ever tell Brent it was a no-cut contract because it wasn’t our place to do so.
“Brent’s agent never asked for a no-cut. I was really surprised. I knew Brent had ability. He wasn’t just any 7-foot kid. If his agent had asked for a no-cut, I know dang well he would have gotten one. I would personally have recommended it to our lawyer that night. We could have put that right in the contract. But it was not asked for.”
Said Rudoy: “I called the ABA commissioner and told him I was representing David. I called Vanatta to tell him, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know where he is.’ But I ran Brent down at a Holiday Inn in Memphis. A chick answered the phone and, when I asked to talk to David, she put Paul on the phone. He cursed me out up and down. It was an incredibly ugly situation.”
Carl Scheer, president of the Carolina Cougars, said he made the trade with the Tams for Brent on the condition that the courts would uphold the validity of the contract. “This David Brent thing is most unusual and pathetic,” said Scheer. “I had a feeling there were going to be problems with his contract, more from feel than anything else. We had communicated with David, and we were hopeful that he would be an important part of the Cougars for 1972-73.
“At 5:30 the night of our opening day of training camp, I got a call from Coach (Larry) Brown telling me Brent had walked out. I was to learn later from his roommate that he got a long-distance call from somebody. He called his attorney (Meehan) who told him his contract was not quite right and that he ought to leave. After that, we were never able to get any satisfactory answer as to what his complaint was.
“I’m still interested in Brent. I was very excited about the prospects of a young 7-footer who could run and jump and play like he could. To be honest, I’m a little concerned about his motivation, whether he really wants to play. He says he does.
“We missed him. We felt he could have helped us. But we had a job to do, and we’ve done it. Our club is going very well without him.
“I only feel sorry for him. I think this is a classic example of a kid being misguided and misdirected. I don’t place all the blame on the people who represented him. Some of the blame must rest squarely on his shoulders. Still, it’s an unbelievable case of a kid with talent and the ability to earn a living being unable to do so. But the world turns on. There has to be a line taken somewhere, and I have taken mine.”
–DAVID BRENT: PART TWO (Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two days later on March 19, 1973. Dave Dorr has the byline.]
“David Brent has messed up his whole life. He’s out of basketball, he’s out of college, and he’s out on the street.”
–Mel Daniels, Indiana Pacers
David Brent was represented only by Clifford Paul, an agent from Houston, when he signed what he thought was a five-year, $1.1 million, no-cut contract last March with Memphis of the American Basketball Association. He had no other legal adviser.
“I relied on Paul completely,” said Brent, “because he had handled some name football players. Paul told me, ‘It’s no-cut Dave. You won’t have anything to worry about. It’s guaranteed by the league.’ He not only had me fooled, he had a lot of people fooled.
“I looked at the contract, but I couldn’t understand it completely. When I was traded (in August) to Carolina, Carl Scheer (president of the Cougars) told me, ‘I’m sorry, Dave. Your contract is not a no-cut.’ I walked out of their camp because I thought I had more to lose by playing under a contract like that than I had to gain. It was really messed up. I must be the only first-round draft choice ever to get stuck with a contract like that.
“I didn’t want to start anything with Carolina. I tried to explain this to Mr. Scheer. I talked to him after I left camp. I told him I had to have something guaranteed because I bought my family in St. Louis a new home.
“I had centered my life around $1.1 million and, in reality, I didn’t have a dime. I never thought I would sit out a whole year like this. I hope this never happens to any other young athlete. You read about things like this happening, but you never dream they could happen to you.”
Brent, the 7-footer from Sumner High School, who withdrew from Jacksonville University last March after playing in the National Invitation Tournament, has not played a minute as a pro. After he walked out of the Carolina training camp on Labor Day, he was suspended by the Cougars, who still own the rights to him.
What’s ahead for Brent? He since has dumped Paul and now is being represented by Tom Meehan, an agent who operates the Matrix Capital Management Corp. in Fresno, Calif. Brent has not been employed since leaving the Cougars’ camp. He works out daily at a YMCA in Jacksonville, lifting weights and shooting baskets.
