Sam Brand, Director of the Team Melo AAU Program.

This is the first installment of an occasional series on Team Melo’s elite 14- and 15-year-old basketball players.

As the pile of oily rags in the living room began to dry and emit heat in the early morning hours of a frigid December night, 13-year-old Sam Brand was sleeping soundly in the upstairs bedroom of his South Baltimore row house.

Even after they spontaneously combusted and the fire began to spread throughout the first floor of his family’s East Randall Street home, the slumbering boy was blissfully unaware. His mom suddenly stirred, and after a quick walk down the wooden steps, she did a pirouette and calmly walked into her son’s bedroom, gently but urgently nudging him awake.

“C’mon Sam, we have to go,” Joanne Goshen told her son.

Barefoot and wearing only a T-shirt and tighty-whities on this night, just days before Christmas 1994, he grabbed the one thing that meant the most to him — a navy blue Arizona Wildcats basketball. Holding hands, mother and son briskly hustled down the staircase and through the growing flames and billowing smoke.

Standing outside with a swelling crowd of onlookers, young Sam watched as flames consumed his home. His eyes searched the block in hopes that his cat, Barkley, named after his then-favorite NBA player, Charles Barkley, had made it out of the blaze alive. He hadn’t.

A neighbor draped the shivering young teen in blankets as they waited for the fire trucks to arrive. She sat him in the back seat of her running car, the heat pumping full blast.

Sam hadn’t been all that fond of the physical space where his family lived. The electricity was often on the fritz. The pipes would freeze in the winter. The furnishings were bare-bones. Human waste from the toilet sometimes bubbled up into the bathtub.

But there was love inside the place — support, encouragement, hugs, laughter, creativity. That’s what made it special.

Sam Brand with a few neighborhood kids. He grew up in Baltimore, splitting time between the East and the South.

Armed with a radar-like jump shot, young Sam was just beginning to make a name for himself playing on the Roland Park Middle School hoops squad, traveling around to various city playgrounds with his crew while honing his burgeoning skills at the Walter P. Carter Recreation Center.

In the rec, school, and summer leagues, where the city’s collective hoops aesthetic is definitively African American, folks had stopped noticing his lack of melanin. All they knew was that he could ball. He was accepted, valued, embraced. If an uninitiated observer was shocked to see him playing, the lone white speck running up and down the floor among the various hues of brown faces, someone would ultimately chime in, “Oh, that’s White Boy Sam.”

Surveying the scene from the back seat of his neighbor’s car on that bitter-cold December evening, Sam wasn’t moved to tears as the fire grew. He had his mom. He had his basketball. And to him, that was all that mattered.

A year later, during the summer after his freshman year at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, or Poly, his maturation from a kid to a confused teen accelerated. After playing in the city’s revered Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, the BNBL, he took a short weekend trip to Ocean City with his father. When he returned, he learned that his friend and former Roland Park teammate, nicknamed Drano, had been murdered.

Drano had gotten into an argument with a girl just steps from the Carter rec center. She left and returned with an older boy who had a gun. Four boys were shot; Drano and another young teen didn’t survive.

“That was my first time dealing with the real-life consequences of what can happen in the street,” said Brand. “It was such a profoundly sad time for me. It happened on the same walk we took almost every day going to Walter P. Carter. We were just a bunch of happy kids that loved playing basketball. In my mind, I kept picturing it happening. I couldn’t shake the thought. A few days earlier, we were laughing. That was my buddy, my friend. And now he was gone, over some nonsense. That hurt bad.”

Brand coped the only way he knew how. He didn’t just play basketball. He ate it. Drank it. He needed it to breathe. He needed it to live.

***

In early August of last year, Brand, 41, shocked many in the local community when he announced that he would be stepping down as the Poly boys head basketball coach to become the director of Carmelo Anthony’s AAU program, Team Melo. Anthony, a 10-time All-Star and three-time Olympic gold medalist, whose NBA career has taken him from Denver to the New York Knicks and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers, grew up in Baltimore.

