There’s a tattoo on Missouri junior Jabari Brown’s upper right arm.
It reads “B4” — short for the Brown four — encircled by his name along with the names of his parents, David and Fannie, and younger brother, Jamil. Underneath the names, it reads, “Family is a haven in a heartless world.”
So it’s an incredibly cruel irony that in the midst of a breakout season — one that has seen Brown play as well as any shooting guard in the nation and as well as any Tiger in the last two decades — Brown learned his father has Stage IV cancer.
The day after Brown made the go-ahead three-pointer in the closing minute of a win at North Carolina State on Dec. 28, he returned home to Oakland, Calif., where his father was in the hospital. The diagnosis was adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that has metastasized to the liver and is incurable, according to Brown’s mother, Fannie.
“We got the diagnosis before Christmas, but we didn’t tell him until he got home,” she said. “They are being aggressive in their treatment, but every other week it’s rough for three or four days straight.”
Brown’s brother, Jamil, a freshman guard at City College of San Francisco, gave up basketball. When Fannie, who travels frequently for her job, can’t be home, Jamil takes his father to treatments and doctor’s appointments.
Back in Columbia, Brown wishes there was more he could do aside from frequent texts or phone calls. But those options are limited from nearly 2,000 miles away.
He checks in as often as possible with his dad, who Brown calls the biggest influence in his life. But much of Brown’s remaining energy is channeled onto the court, which is how his dad would want it.
After learning of his father’s illness, Brown responded with the best stretch of basketball in his life, averaging 20.7 points in the Tigers’ last 19 games.
“He could have tanked after this situation, but he’s been able to remain focused,” said David Brown, who recently finished his second cycle of chemotherapy and is regrouping for a third course. “I think a lot of that is his personal strength, but a lot of it is also the support from the people at Missouri.”
That is perhaps the greatest indication that Brown is finally where he’s meant to be.
When Jabari Brown arrived at Missouri as a midseason transfer from Oregon in December 2011, he was at his fifth school in five years.
He almost didn’t stick around with the Tigers, either.
Coming from the temperate Bay Area, Brown arrived in Columbia without a winter coat and was miserable dealing with mid-Missouri’s bone-chilling deep freeze.
“We don’t need Carhartt coats with thick linings like you guys do out there,” David Brown said.
Besides the terrible weather, Brown also felt isolated. He was the Tigers’ only freshman and, by university policy, had to live in the dorms, where he often found himself alone.
“I don’t know how close I came to leaving, but I had some long nights,” he said. “I know that there were some very long nights up in my room thinking.”
Associate head coach Tim Fuller, who recruited Brown to Missouri after he left Oregon, designed extensive workouts to keep him engaged with the program.
Slowly, Brown formed a bond with two other transfers, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell, who also were sitting out the semester under NCAA rules.
Then-senior Kim English also took Jabari under his wing. The two had adjacent lockers, shared an affinity for studying the game and forged a friendship poring over scouting reports.
Before the 2012 Big 12 opener against Oklahoma, English asked Brown how many threes he wanted him to hit that game. Brown said five.
“After each made three, I’d look at him,” English said. “I ended up hitting five threes in the game and, after a Lon Kruger timeout, I ran to him and gave him a chest bump. No one knew why I ran to him except for us.
“Our relationship started that day.”
Before Missouri, Jabari Brown was a basketball nomad, which gave rise to a reputation that he was a selfish player interested only in his own stats and his own glory.
“I would say I was known as a player who was hard to coach,” Brown said. “I’d bounced around a lot. I don’t feel like (that reputation) was fair, but there were situations people don’t understand as far as high school.”
Brown’s father, who played basketball at Morehouse College, said he played a role in his son’s transfers.
“Really, it was all my call,” David Brown said.
It started when he talked to the Salesian High School coach after his son’s freshman season about becoming a combo guard and handling the ball more, which he believed would benefit Jabari’s game and college prospects.
Brown averaged 19.6 points and helped lead the Pride to a California Division IV state championship, but he didn’t get a crack at running point guard.
Dad wasn’t pleased.
He’d heard about Findlay Prep and made a call, convincing the private basketball powerhouse in Henderson, Nev., to add Brown to its elite roster.
But midway through his junior season, and despite averaging 16.4 points, Brown returned to Oakland.