“I’ve told David,” said Meehan, “that I would pay the bills and let’s wait until next month’s National Basketball Association hardship draft (April 16) and see what happens. So that’s where we stand now.
“The (Los Angeles) Lakers are very interested in him, and so are a couple of other teams. If he is drafted by the NBA, we feel we can break his contract because he was 19 when he signed, a minor and a resident of Missouri. Whether he goes to the NBA or stays in the ABA, something can be worked out. I’m confident of that.
“His reputation is still built on that great night against Artis Gilmore (Brent outscored Gilmore, a 7-foot-2 All-America, by 45 points to 21 in the Jacksonville freshmen-varsity game in the 1970-71 season). If he could get with a team like the Lakers that has a good center, such as Wilt Chamberlain, who could work out with him, he could be a regular in two years.
“At times, I look at David and say to myself, ‘How did you ever get involved in this?’ I’ve loaned him about $10,000, and I’m making the $275-a-month payments on the house he got his family. But the next day, I look at him and think there’s just no way I can throw him to the wolves. I feel sorry for him.
“I’ve had him here at my house (Fresno) for a couple of weeks at a time, and I think he’s a genuinely nice guy. Some of the ballplayers out here tell me he’s just conning me, that he doesn’t want to work. I’ve told him, ‘Look Dave, you’ve got talent and you’ve got a real future if you’re willing to work for it. If not, I don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do.’”
“Like one guy said, he could wind up being the tallest shoeshine boy in Florida. Brent says, ‘Tom, it’s hard for me to work out because I’ve got all these things on my mind.’ I tell him, ‘David, for God’s sake, forget what’s on your mind and get in shape.’
“What David needs to do is learn how to handle money. He signs things and doesn’t even know what they are. When he was out here, he would call his girlfriend in Jacksonville twice a day at $25 a crack.”
Did Brent foolishly hurry into pro basketball’s gold rush? Mel Daniels, Indiana Pacers center, advises underclassmen to take their time. Brent was a sophomore when he signed.
“I can’t believe David Brent did not sign a no-cut contract,” said Daniels. “If you are going to throw away your education, you’ve got to sign a no-cut. I feel really sorry for Brent. He’s made it awfully tough on himself.”
Tom Meschery, a pro basketball player for 10 seasons and a coach for one (with Carolina) last summer left the game he says he loves to study poetry in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. “There is a sickness,” said Meschery. “It is in basketball and it is in sports in general. There is disease anywhere when cheating and deceit are ignored. Big money, big sports, big anything makes me nervous. The influx of big money in sports has become a sickness. Contracts mean nothing, not between owner or player or owner or fan. College recruiting is hypocritical.”
Meschery has no use for the player agent. “He is a prostitute . . . the pimple on the face of the earth,” said Meschery. “Agents pay off college coaches, then negotiate for the coach’s seniors, after they have been properly introduced through the coach, of course.
“Agents lend kids money or give them clothes, even cars, in return for the exclusive rights to negotiate their contracts. Then they charge 15 percent, at least, for their services. They talk kids into giving them the power of attorney. The list of abuses goes on and on . . .”
The scramble among colleges to get Brent’s name on a letter-of-intent began after his junior season at Sumner. In the summer of 1969, Bradley University signed him—only to lose him later—to a Missouri Valley Conference letter. At the time, the MVC had no rule about when that letter could be signed. Now, MVC letters cannot be signed before December 1 of the year preceding the athlete’s enrollment.
Bradley coach Joe Stowell discussed the recruiting situation and how his school lost Brent. Stowell said: “Take schools like Jacksonville and Houston. They used to call [black kids disparaging names] and now they’re recruiting them—and illegally, too. You go to recruit now with a loaf of bread under each arm.
“When we signed Brent, his mother signed the letter-of-intent on the wrong line. We went back to get it signed over, and his high school coach (John Algee) wouldn’t let us see the kid. Later, we find out that St. Louis University has signed him.