“I knew Sam when he was a player at Poly and at Morgan State, we’ve had a long relationship,” said Robert “Bay” Frazier, Anthony’s business partner and manager who’s also the co-founder and president of Team Melo. “I’ve watched his growth over the years and how hard he works.”

Sam Brand, Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Fitzgerald.

“We needed somebody that we could depend on, not just the best basketball instruction you can find, but outside of the game as well in terms of implementing programs and philosophies that will impact thousands of our youth here in Baltimore,” Frazier said.

The world of AAU basketball, formally known as the American Amateur Union, has become the nationwide showcase and marketplace for the most talented high school athletes in the country as they compete for college scholarships and the ultimate prize — an eventual NBA contract and sponsorship deal.

Hundreds of teams from every region compete for the right to play in the most prestigious summer events: The Under Armour Association, the Adidas Gauntlet and the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, known as the EYBL. The best players on well-funded, established teams don’t pay a dime for sneakers, uniforms, meals, airfare or lodging while on the road. Parents on teams with less funding and fewer elite players dole out upwards of $5,000 per player for the opportunity to compete each summer.

This is not your average summer league. The competition can be cutthroat, operating under the auspices of elite youth tournaments that crown national champions. The race to sign the next Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Steph Curry grows more fierce with each passing year.

Carmelo Anthony looks for an open teammate during the Goodman League All-Stars taking on The Melo League basketball game at Edward P. Hurt Gymnasium at Morgan State University on August 30, 2011.

Some see AAU ball as a seedy environment infested with agents, handlers, hangers-on, incompetent coaches and sneaker company reps looking to cash in on the talent of some transcendent kids.

“Even if today’s players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive,” wrote Steve Kerr, the coach of the world champion Golden State Warriors, on the Grantland website in 2012. “AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years. I coached my son’s AAU team for three years; it’s a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure.”

And there’s been an influx of NBA players starting their own programs, eager to provide a better teaching environment that keeps the negative elements at bay. In addition to Carmelo, NBA stars with their own elite summer youth organizations include Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook.

***

In his 10 years leading the Poly Engineers, Brand was the architect of a magnificent and improbable rise.

Poly’s was long seen as a moribund program that had never won anything. By the time he walked away, the North Baltimore high school had attained national prominence.

Sam Brand while coaching at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

“When you’re building something from scratch, you have to be about discipline, authenticity — you have to be about your word,” said Todd Bozeman, a former head coach at Morgan State University who Brand apprenticed under during four years as an assistant coach there. “There’s a lot of development that needs to take place, and we’re not just talking about the players. We’re talking about the managers, the coaches, the support staff, the school community, the stakeholders — getting everyone to have that thirst for getting better. What Sam accomplished at Poly is very impressive.”

The year before Brand took the head job at Poly, the Engineers won a measly three games. In his first season back, the team finished 11-13, his only losing campaign. Within a few years, the team was on a run of three Baltimore City championships, five regional titles and three consecutive Class 3A state championships.

“Coach Sam gets the best out of you,” said Baltimore native Kwame Evans, the nation’s top-ranked power forward in the Class of 2023. The 6-foot-9 Evans spent two seasons at Poly before moving to Montverde Academy, the Florida powerhouse. “He genuinely loves you and pushes you to play every game as if it’s your last.”

“He taught me how to work hard, to always give my best and that there’s so much more to the game than just scoring,” Evans continued. “Whether it’s rebounding, passing, setting screens, playing defense, running the floor with purpose, there are so many ways you can help your team. His passion for the game is contagious.”

“Coach Sam gets the best out of you.”

—  Baltimore native Kwame Evans, the nation’s top-ranked power forward in the Class of 2023

Many believe Poly’s state title tally would have been four straight had Covid-19 not forced the cancellation of the 2019-20 playoffs on the day of the semifinal round, after Poly had finished 25-2, including a victory over another Florida powerhouse, IMG Academy.

