Baylor’s Kalani Brown: ‘The last thing I need to accomplish before I leave Baylor is a Final Four.’
The projected top-five WNBA pick is following in her NBA dad’s footsteps
Note: This story was originally published in January 2019. The Baylor Lady Bears won the NCAA Women’s Tournament over Notre Dame Sunday night.
Kalani Brown thought it was destiny.
Her Baylor Lady Bears ranked No. 3 in the nation toward the end of the 2017 regular season, and Brown could picture herself climbing the confetti-laden ladder and hoisting the net on the way to clinching the school’s first Final Four berth since 2012.
But after senior guard Kristy Wallace tore her ACL in the season finale, the team lost its backcourt anchor. The Lady Bears were eliminated in the Sweet 16, and Brown’s dream was put on hold. Again.
The weight of potentially leaving Baylor without ending the school’s Final Four drought hangs over Brown’s head each day. With each passing season, it has become heavier, and Brown hungrier. Despite being a two-time All-American and the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, Brown has been troubled by the absence of a deep postseason run.
“I’m hungrier than ever,” Brown said, “not just because I’m a senior but because I’ve been knocking on that door for four years.”
On the upside, after Baylor’s 68-57 upset of No. 1 UConn on Jan. 3, the Huskies’ first regular-season loss since 2014, Brown’s last shot with this year’s No. 2-ranked Bears team may be her best.
Brown didn’t have to look far to learn about the patience required to go deep in the postseason or win a national championship. Brown is the daughter of longtime NBA journeyman P.J. Brown, whose 15-year career ended with his first title in 2008 as a member of the Boston Celtics. Brown was at TD Garden the night her dad hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“I remember his championship and him winning, the different teams he played for,” said Brown, who lived in five different cities growing up. “I was like 9 at the time, so I didn’t really understand the seriousness of it. Now that I’m older, I definitely get what his hardship was and what he was going through.”
In many ways, Brown’s game runs similarly to her father’s. She’s physical and agile, a blue-collar type of player with a knack for finding the ball in the paint. But ask Brown who helped her construct the foundation of her game and without hesitation she’ll give all the credit to her mom, Dee.
Dee Brown played collegiate basketball too, suiting up for Louisiana Tech in the late ’80s. She was also Brown’s assistant coach in high school, as well as her AAU coach.
“My dad wasn’t really involved as much as everyone thinks he was. It was really my mom,” said Brown, the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014. “She was home with me working with me, building my game. My mom was pretty much my rock for my entire career.”
When it came time to choose where Brown would play college ball, schools such as Texas A&M (which made it to the championship game in 2012) and Tennessee were ready to make the top-ranked center of her class the face of their program. But Baylor had an almost familial tie to the Brown household that no other school could compete with.
When Dee Brown played at Louisiana Tech, an assistant coach for the Lady Techsters was none other than Kim Mulkey, who took over as the head coach of Baylor in 2000. Mulkey had watched Brown play since the seventh grade.
Early in her Baylor career, Brown walked into the locker room with her teammates to find Mulkey standing amid newspaper clippings about the previous night’s loss sprawled all over the floor. Mulkey appeared to have been in the locker room the entire night.
“Did you guys sleep?” Mulkey asked her team.
No player responded.
“Kalani Brown, did you sleep? I have not been to sleep at all! I’ve been thinking about the loss all night long.”
Once the team was in the clear, Brown immediately phoned Dee Brown — the only person who’d truly understand what Brown just experienced. “You said she was going to do this!”
“Yep, been there, done that,” Dee Brown said, laughing, adding that Mulkey is a master motivator.
Dee Brown adopted Mulkey’s coaching style from her playing days, so much so that the two have almost become a revolving record for Brown.
“Sometimes they say the exact same thing; it’s kind of scary,” Brown said.
When Brown was a freshman, Dee Brown said, she had a hard time letting go of the “coach” title that she had held for Brown’s entire life.
“She would call me and would want me to just be Mom,” she said.
Before Baylor’s matchup against UConn this season, undoubtedly the team’s biggest matchup of the regular season, Brown had her worst offensive game of the year in a Dec. 15 loss to Stanford: five points on 2-for-7 shooting.
Coming to Brown’s rescue wasn’t her former high school coach, nor was it her former AAU coach, it was just Dee, Kalani’s mom.
“Before [the UConn game], Mom had to make the trip and give her the pregame talk,” Dee Brown said. “I said, ‘Hey, the sky’s the limit for you and what you do with this young team and being a leader, stepping out there and having the energy that you need.’ ”
Brown responded emphatically. Against what was then the top team in the country, she put together the best game of her career against the Huskies. Brown finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds as Baylor handed UConn its first road loss in regulation since Dec. 18, 2011.
In an evolving sport where frontcourt players have transitioned to a face-up style of play and drifted away from the paint, Brown represents the old guard. Since Brown was so much bigger than everybody else growing up, her mother taught her that her body and her post were her “bread and butter.” As a result, Brown is a left-handed, back-to-the-basket true 5 who stays home in the paint — a rarity at both the collegiate and professional levels.
“People my size, they don’t really make them like us anymore,” said Brown, who is listed at 6 feet, 7 inches. “I like to say I’m part of the old school, honestly, but I’m coming with the new wave.”
Brown has established herself as one of the best frontcourt finishers in college basketball. If Brown catches the ball on the low block, her combination of size, footwork and athleticism puts opposing defenses on their heels. In 2017, she finished second in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 67.9 percent, the highest mark in Baylor history. Last season, she ranked fourth in field goal percentage while averaging a double-double: 20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Against UConn, Brown led all players in points and rebounds.
“Kalani’s size is something you can’t coach, and it’s something that you’re blessed to have on your team,” Mulkey said of Brown, who is averaging 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds this season. “She’s certainly one of the best players, if not the best player, in the country.”
Despite being one of the top talents in the country with an overflow of accolades, Brown often flies under the radar. While Brown does believe she’s underrated in the national conversation, she’s never been one to ask for a brighter spotlight.
“My dad has always been in the spotlight,” Brown said. “I never really liked the spotlight; it kind of makes me nervous.”
To better understand Brown’s personality: “I’m kind of like a Tim Duncan,” Brown said. “Drop a silent 20 and I’ma get out.”
Brown grew up as a fan of LSU and modeled her game after Sylvia Fowles, now a two-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx.
“Out of all the big girls I used to watch, Sylvia Fowles is the one who stood out to me,” said Brown, who is expected to be a top-five pick in the WNBA draft. “If I get to the next level and my team is playing her, I’ll probably ask for an autograph.”
The admiration is mutual. Fowles, who was named WNBA MVP in 2017, praised the Baylor center for her basketball IQ, strength under the basket and “phenomenal” hands.
“I think she’s going to shine, and I can’t wait to see her in the WNBA,” said Fowles, who reached out to Brown via text a few years ago. “It’s rare that you get bigs that play back to the basket. When we get them, we’ve got to keep them close because we’re very special to the game.”
Regardless of this season’s outcome, Brown will leave Baylor as one of the best in program history. She’ll finish her career in the top 10 all-time in points, rebounds, blocks, double-doubles and field goal percentage. While Brown will walk off the Baylor floor for the final time in April, she hopes what remains is a Final Four banner.
“I’ve accomplished a lot of great things at Baylor as far as accolades go,” Brown said. “I just think the last thing I need to accomplish before I get out of here is a Final Four.”
Perhaps, like her father, saving the best for last runs in the family.