“Well, it comes the day for signing the national letter-of-intent, and the recruiter from Jacksonville (Art Tolis) calls me at 6 in the morning and asks me what Brent’s status is. I tell him he’s signed with St. Louis. The guy says he’s going to really blow the whistle on St. Louis if Brent doesn’t come to Jacksonville. The next thing I know, Brent is going to Jacksonville.”
Did Algee block Stowell from talking to Brent?
“No,” said Algee, who still is coach at Sumner. “What he says is not true. I didn’t appreciate any school rounding up that kid when he was a junior. I called the Missouri Valley commissioner (DeWitt Weaver), and he came to Sumner to talk about it. Bradley blew it, that’s all.”
What Algee meant was that Bradley had signed Brent in August, but had waited too long in turning in the letter to the MVC office. In October 1969, Weaver wrote to Bradley athletic director Chuck Orsborn and said, “I have no choice, because of the delay, but to declare the letter null and void.”
The threat by Jacksonville’s Tolis to “blow the whistle on St. Louis” was probably a bluff. He had just been hired as an assistant at Jacksonville. It was his first job on a major college level, and he was feeling his way in the intriguing business of recruiting.
St. Louis U. was guilty of nothing more than trying to protect its interest in a local athlete. Billiken coach Bob Polk and his assistants, Bill Bibb and Randy Albrecht, had worked hard to sign Brent to an MVC letter in February 1970. Bibb now is an assistant at Utah State.
Brent returned to St. Louis from a recruiting visit to Jacksonville on a Sunday. The first day the national letter could be signed was on Wednesday. From the time Brent got back, the last-minute efforts of the Billikens and Jacksonville to woo and win him read like something from Shaft’s Big Score. This is the way it went:
Sunday Night—Polk gets a call from a Jacksonville newspaperman, who said that Brent would sign with the Dolphins.
Monday—In the morning, Bibb and Albrecht drove to the apartment on Cote Brilliante Avenue where David lived with his grandparents. They told him Polk would like to see him at St. Louis U. in the afternoon. David nodded, got it into his car, and left for Sumner. He drove around the block and, instead of going to school, headed for his girlfriend’s house. He failed to show up for the meeting with Polk.
Tuesday—Tolis arrives in town. Polk, Bibb, and Albrecht drive to Brent’s apartment. As they are pulling up, Brent, Tolis, and Brent’s sister are leaving in the Jacksonville recruiter’s rented car. Brent is at the wheel. The St. Louis U. coaches stop them. Brent tells Polk he prefers Jacksonville. Bibb and Tolis exchanged pleasantries. The subject is not weather.
Wednesday—At 7:45 a.m., Bibb and Polk park in front of Brent’s apartment. Moments later, Tolis drives up. The three go to the front door and knock, waking Brent’s grandparents. Brent’s grandfather goes across the street to get David’s father. As his father is walking in the front door, David sees him and runs out the back door and disappears down an alley. Polk and Tolis each talk with the family and leave. Algee arrives and exchanges heated words with Tolis.
At noon, Tolis called the Post-Dispatch to announce that he was at the home of Brent’s girlfriend and that David was there and had signed the national letter. Brent’s mother signed the letter as the consenting parent or guardian.
“There were some people in Jacksonville,” said Paul, the Houston agent who arranged Brent’s ABA contract, “who asked me to help David. He had got himself involved with a hardcore ghetto element there and owed them some money. They were talkin’ pretty rough. I paid his debt. David went through five cars in the year and a half he was at Jacksonville. I understand he bought one, kept it two weeks, and traded it in for another.”
Said Algee: “The only sin David committed was coming out of poverty as he did to try and reach the top too fast.”
Brent recently sold his black Lincoln Continental Mark IV that he was given for signing his ABA contract. He now has a 1973 gold and yellow Mark IV.