Sam Brand with one of his teams at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

“Sam took a leap of faith, resigning from Poly to take on this next challenge,” said Marc Steiner, the local radio and podcast host who is also Brand’s godfather. “He could have been the coach at Poly for the next 30 years and become the winningest coach in city history. If anybody can grow this Team Melo thing and really expand its impact, if anybody can take it beyond basketball to have a serious impact on kids and the larger community, it’s Sam.”

Impact. Community. Those words resonate with Brand, whose father Michael was an accomplished mathematician at Essex Community College but also a radical political revolutionary and community activist.

“My dad was so committed to what he believed in, fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised,” said Brand. “Homeless people would come and eat at our house on a regular basis. He was passionate about his beliefs, that there were glaring inequities in society and he fought every day to change that.”

Sam Brand with his father, Michael.

Brand’s parents separated when he was just 2 years old, so he bounced between his mom’s place in South Baltimore and his dad’s row home on East 33rd Street, a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. Both were from working-class upbringings.

His maternal grandfather was an exceptional high school athlete in the Cincinnati area, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. After returning from World War II with arms and shoulders filled with shrapnel, he moved his family to Baltimore and went to work for Bethlehem Steel.

His mom was an artist, a painter and the long-time pastry chef at Louie’s Bookstore Café on Charles Street in Mount Vernon, an incubator and nerve center for MICA and Peabody students and other local creatives.

In elementary school, Brand would catch the No. 61 bus down to Charles Street after dismissal, sitting among those artists as he did his homework.

“Through my dad, I saw one side of Baltimore,” said Brand. “Through my mother, I saw another.”

He can distinctly remember the moment he became hypnotized by basketball. He was 3 years old and a block party in East Baltimore was jumping one summer night.

Bodies swayed and spun to the pulsating sounds of R&B music. The inviting aromas of burgers, hot dogs and chicken on the grill filled the air. Amid the celebration, he watched in awe as his father and some friends played milk crate basketball, where the crates serve as hoops.

“I can remember the atmosphere, the excitement, the fellowship,” said Brand. “My dad wasn’t very good but he hustled, played hard and had a lot of heart. There was something with the way the folks connected to what they were doing. I could sense the power in it. From that moment, the basketball court has always been my connector.”

Sam Brand with his father, Michael.

The orange ball became an appendage and constant companion. He soon graduated from playing on a mini-hoop to milk crates in the back alley. Sightings of the little white kid dribbling down the street toward the court on 23rd and Barclay became commonplace.

His dad would take him to work sometimes, dropping him off at the Essex Community College gym and returning hours later to find him still on the court with the college kids.

Watching the Los Angeles Lakers on television in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Brand was immediately enamored with the athletic eloquence of Magic Johnson.

“It was the perfect balance of individual showmanship and how he blended that within the structure of the team,” Brand said. “I was mesmerized by the strategy, the skills, with the essence of ‘Showtime.’”

His dad was his first coach in a Catholic Youth Organization league at St. Francis of Assisi Church on Harford Road.

“He took to basketball like a fish to water,” said Steiner. “He was about 5 or 6 years old and he’d be out there playing his heart out. The game was in his blood. Most kids that age are just having fun. He expected to win. And he’d get really angry if they lost. Over the years, he would always be the only white kid out there, wherever he played. And he got a lot of respect in the street.”

As a freshman at Poly, he made the junior varsity team but saw scant playing time. He was 20 pounds overweight, a step slow and struggled to do five consecutive pushups. The more he sat on the bench, the more determined he became.

“My mom didn’t know anything about sports or basketball,” said Brand. “But she was always supportive and told me, ‘When you get your minutes, be ready.’”

When two starters left the team because of failing grades, Brand was inserted into the rotation. When he started his first game toward the end of the season, he scored 28 points.

