Karl Lindholm, Hoop excellence: Keeping it in the family

The Point: the tip of the spear, the sharp end of a tool or weapon.
Point Guard: in basketball, the player initiating the attack on the other team.
Senior Jake Brown was the point guard this year on the Middlebury College men’s basketball team: He was the point of the Panther attack, and he indeed ran the team, which finished with 27 wins and just four losses and was ranked fourth in the country (of 437 Division III college teams!).
Middlebury’s style this year was to play fast, faster than the other team wanted to play: If they liked to play fast, the Panthers played fast better, forcing them out of their rhythm, dictating the pace of play.
Jake made that happen.
And he played both ends of the floor. He guarded the other team’s point guard, harassing, challenging, frustrating him, blunting opponents’ attack. Jake and his backcourt mates, the brilliant Matt St. Amour and Jack Daly, combined for over five steals a game this season.
The point guard is the facilitator, distributing the ball, finding open players for scores. Jake led all NESCAC players in assists per game this year (6.3), and is second in career assists and most assists in a season at Middlebury, trailing the leader in both categories by one assist.
Jake had no peer at the point in NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference). For his play this year, 12 points and 6 assists per game, he earned all-league honors.
“In high school,” Jake says, “I led the league in scoring, but now I have more balance in my game. I’m more mature, smarter. My basketball IQ is higher. And I’m much better defensively: I have made that a part of my identity.”
Sometimes the point guard, if he’s particularly effective in his role, is called “the coach on the floor.”
That is certainly true of Jake — he is an extension on the court of Coach Jeff Brown, the NESCAC Coach of the Year two years in a row and Northeast Regional Coach of the Year this year. Under Jeff, Middlebury has established itself in the last decade as one of the top D-III programs in the country.
Successful teams are able to create something of a “family” atmosphere. At Middlebury this is no mere cliché: Point guard Jake refers to “Coach Brown” when he discusses basketball, but he’s “Uncle Jeff” the rest of the time.
Jake is Jeff’s nephew, his brother Mike’s second son (of three). Jake’s younger brother, Seth, 14 years old, has been on the Panther bench for more than half the games this year as the water boy and general factotum. And of course, “Aunt Renee” and her lively cohort, are in their familiar spot at all the home games. Family atmosphere, indeed.
Jake’s decision to come to Middlebury was hardly a foregone conclusion. He visited 16 schools and received considerable interest from Empire Eight schools (which include Elmira, Ithaca, Alfred, Hartwick, and others).
“I didn’t know if I wanted to go to Middlebury. I didn’t know how much they wanted me,” Jake says now. “Uncle Jeff gave me the freedom to make my own decision. He said, ‘We need a point guard, but it’s up to you.’”
Jeff confirms Jake’s version: “I wanted him to come for all the right reasons — because the school and the program were the right fit. I’m not a hard-sell recruiter anyway. Jake saw the value of Middlebury, and it’s been a great relationship.”
“Hard sell” would never be a term applied to Jeff Brown, who by nature is reserved, preternaturally composed during games when chaos reigns and other coaches are in a lather, pacing the floor, berating officials and players. Who can recall the last Jeff Brown technical foul?
The hard sell was applied by Mike, Jake’s dad, “who really wanted me to come to Middlebury.” Jake chose Middlebury over NYU. “It wasn’t always Middlebury, but I’m glad I made the decision I did,” Jake says.
Jake made a substantial contribution his first year while being tutored by an All-American guard, Joey Kizel. He also became fast friends with his teammates in his class — St. Amour, Bryan Jones and Liam Naughton. “We spend a lot of time together and will always be close friends.”
Coming in, Jake didn’t know exactly what to expect playing for his uncle, who showed right away that Jake would not get special treatment. “I was a little less patient perhaps, sometimes tougher on him, than with other players,” Jeff says.
“I never addressed the family issue with the team. It was really quite easy. When his teammates saw Jake’s passion and work ethic, and saw how important basketball was to him, how well he played, he got the respect of his teammates.
“Jake has led us really well. He relates well to all the players. To have a guy like that is so important to the team dynamic.”
There is little hesitation on his part when Jake is asked about playing for Coach Brown, and living in close proximity to Uncle Jeff and Aunt Renee: “He should be Coach of the Year every year,” he says. “Everyone on the team feels the same way, and for me having a place off the court to go and talk has been wonderful.”
Uncle Jeff is equally positive: “To be with Jake every day, and to connect with my brother Mike in this way, has been awesome.
“Coaching Jake on the court and seeing his maturation and growth off the court and in the classroom — it’s the highlight of my career.”    MIDDLEBURY COACH JEFF Brown sits in Salem, Va., in 2011 with his 15-year-old nephew, Jake, a sophomore in high school, before the Panthers’ appearance in the Final Four at the Division II national championship. About this image, Jeff says, “To think that a couple years later, he would be playing for us. It’s my favorite moment.”

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