MIAMI, Fla. — Growing up poor in Liberty City, Zach Brown, who was 6-foot-4 by age 10, was forced to wear clothes several sizes too small.
When things got really bad, he says he would steal clothes and food from local stores just to survive.
The low point for Brown, the youngest of five boys, came when his single mother, Ernestine Vickers, was hospitalized for a month because of a heart ailment.
Brown said he and his brothers would sleep at the hospital until they were “kicked out.” When they returned to their apartment one night, the lights were out because of an unpaid bill.
“I tried to rig the electricity and got shocked,” Brown said. “I thought: ‘Zach, you’ve hit rock bottom.’ But that’s life in the ghetto.”
That was Brown’s life.
Now, he lives primarily in an upscale home in South Beach, with an even grander weekend retreat in Coconut Grove.
As part of his incredible transformation, Brown is now a “law-abiding citizen,” an A and B student and, at 7-foot-1 and 253 pounds, he is one of the top high school basketball prospects in the nation.
ESPN ranks him as the fourth-best prospect overall and the No. 1 center in the sophomore class, and his coach at Miami Beach High, Jacob Shaw, does not disagree.
“He’s the No. 1 defensive player in the country, and that’s why all the (colleges) are running after him,” Shaw said of Brown, who averaged 19.3 points, 17 rebounds and 8.8 blocks and shot 68 percent from the field this season.
“I compare his style of play to Roy Hibbert or Dikembe Mutombo. Zach can be one of the best players ever to come out of Miami.”
From the past to the present
Brown’s life started to change when someone he didn’t even know, Jacob Lipman, showed an interest in basketball.
Lipman, then in middle school, would go to inner-city Hadley Park to play pick-up basketball.
His father, Michael Lipman, who owns ticket-distribution company Tickets of America and events-management company White Glove, created an AAU team, the South Beach All-Stars, for his son to get a chance to play.
In recruiting players, Lipman came across Brown, who had grown to 6-5 in the seventh grader. Beyond his physical skills, Brown was only reading at a third-grade level, and Lipman took an interest in him and his brother, Clayton.
“The first year they came under my wing,” Lipman said, “I took them to a reading camp in Maine.”
In April 2012, the state, according to court documents provided to USA TODAY Sports, took the boys away from their mother, who was unable to properly care for them and put them in the care of an aunt. Efforts to reach Brown’s mother were unsuccessful.
“They come from the most horrific situation you could imagine,” Lipman said. “The judge said he had never seen a worse case.”
By early 2013, they “ran away” from their aunt, Brown said, and started staying with Lipman, a divorced 46-year-old father, and Jacob. In May 2013, their aunt said she was no longer willing to care for the children, according to court documents, and they were placed in Lipman’s care temporarily. Six months later, he was named legal guardian for the brothers.
“I was jumping up and down like a frog that day,” Brown said.
Clayton, a 7-footer like his brother, stayed at the house in Coconut Grove and played for Coral Gables High. But, Lipman said, Clayton lacked his brother’s discipline and is now 18 and living on his own, no longer playing ball.
Zach Brown, on the other hand, became a sponge. Before meeting Lipman, Brown said he had been given medication because of his hyperactivity and had been placed in special education classes.
“The medicine made my brain slow,” Brown said. “I felt like a zombie.”
Brown repeated his eighth-grade year at Archbishop Curley, but has since flourished.
“He had a 3.1 grade-point average last year while taking special education classes,” Lipman said. “He now takes regular classes – he’s 100 percent mainstream.”
In the old days, Brown was thrown out of several elementary and middle schools for fighting. Now, he has no reason to brawl.
Teammate Harold Valderrama, a 5-11 junior shooting guard, said Brown is funny, a great dancer and a “fresh” dresser.
“I’ve never seen him dress bad,” Valderrama said.
Brown calls himself a “fashion guru” and wants to someday a personal clothing line.
At the moment, rather than shop at a big-and-tall store, he buys two of everything and takes the garments to a tailor to make alterations.
Brown said he and Jacob, a 5-8 point guard on the Miami Beach junior varsity, are extremely close.
“They call us ‘Blind Side’, like the movie,” Brown said. “Me and Jacob have a lot in common. The only difference is that he’s a different color and smaller.”
Brown says he has taken such strong roots with his new family that he has even converted to Judaism. Before, he said, he would go to a Christian church and fall asleep.
“People think they forced me (to convert), but nobody pushes anything on me,” Brown said. “I just felt the love.”
According to Adam Chaskin, who will coach Team USA’s U-18 team in July at the European Maccabi Games in Berlin, Brown will represent his Jewish faith by playing for the team.
Brown said he wants to be known for more than basketball, and he plans to study business and accounting in college
“I want to be known as a good person first,” Brown said. “One day, I’d like to buy apartments in (the inner city), fix them up and give back to the community.”
Despite a scholarship offer from the University of Miami, Brown said he likes the idea of going away from home for college.
He also wants a college that has a proven track record for developing centers and is “not all about guards.”
“It doesn’t take long to realize he’s big and he isn’t afraid to play to his size and his skill level,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi. “When you see a kid who’s that big that young, they are pretty intimidating on the floor, but they might have the size and athleticism but not the skill set. For him to have all that in one package together is unusual.
“Moving forward, he has to continue to work on that skill set. He has to continue to be able to play without picking silly fouls and not let that size get you into trouble by relying on it too much. While he’s gigantic, speed and quickness will be important for him to work on plus the normal things any other player needs to work on.”
Rivals has Brown ranked No. 5 overall in the Class of 2017 and the No. 2 center behind DeAndre Ayton, from San Diego. Ayton is Rivals’ No. 1 overall player in the class.
With more than 30 scholarship offers – including Kansas, UCLA and Connecticut – he certainly does not lack for options. His coach, Shaw, said the offense now runs through him, which was not the case his freshman year.
Lipman, said Brown is working hard to succeed.
“He wakes up at 5 a.m. to do MMA training,” Lipman said. “He does yoga at night. He’s disciplined.
“It’s a wonderful success story.”