“Sam wanted to play basketball all the time,” his mother recalled. “I supported it because he loved it and it kept him out of trouble. He could be a rabble-rouser when he wanted to. But he was also thoughtful and quiet at times. I was worried about him because school was not the priority. He was consumed with basketball.”

“He took to basketball like a fish to water.”

—  Marc Steiner, the local radio and podcast host who is also Brand’s godfather

By summer, he’d shed the excess weight through a regimen of daily outdoor games in the city’s oppressive heat, running up and down the playgrounds at Cloverdale, Druid Hill Park and a spot known as “The Cage” in a rugged pocket of West Baltimore.

His sophomore year, he was the JV squad’s undisputed star — cemented by a great individual season and a memorable 45-point game against Dunbar High.

That year, his life was irrevocably changed.

***

The first sign of worry came when he was riding in the passenger seat of his dad’s late-model brown station wagon. Michael Brand had scooped up Sam after practice. The father had been experiencing some health issues that seemed to be compounding.

As they approached Mama Lucia’s on 33rd and Greenmount, Michael’s leg froze up. He couldn’t move it to hit the brakes. The station wagon swerved up on the curb and ran over two parking meters.

“Two months later, he was in a wheelchair and had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” said Brand, who moved in and became his father’s caretaker. “My dad was a strong man, stocky. In my mind, there was nothing that he couldn’t do. And now I had to carry him up a flight of steps. It was rough to see how fast he deteriorated. I got my driver’s license on my 16th birthday so I could take him around to all of his doctor’s appointments.”

Geraldine Chambers, the sister of Rev. Annie Chambers, a local civil rights activist, moved in as well to help care for Brand’s dad. Folks called her “Jug.” And when Brand’s best friend and point guard at Poly, Dominic Harrison’s mom was shot in the head, he moved in as well for his last two years of high school.

The boys would go grocery shopping and cook. They’d wash dishes, clean the house and do laundry. They learned to live within a budget, knowing what bills needed to be paid and when. Jug would help to administer Michael’s medications and hold things down when they were at school or competing in games.

The next year, when Brand led the varsity team in scoring, few knew the heavy responsibilities that he was shouldering off the court.

“I had to grow up fast,” he said.

Despite the turmoil, Brand and Harrison often daydreamed about what they’d accomplish during their senior season. Those aspirations, however, quickly evaporated when Brand learned that he had failed a required SAT prep class at Poly, making him ineligible to play during his final year.

The irony was that Brand had already achieved an excellent SAT score that qualified him for admission to a good college. But his teacher refused to budge, and he was off the team.

Anthony Fitzgerald was a freshman at Poly when Sam was a senior. He’d heard the rumors about the white kid with the vicious jump shot who was a top player in the city. One of his first interactions with him was in the hallway right after Brand found out that he was ineligible.

“He was screaming, cursing, punching and kicking the lockers, jumping up and down and going crazy,” Fitzgerald said. “The young guys had heard about Sam and we were excited to see him on the court. When I found out that they wouldn’t let him play that year, I felt like my dog had run away.”

The game was his release. From the fire, from Drano’s murder, from Dominic’s mother being shot, from the multiple sclerosis that was destroying his father’s central nervous system.

That soft orange ball and the sweeter-than-Kool-Aid sound when it splashed through the net, that was the one constant. His therapy. Always had been.

“Basketball saved his ass,” said Steiner.

And now it seemed that saving grace would no longer be there.

***

Not getting to play basketball his senior year at Poly — “That really broke my heart,” Brand said. “I was disappointed in myself for letting that happen.”

Michael Brand had another son from a previous relationship who was teaching at Tappan Zee High School in Rockland County, New York, not far from New York City. Although the brothers barely knew each other, Brand decided to transfer to Tappan Zee after learning that the same grades he had at Poly qualified him to play in New York. The only catch was that he had to sit out 10 games due to transfer rules.

As soon as he became eligible, he played with a vengeance. Tappan Zee had never before won a sectional championship. That changed when he took the league by storm.