He has ordered license plates that spell out B-R-E-N-T. Swinging from the rearview mirror is a medallion inscribed “Peace” on both sides. That is ironic, perhaps, for David Brent has no peace of mind. Instead, he sits and waits. He hopes. He dreams.
[David Brent was briefly back in the news in May 1975 when he sued the ABA in US District Court for damages. Brent alleged that his disputed “no-cut” ABA contract called for payments in cash and good totaling $575,000, plus interest and court costs. He wanted the money.
In October 1975, Judge John K. Regan dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. “It is obvious,” Judge Regan wrote, “that plaintiff’s claim did not arise from any business defendant may have had in Missouri.”
With that $575,000 disappointment, Brent tried to get on with his life. Dave Dorr caught up with Brent in 1991 to hear how he was doing. Here’s what Dorr found in a story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 1, 1991.]
David Brent’s long legs easily carried him up the church steps. He tried the front door. It was locked. Stretching himself to full length, he could reach above the door and tap on a small window.
Tap, tap. Nothing. He walked around a corner of the building to an entry cove, ducking to protect his head as he descended two short flights of steps. Knocking loudly on the door, he waited. Soon, a muffled voice asked: “Who is it?”
“Brother Brent,” he answered. The door was unlatched by a custodian, and Brent stepped inside. He climbed more steps and, again, ducked as he entered the sanctuary. Doorways are never high enough for Brent, who is 7-feet tall. The afternoon sun streamed through stained-glass windows in the sanctuary and highlighted a large yellow ribbon on the altar honoring American troops in the Middle East.
Brent walked past the ribbon and stood in front of the door to the study of the Rev. S.E. Shannon, pastor of the Church of the Living God. Tap, tap. Shannon’s door, too, was locked. “One minute,” said a voice. The door swung open, and Brent and Shannon greeted each other warmly.
Brent says his life is anchored in the church these days. He’ll be 40 in July, and basketball is no longer very important to him. But at a lean 235 pounds, he looks as if he still could hit a turnaround jumper—his trademark—and rebound and block shots with the virtuosity that in 1969 and 1970 made him the talk of the St. Louis area and, later, college basketball in the two seasons he was at Jacksonville University.
But his burning determination to achieve financial stability for himself and his family through basketball drifted far from reach 19 years ago. Basketball slam-dunked him. He lost everything he hoped for not long after he left Jacksonville early to play professionally. Now, he doesn’t care about playing basketball. He jogs and lifts weights. He has been unemployed for 13 months. Brent sighed and said: “The big four-oh.”
If Brent is bitter that a 1972 contract with Memphis of the old American Basketball Association—one he believed to be for five years, $1.1 million and containing a no-cut provision—was not that at all, it doesn’t show. There’s a side to Brent that hasn’t changed—a softness, a sensitivity. He seems to have an endless reservoir of patience.
Sadly, the naive trust he placed in the hands of advisors was not returned. Brent was 19 in 1972, and his world then was as small as a basketball and simple: the Jacksonville beaches, a bottle of wine, a coed on his arm, and basketball. “My happiest moments were in Jacksonville,” Brent said.
What did he know about the cutthroat practices of the ABA? In Brent’s homespun world, basketball was a game. It had a charm. It offered money, the likes of which he never had imagined. He ended up a pawn in a struggle between the ABA and the National Basketball Association. Having left college as a sophomore to enter the ABA hardship draft, he was without marketable skills. Academic pursuits at Jacksonville, he acknowledged, “were a waste of time. Not everybody is cut out to be a student.”
Brent is a tragic footnote to the ABA, which went out of business in 1976 and took him down with it. He said that what he feels today is betrayal. “It’s devastating having something taken away when you don’t understand why,” Brent said. “But I had the presence of mind to know life goes on. I didn’t turn to drugs. I didn’t turn to crime. Something wouldn’t let me.”
His protective instinct, he said, was the church and his mother, Mattie Johnson, who came back into his life when Brent’s grandmother—her mother—died in 1976. Brent’s mother was 16 when he was born. His grandmother, Ouidabell “Rita” Powell, stepped in and “took over,” Johnson said, rearing David in a two-story flat on Cote Brilliante that was heated by a coal stove.