His paternal grandmother, Marjorie Brown, had died and a cousin, Donzell Tate Jr., was shot and killed a few weeks later. Brown also was benched without explanation.
“Dealing with all three at the same time, and I’m like 16 years old, it was tough,” Brown said. “I felt like I needed to be close to the support of my family, so I made the move.”
Rather than return to Salesian — the Catholic school in Richmond, Calif., where he’d been a star but was an hour’s drive away — Brown enrolled at Oakland High School and finished out his career playing with his brother, Jamil.
Brown averaged more than 23 points per game at Oakland High. Rivals rated him as a five-star college recruit, the No. 19 overall prospect and the No. 5 shooting guard in the class of 2011.
The sky was the limit — or so it seemed.
Jabari Brown is intensely introspective by nature.
He’s a voracious reader, and was particularly fond of Harry Potter books as a teenager until he discovered The Last Shot by Darcy Frey, which chronicles the youth basketball scene on Coney Island in the early 1990s.
“He read that over and over and over,” David Brown said.
“Probably 20 times,” Fannie Brown said.
But Brown says now that he didn’t properly digest his initial college choice. While he won’t say he felt pressured to attend Oregon, he never felt comfortable there.
“Having to make that type of decision at 17 or 18 (years old), it’s hard to make the right one,” he said. “Sometimes, you realize that you just didn’t make the right decision.”
Brown had never been interested in Oregon before a family adviser convinced him to take a visit.
“Somebody we thought had his best interest at heart came to us at the 11th hour,” his father said.
The Brown family took in an Oregon-Stanford football game and the impressive facilities, especially for football and track, in Eugene, Ore.
“We got caught up in it all,” David Brown said. “We’ve never gone through this process before, and our priorities got a little out of whack. Jabari was really impressed with everything that happened that day and decided he wanted to go there. As a father, I think I made a bad decision — not because of the program, but because we didn’t step back to think things through and analyze it deeply enough.”
Brown still admires Ducks coach Dana Altman, but he didn’t feel like he fit into his system and wasn’t convinced he would be able to maximize his potential playing in it.
After starting the first two games as a freshman, Brown decided to transfer.
For Jabari Brown, the hardest part of leaving Oregon was the renewed whispers about his attitude and character. He’d heard them before — rumors that he was a malcontent and people calling him a bust — when he left Findlay Prep.
The reality is that, while immaturity played a role in some aspects of his winding basketball journey, much of it boiled down to trust.
When Brown was 11, his parents said a middle school AAU coach bad-mouthed him in the community.
“That really threw him for a loop when he was younger,” his father said. “It’s made relationships and trust really important to him, especially integrity in relationships.”
Finding a comfort level outside of his immediate family and a small circle of close friends occasionally has proven challenging for Brown, but Missouri coach Frank Haith was willing to take a risk.
“I knew him a little bit, so I didn’t feel like he was a me-first kid even though he that rep a little bit,” Haith said. “He was misunderstood, because he’s a quiet kid. Guidance was what he wanted and people he could trust. That was the biggest thing for him.”
Once he found it at Missouri, Brown’s game also reached new heights.
“Once he became comfortable with his surroundings in terms of the people here within our basketball infrastructure — the coaching and teammates — that allowed him to grow,” Haith said. “It was always that comfortability that kept him from growing, but he finally had that sense of belonging.”
Despite the first three-game losing streak of his career at any level, which included a career-best 33-point outburst against Kentucky that he couldn’t enjoy because it came in an 84-79 loss, Jabari has finally tapped into his boundless potential.
Missouri is seeded eighth in the SEC Tournament and plays Texas A in the second round at noon Thursday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. While the Tigers have endured an uneven season, Brown has been the epitome of consistency.
He scored in double figures in the Tigers’ first 30 games and surged into the NBA Draft conversation, which raises the specter of trying to find a new niche again if he opts to leave early.
No matter what Brown’s future has in store, he now has another touchstone to call home.
“He really has found a family there, and that’s been a blessing for us and Jabari,” David Brown said. “That’s exactly what set the table for him to be successful.”
Finally, Jabari Brown has another haven in a heartless world.
“I feel like I’ve been embraced here,” he said. “And to be able to play here with some great basketball tradition is definitely something I’m appreciative of.”