HIS STORY WILL BE HEARD: Kaleb Brown overcomes speech impediment to lead change on, off court

Peoria senior point guard Kaleb Brown poses for a photograph on Feb. 6 at Peoria High School. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Kaleb Brown still stutters, but in his four years at Peoria High School and in the Panthers basketball program, he has found his voice.

His mother, Pia, said by third grade she noticed that he might have a learning disability as Kaleb was falling behind his peers in reading, comprehension and math skills. He was diagnosed with ADD, lacking in cognitive and short-term memory skills. His stutter was becoming more pronounced. The Peoria Unified School District set up an individualized educational plan (IEP).

By the second semester of his sophomore year at Peoria High School, Kaleb was ready to transition back into a classroom with his peers — for the majority of the day. He also was the starting point guard for the Panthers varsity basketball team.

Now in his senior year, Kaleb is the unquestioned leader of a Peoria team that finished the regular season 15-3 (18-7 overall) and earned the No. 5 seed in the 4A Conference. Beyond basketball, he is a mentor to other kids receiving speech therapy and an example for the campus.

Peoria High basketball coach and teacher Will Roberts said Kaleb has grown immensely.

“The game is a pure game and when it’s taught the right way, you can watch a boy grow into a man. To see him as our point guard — I was a point guard in high guard and I’m an a-hole to my point guards — and to see the way he’s leading us this year and dealt with me, that lets him know he can deal with anybody. He demands the respect of his team because of his work ethic, which led to his voice and being confident in himself,” Roberts said.

Pia was able to get a plan in place for her only child through district testing in third grade.

She said she thought he might grow out of his speech impediment because it runs on her side of the family and his dad’s side of the family.

“He was struggling a little bit with the reading, so they were placing him a little bit into the resources. But when third grade hit, we realized we really had to come together and do this. To bring him to the level he needs to be, we were going to have to set up an IEP. Talking to other parents was helpful. And I have to say, Foothills Elementary really came alongside us and helped guide us through these things — and had some resources for us to tap into.” Pia said.

His day would start in a regular class, but in elementary school Kaleb would be pulled out for specialized instruction in reading and math, as well as speech therapy.

The IEP is a written document developed for each public school student who is eligible for special education. The IEP is created through a team effort and reviewed at least once a year.

Kaleb said the first years on the IEP were challenging at times.

“It was difficult for me, getting pulled out of class. I struggled with that. I used to get made fun of a lot. But now that I look back, it’s made me who I am today … a leader and not afraid to be myself,” Kaleb said.

Player and coach

By seventh grade at Foothills Elementary in Glendale, basketball was his favorite thing. Pia said his seventh-grade coach, Jeff Churchill, was a major reason he flourished in the sport.

Kaleb lived for some of his eighth grade year with his father in Oklahoma, and did not make the basketball team at that school.

When he returned to Arizona for high school, another culture clash loomed. Pia and Kaleb decided to attend Peoria. But beyond his new coach, he barely knew a single student.

“I felt like kind of an outcast, coming from a different school. Almost all the Foothills people go to Cactus. At the same time, when I played as a freshman was a really good time for me because I met some new friends and the freshman team became like a family. Coach and I have been through a lot together,” Kaleb said.

Roberts met Kaleb by seventh grade and said he identified with the youngster’s toughness and work ethic.

Kaleb’s freshman year was Roberts’ first as the Panthers head coach. And the former college point guard said he was demanding from the start, particularly since Peoria lacked a veteran to show Kaleb the ropes.

He played the bulk of that season on the freshman team but was pulled up to the varsity for a few quarters here and there.

“If you’re a freshman on varsity, some people aren’t going to like it. They probably treated him like an outcast. He’s a freshman with a speech impediment, so he’s learning how to love himself and appreciate what God gave him. He was going through a lot. His mom, myself and his IEP team here continued to put confidence in him and let him know that it’s okay to be himself,” Roberts said.

And he came through his trials in an unfamiliar setting. Basketball joined academics as a freshman-year catalyst for Kaleb’s growth.

“I think when ninth grade came, he was so determined to get out of his classes, to really study and work hard and tap into the resources he had here,” Pia said. “Coming into ninth grade I was nervous. It’s a totally different platform with older kids. Seeing him getting good grades in his first semester or two gave me hope that he would be able to transition out. Seeing him trying to navigate friendships was difficult.”

