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No Quitting : Despite Setbacks, Basketball Player Cindy Brown Won’t Give Up on Recovering From Auto Accident

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cindy Brown’s head hit the windshield and snapped down into the steering wheel.

Her thoughts screamed inside her brain.

“Oh my God, there goes my contract!”

Her contract. She had played basketball for five months in Japan and, with bonuses, earned $125,000. Not bad for a 25-year-old who was three years out of college.

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She had been warned. A coach at Long Beach State told her to insure her body because it was her living. But she was in her best shape ever. She had already won a gold medal in the 1988 Olympic Games, but had skipped the University Games and missed the Goodwill Games with a bum knee. Still, there was no need to dial Lloyds of London.

And then she was rear-ended by a drunk driver in the summer of 1991.

He had a prior arrest and fled, but was apprehended. He got two years of probation, four days in jail and a fine. He never paid restitution.

Brown’s career, for all practical purposes, ended that day in Garden Grove. She suffered severe whiplash, a chipped cervical disk and pinched nerve in her back that made her right arm numb, and she had no feeling in two fingers of her shooting hand.

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She missed the Pan Am Games.

She forfeited $175,000 of a $200,000 contract in Japan.

She missed the 1992 Olympic Games.

“I felt very angry, very cheated by the system,” she said this week from her Villa Park home. “I felt justice hadn’t been served. I felt he was totally irresponsible--he not only endangered his life but mine and everyone else’s, and he also ruined my career. I sustained a great loss because of him.

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“Nothing has been the same since.”

It really hasn’t. Brown did almost everything that can be done in women’s basketball. She set an NCAA Division I record with 60 points in a game and averaged 21.1 over a 128-game career at Long Beach State. She twice was a first-team Naismith All-American selection and a first-team Kodak All-American. She was the most valuable player of the 1987 NCAA Western Regionals. She was inducted into the 49er Hall of Fame in 1992.

She was good. Really good.

And nothing has been the same since.

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Instead of international competition against the best women on the planet, Brown now plays pickup games against the guys down at Mile Square Park.

But that might change.

Now 29, mature, and at ease, she’s mounting her comeback. She has a workout station in her home and a hoop in her driveway and a goal to reach the Pan American Games and then, one more time, the Olympics.

“I’ve kind of been out of sight, out of mind,” Brown said. “I hope to change that because I really have had the strong desire to play. I’ve never lost that drive. I still have a lot of fight to be No. 1. I just hope I have the opportunity to show that.”

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It will be a great comeback story if it takes place.

After the accident, she missed her third international competition in a row, the Pan Am Games; she had already missed the 1989 University Games when she took a year off to recover from physical burnout, and the ’90 Goodwill Games with a bad knee. She returned to Japan in 1992, but took a big financial hit--management thought she was either washed up or wouldn’t recover from the accident. She later had foot surgery.

Japan changed its policies regarding American players a year later and most headed to Europe, but Brown’s big-money $225,000 contract made her an expendable prospect in the cheaper Italian leagues. She did join Faenza Errieti for the final eight games of the 1992 season, helping raise the team from 13th to ninth place in the standings, an increase that allowed it to maintain its sponsorship, which would have been lost had it finished lower than 12th.

But the Eastern Bloc countries began allowing players to join the European leagues, Brown said, and 6-2, 175-pound power forwards weren’t a premium--not when cheaper Czech and Russian athletes were available--so she never got another chance in Italy.

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So Brown has waited in Orange County and trained to compete this summer. But she was dogged by fatigue. She thought it might be mononucleosis, but doctors eventually found a lump on her neck that turned out to be a benign thyroid goiter. It was removed in June. There are four others she’s keeping an eye on.

She says she’s in shape. The knee and foot are healed. The accident is behind her. The Pan Am Games are in March, and Brown will seek a position on the team. She grew up in Portland, Ore., and will play for a Portland AAU team that will face NCAA competition this winter. She will take another shot in Europe and explain that, yeah, she’s affordable.

She will try to prove she can play again.

She will try to prove she can be an Olympian again.

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“The more I try,” Brown said, “the harder it is to get ahead, but I’m ready to face whatever’s ahead.”

She is asked a question she has not heard before. It’s about the defining moment of her life.

“I wonder if I’ve even hit that point,” she said. “I still feel very young of mind and open and eager to learn. I don’t know if I can honestly answer that. It’s a darn good question, but I don’t know if I’m there yet.

“I think I’ve overcome so much and can still overcome a lot more.”

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