“Basketball saved his ass.”

—  Marc Steiner

He decided to play a postgraduate year at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire. The New England Preparatory School Athletic Council is considered one of the best prep basketball leagues in the country, and Brand thought the experience would help him win the Division I scholarship that he felt was within his reach.

The summer prior to going to New Hampton, he was invited to play with the Riverside Church Hawks AAU squad, a juggernaut program in Harlem whose alumni had included future NBA players Elton Brand, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest.

When he wasn’t suiting up for Riverside, Brand spent the summer navigating the subway system with his ball in hand, making his way to hoops shrines like West 4th Street and Rucker Park to test his skills against the city’s best.

But at New Hampton, he found himself in the same situation as in his freshman year at Poly, practically the last man on the bench. His teammates included Bernard Robinson, who’d go on to play at the University of Michigan and in the NBA, as well as Wes Miller, who won a national championship in 2005 as a player with the North Carolina Tar Heels before recently becoming the head coach at the University of Cincinnati.

“There were 11 guys on that team that went on to play major Division I basketball,” said Brand. “We were loaded, and it was fun to experience that next level of work and commitment. But I had to work my way into the rotation.”

He also flexed his creative side, portraying the character Bill Sikes, a malicious criminal, in a theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.”

“He got to explore a different side of his personality up in New Hampshire,” his mom recalled. “I was beyond happy watching him on the stage. And he was fantastic.”

He eventually secured a starting role late in the season and found success. But the only schools offering him scholarships were Division II schools.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on and Brand said he “jumped at it.” “The plan was to ball out there and earn a scholarship for my last three years. But things didn’t work out like that.”

He only saw a few minutes here and there when a game had long been decided. His mom still chuckles at the memory of a blowout at UMBC when someone yelled out, “Put Eminem in the damn game!”

As a member of the scout team, he relished every opportunity to show the coaching staff what he could do. But those efforts also seemed to be in vain.

“Put Eminem in the damn game!”

—  Shouted during a game at UMBC

During a winter road trip the day before playing Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, there was a scrimmage and he was cooking. The jumpers felt pure as they left his hand, and he hit a barrage of long-range shots.

In Baltimore, talking trash was an accepted part of the game. The hotter he got, the more he yapped, reminding his teammates, in intensely colorful language, that they could not guard him.

This infuriated the head coach at the time, who stopped the practice and stormed toward Brand.

“You’re a disgrace to white basketball players everywhere!” Brand recalled the coach screaming.

“What the f--- did you just say to me?” Brand yelled back.

The two had to be physically separated.

“Sam wasn’t just lighting it up from behind the three-point line,” said his former UMBC teammate Andre Williams. “His crossovers and hesitation dribbles were crisp, he had dudes off balance and was attacking the rim. Coach was not happy with the display. I guess he didn’t like seeing a white guy playing a Black style and then trash-talking on top of it. And when he said that to Sam, it got heated.”

Brand removed anything that said UMBC basketball, on the spot. He slung his jersey aside, took off his shorts and proceeded to walk on the team bus in nothing but his underwear.

And that was the end of his basketball experience at UMBC.

No longer on the team, he was not in a good space. Thinking of his dad’s struggles with MS would sometimes leave him disconsolate.

He’d often find himself trekking back to East and South Baltimore to hang out with his homeboys when he should have been studying. He dropped out at the end of the semester.

“I never gave up hope, though,” he said. “I wanted to be a Division I college basketball player still. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”

***

It seemed like every shot found the net. Brand was utilizing every weapon in his scoring arsenal, making buckets. His 40-point tally made him smile. But he wasn’t in a packed arena, in front of thousands of rabid fans. He was at the Towson YMCA, in a men’s league the fall after he left UMBC.

Serendipitously, one of those opponents that he scorched was Lamont “Speedy” Pennick, an assistant coach at Morgan State.