Brent’s overwhelming desire to give his family an assist—to make money from basketball and put his grandparents and mother in a large, comfortable home—was the result of a shocking scene he witnessed the day before he was to leave St. Louis for Jacksonville to enroll as a freshman. Walking down an alley, he saw a group of teenagers beating an elderly man. They left him lying in a pool of blood.
“It lasted probably seconds but it seemed like an eternity,” Brent said. When the thugs saw Brent, one of them said: “If you tell, we’ll get your grandparents.”
Brent said: “No kid in good conscience would allow their family to stay in surroundings like that.”
Now, Brent and his mother live together in a small house in the city. When his towering frame unfolds from a chair and he stands, he appears to fill the room. The irony is pungent. The matchbox houses is everything he didn’t envision his dream home would be.
Sumner won 70 games and a Missouri Class L basketball championship in Brent’s three varsity seasons. Brent was an outstanding athlete. He high jumped 6 feet 4 ½ inches and ran the 440-yard dash in 49.9 seconds. His Sumner basketball coach, John Algee, once said Brent was contacted by 500 colleges. Brent probably had as much potential as any high school prospect ever produced in the metropolitan area. His recruitment ignited wild confrontations among coaches.
On March 13, 1970, he signed a non-binding conference letter of intent with St. Louis University. On May 6, he signed a binding NCAA letter with Jacksonville. On May 5, Jacksonville assistant coach Art Tolis spent the night in a rented car parked outside Brent’s apartment. Tolis said he was afraid St. Louis U. coaches would kidnap Brent and hide him.
In the summer of 1971, Brent made a splash at the U.S. Olympic Trials. As a sophomore, he took Jacksonville to third place in the 1972 National Invitation Tournament. Brent’s first agent, Herb Rudoy of Chicago, urged him to stay in school. Brent didn’t want to hear that, so he abandoned Rudoy and hired Clifford Paul of Houston.
Brent was picked by Memphis in a secret ABA draft for teams to select underclassmen. At 2:30 a.m. on a March day in Memphis, he signed a contract negotiated by Paul then immediately found his grandparents, telling them “to pick out any house you want.” The home they chose was on Brenthaven Lane in Florissant. “I thought the street would be a lucky omen,” he said.
Brent never showed the contract to a lawyer. He said Paul convinced him it was guaranteed and included a no-cut clause. Brent learned to his astonishment weeks later that the contract contained neither provision.
In July 1972, Brent was traded by Memphis to Carolina, and in the next three months became the property of two more ABA teams. He never played a minute in the ABA.
In 1975, he was invited to a tryout camp by the old Spirits of St. Louis, but was released. Brent’s professional career consisted of two seasons with an Austrian team based in Vienna. He earned $2,000 a month. He was married briefly.
When the 1976 season ended in Austria, Brent was out of money and out of luck. His dream was crumbling. His lust for basketball gone, he returned to St. Louis. He was forced to give up the home on Brenthaven. His family moved to Ferguson. “Losing that house was the biggest disappointment of my life,” he said. “I let my family down. The depression I felt is indescribable. I think I’m still going through it.”
Brent worked for 11 years as a youth leader at a St. Louis juvenile detention facility. In 1989, he filed a complaint jointly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, and the Missouri Commission of Human Rights alleging racial bias on the part of his employer. He received a cash settlement and withdrew the claim. A Missouri Circuit Court administrator said details of the agreement are confidential.
Brent hasn’t worked since. Sitting on the sofa in the matchbox house, he put his hand on his mother’s arm, a gesture of trust, and she said, “You have your Bible. Read. Something else will come along. Some things may be destiny.”
Brent’s ship never came in. “All that I’ve been through,” he said. “All the unanswered questions. It saddens me that I’ll never know how good I might have been.”
“I wasn’t stupid. I was misled.”