January 26, 2023 

“Heart over height”: Former walk-on Jada Brown awarded a scholarship during practice

The George Mason freshman earned a scholarship and found her place in Fairfax.

As George Mason president Gregory Washington walked through the doors of Mason’s practice gym on Jan. 12, looks of confusion swept through the team. He put forth a convincing act of disappointment and anger while pretending to cite a Virginia state law and serve a warrant before announcing he was actually there to be the bearer of good news.

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Washington, a frequent courtside attendee at Mason games, interrupted the team’s film session to tell freshman Jada Brown she would be receiving a scholarship for the rest of her time at Mason, beginning with the spring semester that started on Jan. 23.

“I thought I was gonna get led out in handcuffs,” Brown told The Next. “So I was really nervous. I thought I was going to jail. I thought — I was thinking the worst. And it took him so long to say like, ‘we want to give you a scholarship,’ it took him so long to say that. I’m just sitting there sweating, shaking.”

The mastermind behind this plan? Head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis and her staff. They knew they wanted to award Brown a scholarship for the spring semester but were about to travel to VCU. They originally planned to do it when they came back, but associate head coach and director of analytics Niki Washington wanted to ensure they were able to get it done before Brown paid for the spring semester. 

After brainstorming, Blair-Lewis and her staff decided to involve Gregory Washington and called his office, hoping he’d be able to help out on short notice.

“He was like, ‘Alright, where do you need me? What do you need me to say?’” Blair-Lewis told The Next.

She later added, “To see Dr. Washington in that capacity leaning in, for one student, he’s responsible for this entire campus, but for him to take the time out of his busy morning to come over for just one student. This was something she will absolutely never forget.”

Once Brown received the news from Gregory Washington she was a “ball of emotions” as her teammates swarmed her.

After the team’s Jan. 26 loss to Rhode Island senior Tamia Lawhorne told reporters, “[Jada] still [worked] as hard as anybody else on the team scholarship or not. … It was a very good feeling, knowing that she’s able to work hard and be rewarded for it.”

Brown originally caught the eye of the Mason coaching staff while they were recruiting other players at New Hope Academy.

“Every time we would see them play, Jada just had this special skill set, just knocked down open shots,” Blair-Lewis said.

After talking to Brown’s high school coach about the other players they had their eye on, the Mason coaching staff asked about Brown.

She wasn’t heavily recruited at the Division I level but she wanted to go to school in Virginia and grew up in Falls Church, just 25 minutes from Mason.

“I was really at a spot where I had nowhere to go,” Brown said.

After multiple discussions with Brown’s high school coach and finding out Brown would be interested in a walk-on spot, Blair-Lewis and her staff invited her to play pick-up with the team over the summer

She then applied and got into Mason and afterward Blair-Lewis told her to come to see the coaching staff to try out for a walk-on spot. 

“When she made the team, she was able to do a lot of things…” Blair-Lewis said. “And we just saw that she was able to retain information and she was able to bend. And to be able to shoot really, really well even against, Division I competition.

So we were excited about her and everything just flourished. She put in the work. She showed the effort. She came early, she stayed late. And we just watched her for that first semester. And I said this is a young lady who I feel is really worthy of receiving a scholarship.”

Brown recalled that her decision to come to Mason was a last-minute one and she had some doubts, but assistant coach and director of player development Demetria Frank told her that “anyone’s given an opportunity” and she decided to take the chance. She was attracted to the family environment at Mason and though she dreaded practice at first she was able to make the adjustment.

“I was scared of what the coaches were going to say, or my team was going to say,” Brown said. “And they’ve all just really embraced me. And I know, Coach Frank she all told me just play your game and everything will [follow] through. So that’s something that I’m definitely working on doing for the next games that we have, being myself and playing for my team.”

Though it took her a while to feel comfortable she appreciates how the coaching staff embraced her and treated her like just another member of the team.

“They just continue to push me ever since I’ve been here,” Brown said. “Yeah, just their trust in me has grown over time. And so I trusted them. And so I’m glad I made that decision.”

Brown scored her first collegiate points on Nov. 16, 2022, against Charleston Southern.
Though she missed her first three, she then knocked down a jumper and a three in the span of 36 seconds and was swarmed by her teammates at the end of the game just moments later.

Jada Brown's teammates smiled, hugged and cheered for her after the game in which she scored her first career point.
Jada Brown is swarmed by her teammates after the November 16, 2022 game against Charleston Southern. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra.

“She came in and she took her shots,” graduate student J-Naya Ephraim said after the Nov. 16 game. “So just the excitement that you see is the family atmosphere that we have here. So we’re excited for everybody, that’s our job as starters, as leaders to get everybody in and I’m excited for her.”