“What you got going on?” Pennick queried, his eyes widening as Brand explained his basketball odyssey and the lingering hopes of resuming his college basketball career.

Sam Brand as a player at Morgan State University.

That spring, Brand enrolled at Morgan State, the historically Black university in Baltimore. He attacked his academics like never before. By the next season, in 2002-03, the 6-foot-3 guard was electrifying raucous crowds at Hill Field House. In his first game, he scored 19 points against Towson.

“On senior night, you should have seen how many neighborhood folks came out to give him a standing ovation,” said Brand’s coach at Morgan, Butch Beard. “Sam could really shoot the ball and had he been a step quicker, he would have been playing at a high major D-I school.”

Beard was impressed with Brand’s passion and leadership skills — how he cherished the challenge of taking the big shot in crunch time. But Brand remained headstrong, and the two would often bump heads.

“I can’t tell you how many times I threw him out of practice,” said Beard, laughing. “When I saw how much he loved the game, I figured he was going to find a way to stay around it after he graduated.”

Sam Brand was a shooting guard for Morgan State University.

At the end of Brand’s senior season, he walked away owning the school records for most three-pointers made in both a single game and for a career.

Beard shook his hand, smiled, stared at Brand and told him: “As much hell as you caused me, I hope you go into coaching and come across a player who does the same thing to you.”

Beard resigned the next season and Brand, while working on his master’s degree in mathematics at Morgan, was invited to join new coach Todd Bozeman’s staff as an assistant for the 2006-07 season. Over the next few years, the Bears became the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s preeminent team, earning back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids.

“I loved his passion and his desire to learn,” said Bozeman. “He had aspirations of being a head coach one day. Here’s this white guy from Baltimore that played at an HBCU and everybody loved and respected him. As I watched him, I was impressed with the way he worked with people, how he communicated with people.”

After a four-year run as Bozeman’s assistant, Brand was offered the gig as Poly’s head coach. One of the first calls Brand made was to Anthony “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the freshman who saw him zap out during his senior year at Poly when he found out that he wouldn’t be able to play. Fitzgerald was working then as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Stevenson University.

"Here’s this white guy from Baltimore that played at an HBCU and everybody loved and respected him.”

—  Todd Bozeman, former head coach at Morgan State University

“Sam invited me to a meeting and said he wanted me to be a part of what he envisioned building at Poly,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ve been together ever since.”

As they went about changing the losing culture at Poly over a decade, Fitzgerald was struck by Brand’s work ethic and his humility. He never uttered the word “I,” it was always “we.” Unlike coaches who tell their most talented players what they wanted to hear, Brand didn’t pull any punches.

Sam Brand with one of his teams at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

“Sam put in an incredible amount of work to change the narrative,” said Fitzgerald. “People eventually saw the city and state championships, the national rankings, the players that were getting big-time college scholarship offers.”

“But they didn’t see what went into that behind the scenes,” he continued. “Sam was the tutor, the personal trainer, the dietician, the yoga instructor, the strength and conditioning coach, the team chef. Once we got that thing humming, we had Poly alums that volunteered to assume those roles. Our success did not happen by accident.”

***

The light rain didn’t seem to bother 7-year-old Solomon Brand. Standing outside his home early on a Saturday morning sporting a Marquette University basketball shirt a few weeks back, as “Uncle Fitz” sat nearby with the engine running, Solomon held an iPad in one hand and a ball in the other.

When an inquisitive neighbor asked what he had planned for the day, the remnants of his sleepy face evaporated.

“We’re going to watch basketball,” Solomon said.

Sam Brand with Anthony Fitzgerald, his long-time assistant coach at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Fitzgerald is now the Assistant Director at Team Melo.

His tone was even, but his grin said it all, as if there was nothing on earth that he’d rather be doing.

Brand came jogging out of the house in gray Air Jordan sweatpants and a black Morgan State shirt. The father-son duo hopped into the Chevy Tahoe and Fitzgerald took off for the 50-minute ride to the University of Maryland’s team basketball camp. There, the best prep programs in the region were bringing their prospective varsity players for an intense two days of games.

