Say the name Byron Brown Jr. to anyone in Buffalo, and if they know anything at all about him, they recall “the incident.”
They know about the crashed SUV, the grainy surveillance footage, the sheepish mayor holding a news conference to admit that he had been wrong – that the perpetrator was, in fact, his son.
But they don’t know Byron Brown Jr. How could they? He is still trying to figure it out himself.
Brown Jr., now 23, has a better idea today. He graduated in May from the University at Buffalo with a bachelor’s degree in media study, and he’s in a post-graduate visual effects program at Daemen College.
He believes he has found his niche as a filmmaker, and he knows he is not the same person who made himself infamous seven years ago.
For Brown, growing up has included two run-ins with the law, an up-and-down basketball career and the pressure of being the mayor’s son – but it has led him to a point of self-acceptance. He can look back on it now as an adult.
“I was a young, selfish kid,” Brown said. “I’ve grown a lot since then, and my family has been really supportive and helpful in that transitional period.”
He also has had to accept that some people in Buffalo will forever judge him based on “the incident,” or on who his father is.
Modie Cox, Brown’s mentor and the executive director of the Police Athletic League, said that is the price of being the son and the namesake of a well-known father.
“Some of the things that have happened to him, if it would have happened to the average Joe Shmoe, you probably would have never heard about it,” Cox said. “I think that unfortunate ordeal became a fortunate ordeal for him because I think all those things made him grow up. He had to grow up quicker than maybe he wanted to.”
At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Brown has an athlete’s build, owing to the years he spent pursuing his dream of playing basketball at the highest levels. He favors black earrings and a silver nose ring and has tattoos all over his body.
His friends say he’s charismatic, perhaps a benefit of being a politician’s offspring.
“He’s one of those guys that everybody likes – like, you can’t not like Byron,” said former UB classmate Tal Kissos. “He walks in the room and he has a spring, he has energy.”
As Brown has changed in recent years, so have his goals. The hoop dream is gone, replaced by one that might be even more difficult: a career in film.
That might seem ironic, given that a film is what first brought his name into the public consciousness.
It happened in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2007, when the mayor’s Chevrolet Equinox disappeared. It had been stolen and crashed into three parked vehicles near Canisius College. A five-week investigation followed: Who stole the mayor’s car, crashed it and ditched it?
Brown denied having a role, and his dad believed him. The mayor publicly stated there was “a zero percent chance” his SUV had been stolen by someone in his family.
But Canisius College security footage surfaced that showed Brown, who had a learner’s permit at the time, driving the car while talking on his cellphone.
Eventually, the 16-year-old admitted to the deed. He had been hanging out with a friend that morning and hit the cars on his way home, he said.
He pleaded guilty to unlicensed driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
He made the news again more than three years later, on July 31, 2010, when he was caught shoplifting from an A.J. Wright store. He said he was friends with the cashier and walked out without paying for about $60 in merchandise – clothes and an iPod speaker.
Brown was spared a criminal conviction and granted a dismissal of charges after he stayed out of trouble for six months. But the damage from his two encounters with police had been done, both to him and to his father.
Brown read the ensuing articles and comments. The negative attention hurt, but he said that for his father’s sake he tried not to let it show.
“I had to stay strong for him because I put him in a position of weakness,” Brown said. “I don’t think it would’ve been blown out of proportion like that if my father wasn’t who he was. I think it was more of a target at him.”
He said the turmoil brought him closer to his father, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
“He’s always got my back,” said Brown, whose family calls him ‘B.’ “Even if I do something he’s not really proud of, he’ll help me get through it.”
The rest of the story
Look beyond Brown’s arrest history and you’ll find a former basketball star, an aspiring fashion designer and film director, and a young man still discovering himself.
Cox, a former University at Buffalo and Buffalo Silverbacks player, accepted a request from the mayor to train Brown six years ago. Brown, then a 17-year-old City Honors junior, had made it his goal to play Division I basketball, but things were looking grim.
Cox pinpointed the problem: Brown didn’t have the right attitude – he was more focused on sneakers and social status.
“I met a kid who wasn’t very mature, wasn’t hard-working, thought the world owed him something, I think, based on who he is,” Cox said.
Over the next year, the two met to work out at 6:30 a.m. before school. Brown studied the game and trained harder than ever.
“He got me to exhaustion every morning,” Brown said of Cox.
But sports can be unforgiving, and injuries often erase sweat equity.
Brown broke his leg and missed his senior year. From there, he went to prep school in Charlotte, N.C., then played a year for Erie Community College (which catapulted to the No. 1 ranking in its class in the country), before earning a scholarship to Binghamton State University.
He played at Binghamton for two years before a new coach came in. The coach did not renew Brown’s scholarship.
So Brown came home again, this time enrolling at UB. Both former UB head coach Reggie Witherspoon and current coach Bobby Hurley would have allowed him to try to walk on, but Brown wanted to focus on his future.
At Binghamton, Brown was bouncing around psychology and English classes when he decided to enroll in some cinema courses. Those hooked him.
Matt McCormick, a media study professor at UB, had Brown for three classes over two years. He said Brown “could be both inspiring and frustrating.”
“He had a bad habit of missing class and at times not putting enough effort into assignments, but on the flip side, he has a ton of talent and is very creative,” McCormick said.
McCormick said Brown’s work “would demonstrate a deep understanding of the more complex aspects of filmmaking – fundamental elements that are very difficult, if not impossible, to teach.”
Another professor, Sarah Elder, echoed McCormick, saying Brown would come to class when he felt like it. But she developed respect for him.
“You could see that he was going through big changes inside, and he was beginning to realize there is life after graduation,” Elder said. His own personal aesthetics and interests were really beginning to form right in front of my eyes as he was working.”
Brown’s videos are on Vimeo on his channel, “$eeing $ounds.” They are experimental films with animation, hip-hop and real-life footage.
Brown is planning on moving to Los Angeles in the fall to pursue a career in the film industry. Standing out there is a mighty task, but Elder said he has a future.
“I think he’s learned how to overcome challenges in life,” Elder said. “And it takes a lot of grit and determination to make it, and I certainly think he has that.”
On June 13, at Mount Olive Baptist Church, Brown was one of several young men awarded the Hero Award by the Buffalo United Front for the example he has set for others by pursuing his education.
Brown will keep doing experimental films and is looking to get into acting. He was in his first feature film last year, “The Romans,” a modern-day Julius Caesar, which won the award for Best Drama at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
His future seems brighter than it once did. And Brown doesn’t hide from talking about his past. He seems at peace with it.
Elder said Brown is still figuring out who he is. But he has a clearer vision now, and he’s no longer trying to be someone he is not or concerned with impressing others.
“I think before Byron was looking at himself, but now he’s grown up and is looking at other people and how he can help,” Cox says. “I think he just wants to be a good person.”