Graduate student Riley Childs echoed her excitement.

“Jada’s awesome, I mean, she does not miss in practice,” she said. “So as soon as she went in, I was like she’s making these shots, there was no doubt in my mind. And she works and she doesn’t have to be with us. And she made the commitment to be on this team and to join us in our mission to win. And she’s great. I mean, it was so good to see her get in there and make an impact literally from the second she was in the game. So I’m really happy for her.”

Brown saw action in four more nonconference contests before the end of 2022 and has checked into all of the Patriots’ eight Atlantic 10 games so far this season, starting against George Washington on Jan. 16. She averages 2.8 points and 0.9 rebounds in 9.2 minutes per game this season.

Consistently playing in games this soon wasn’t something that the coaching staff, or Brown, had envisioned when she came to Fairfax.

She envisioned a learning experience where she could watch and continue to improve in practice but is grateful for the opportunity she’s received and the trust her coaching staff has in her.  

Blair-Lewis thought that Brown was going to help the team get better and prepare for upcoming games in practice and learn the expectations of the team alongside the other freshmen, but she was impressed with what Brown did in practice, including against the male practice team players.

“She’s just not accidentally knocking down shots,” Blair-Lewis said. “She’s not accidentally being in the right place. Like, she’s intentional about where she is. And so then there were the few games in the nonconference where we were able to get her in and every single game, she got in, she did something, she made a shot, she got a rebound.

And I’m like, wow … this is showing like she can go in and garner some minutes and do something with them. … And there’s every bit of confidence when she goes in the game from us that she’s going to be able to perform.”

Brown started playing basketball when she was six or seven. She credits her dad with her shot developing quickly as he taught her how to shoot with good form. On the other hand, her competitive spirit took the longest to develop.

“I was really just out there doing it for fun, like, not a care in the world, just lollygagging and stuff,” Brown said. “So probably the competitive spirit has definitely grown, like actually wanting to do it, and having a reason to do it”

Her father not only taught her how to shoot but was also the most influential person in her basketball career, putting in his free time to help her develop.

“He’s always been there, always pushed me,” Brown said. “I remember, we would go to an outside court and it would either be really hot or it would be really cold. Him just always really pushing me. Even on a lot of days when I didn’t want to. He was always like get up and let’s go to work.”

Some of Brown’s favorite players she’s watched, Maya Moore and Aari McDonald, don’t play the same position as her but she admires their work ethic and leadership.

The way McDonald plays has taught Brown the importance of “heart over height.” 

“That phrase is something that I’ve had to grow into,” Brown, who is listed at 5’6″, said. “Because I figured after like middle school, I wasn’t going to grow anymore.” 

Once she got to Mason, Brown had to adjust to the size and strength of her competition as well as the speed of the game, noting “everybody’s fast. Everybody’s smarter, everybody’s better.”

Brown’s favorite basketball memories are the ones she’s making now because she’s enjoying herself.

“When I was playing a couple years back, it was something that I was doing, because I felt like I had to. And now like, I’m really having fun, I’m enjoying it,” Brown said. “And it’s making the game a lot easier for me. So I would say that’s the biggest thing that I’m loving about it, just having fun and just playing to my potential and having confidence.”

Blair-Lewis sometimes isn’t sure how Brown gets her shot off, especially when she barely leaves the floor.

“She doesn’t even look like she’s sweating, like she’s working that hard,” Blair-Lewis said. “And I think Coach [Niki] Washington gave her the nickname of the water bug. And so she just kind of scoots around the court and she ends up in all the right places.” 

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Having watched Brown go from a walk-on to competing for minutes on a Division I team in a matter of months, Blair-Lewis believes the sky’s the limit for her.

“I don’t know there’s much that she can’t do,” Blair-Lewis said. “I’m excited about her academic career as well. She’s a very bright young lady. So I’m excited to see where she’s going to take her academia. … I’m excited to see her grow and talk more and maybe be more comfortable that way. But yeah, she’s definitely a light for our team and a light of hope.”

It brings Blair-Lewis joy to see all that Brown has accomplished so far.

“It makes me smile that someone like her, a young woman who had a dream, did everything that she could in her power, and was able to fulfill that dream,” Blair-Lewis said. “And to see her and the excitement on her parents’ faces, just to see her accomplish something.

That’s a big deal to be playing on a Division I squad, when everybody in high school came to watch your teammates and not you, so to speak. So I just smile when I see her because it just lets you know that dreams do come true. And I think her teammates see that in her. But she’s our little water bug. And we love her.”

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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