This was the first year that Brand and Fitzgerald were there not as Poly coaches, but to show support to the elite 14- and 15-year-olds playing for Team Melo this summer.

Walking into the Xfinity Center, where games were being played simultaneously all day long on three adjacent courts, Brand couldn’t take a few steps without being stopped, fist-bumped, and hugged by parents, players and former colleagues in the high school coaching community.

Solomon stood nearby, putting himself through a series of dribbling and ball-handling drills. Brand jumped in to instruct him, working to help his son control the ball with his fingertips, the correct execution of crossover and in-and-out dribbles. With each successful completion, Solomon declared, “I did it, Daddy!”

A Terps assistant sauntered over to Solomon and said, “I’m recruiting you right now!”

The scene was repeated throughout the day.

Brand watched and yelled words of encouragement to players like Malik Washington, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound rising sophomore at Archbishop Spalding in Severn.

Sam Brand with his two sons and Justin Lewis. Lewis was a star player Baltimore Polytechnic Institute under Brand. Then he went on to play at Marquette University for two years and just signed a two-way NBA contract with the Chicago Bulls.

“That kid is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” said Brand. “He’s such a great, positive kid. He has the potential to play D-I basketball. But his future is in the NFL. You’re looking at the top-ranked quarterback in the state of Maryland right there.”

On the ride home after a long day traversing the gym, Brand couldn’t hide his excitement.

“At Poly, we had a chance to work with and make an impact on a core group of 15 kids every season,” he said. “With Team Melo, you’re talking about impacting hundreds of kids, boys and girls, pouring everything we have into them when they’re 8 and 9 years old.”

***

On Tuesday evening at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel School gymnasium in Essex, Brand put Team Melo’s 15-and-under squad through their final practice before they headed to their next Nike EYBL session in Kansas City the next afternoon.

If they fare well in Kansas City, they’ll qualify for the prestigious Peach Jam in Augusta, South Carolina, the culminating event of the summer.

Sam Brand, Director of the Team Melo AAU Program, works with players at a clinic.

During the practice, Brand ran through the offensive and defensive sets that they’ll be running in Kansas City, pinging around the floor, yelling out at various junctures, “You did not call out who you were guarding!” “Out of the movement, get into our action!” “34, let’s run it!”

The 17-and-under team matched up for a set of 15-minute scrimmages. The older kids were bigger, faster, stronger — and they dominated the action early.

But eight minutes in, the younger squad came alive. They went on a 10-0 run in the last seven minutes of the scrimmage. With 3:30 left on the running clock, Malik Washington, the soon-to-be sophomore quarterback at Archbishop Spalding, who already holds football scholarship offers from the likes of Penn State, Maryland and Virginia Tech, intercepted a pass at half-court.

He raced ahead, pulling away from the defenders with a surprising burst of speed before jumping off 2 feet and throwing down a forceful two-handed dunk.

Sam Brand, Director of the Team Melo AAU Program, works with players at a clinic.

As Brand conferred with the other Team Melo coaches, Washington asserted his leadership, instructing and cheering on his teammates.

“I’m excited to be making some new brothers and seeing some new places this summer,” Washington said. “Coach Sam is so passionate, and he cares about every single player. He really loves the game, which has given him so much, and now he’s giving it back to everybody else.”

As practice concluded, they huddled up with raised arms touching each other.

Brand reminded them that it’s about teamwork: “What’s really important is the group dynamic, how we all play a role within the group and have the understanding that individual success comes when you focus on the group.”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “1:30pm. BWI. Southwest Terminal. Big weekend ahead in Kansas City, let’s get after it.”

Washington looked his teammates in the eyes and softly said, “One Melo, 2, 3 family.”

He then yelled out, “One Melo!”

Everyone chimed in with a booming roar, “2, 3 FAMILY!!!”

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