Excelling in academics

Kaleb describes himself as a perfectionist and said his mother and coach help him balance that with reality. Pia said a few years ago, he was obsessive about checking his grades.

As a sophomore, Kaleb was an honor roll student and hit enough IEP benchmarks to join his grade-level class for most of the day. Now, he spends time in the resource room — a specialized supplementary instruction area in individual or small group setting — only for speech therapy, and as an optional calm space for tests.

“Going to the resource room has helped a lot. Sometimes I struggle with tests. I have a quiet space that I can focus in,” Kaleb said.

In time, Pia said, Kaleb fit so seamlessly into class that he had to remind his teachers that he has an IEP plan.

Roberts said Kaleb never got in trouble, which sometimes made it tougher for teachers to remember his needs.

He said during a practice last year, Kaleb was struggling with making the right reads and really got upset with the coach. Roberts took him to watch a junior college game and gave him two options.

Kaleb could tell Roberts he was pushing him too hard. Or he could allow the coach to see how far basketball could take him.

“I’m a fan of his. He did not make excuses where some people would. He allowed me to push him. I’m excited for all the success he has in front of him,” Roberts said.

In 2017-18 the Panthers were 18-10 and reached the first round of the 4A playoffs, their first playoff berth since the 2012 state championship. Kaleb was in his second year as a starting point guard, averaging nine points, 3.4 rebounds and nearly two steals a game.

By this points, he said, the court was the easiest place to express himself and communicate with his peers.

“It’s been awesome to see him use this as a platform and this place has been his safety net. When he’s frustrated, (basketball) is a place for him to let go, and he’s at the park or outside or dribbling the ball. It gets him back to where he needs to be,” Pia Brown said. “Just to see him grow into the man he has become … I can’t wait to see what’s ahead of him.”

Yet his biggest junior year milestone happened in Roberts’ class, which is the focal point of Peoria’s Jobs for Arizona Graduates (JAG) program.

The class includes a public speaking assignment.

“He got up in front of the class and talked about Tiger Woods and how he had a speech impediment when he was younger. When he did that speech I called his mother, and let her know how amazing he was to stand in front of the class and show who he is,” Roberts said.

Through that experience, Kaleb became more comfortable talking about his journey.

“I feel like I’ve gotten so much better with public speaking. I’m not afraid to be myself, and not afraid to go out of my comfort zone and share my story with other people,” he said.

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Peoria’s Kaleb Brown drives to the basket against Deer Valley on Jan. 8, at Peoria High School. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Leading on court

As a senior, that comfort has carried over to the court. Brown now commands the room on the Panthers’ best team in seven years.

He is averaging 15 points, three assists and two steals and part of a deadly back court combo with junior leading scorer Isaac Monroe. Big men Nisaj Nickolis and John Price join him as part of the senior core.

“It’s been amazing. We have a really great senior group — me, John Price, David (Shol) and those guys. I love playing with them. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” Brown said.

Yet there is no doubt who paces the Panthers.Roberts said Brown is now able to receive tough coaching, and leads the team by running its fastest mile or pacing a tough workout.

“If not easy to play for, especially if you’re a point guard. I feel like if you’re going on scholarship, they’re paying you for your decision making. He could have 22 points and make one bad pass, and I’d be talking about that pass. I think that used to annoy him when he was younger. But he started to understand me better and we have great chemistry. Normally when a team is doing well, the ship is run the right way, which is the head coach and staff to the point guard to everybody else,” Roberts said.

College-bound

The number of college basketball programs interested in Kaleb continues to grow.

Roberts said all the local community colleges and local NAIA schools such as Arizona Christian, Ottawa Arizona and Park University in Gilbert have shown interest in Kaleb.

Kaleb said he plans to study business management in college and some day be a coach.

“Coach Will has inspired me. I can share my story with other people and help them. Also, I want to own my own business someday,” he said.

Over time, Kaleb went from feeling like he was outside the circle to being the guy who brings kids into the circle.

“When he was a freshman, he didn’t want to go out and party like a lot of other students are doing. He felt embarrassed because he wasn’t there and wasn’t in on the conversations about the weekend. I told him that one day he was going to change the culture here. Now he’s the guy that everybody is trying to be like,” Roberts said. “To set that standard and be that professional — a lot of it has to do with his mom and him making those choices. I’m thankful for that.”

The mother of a freshman basketball player recently called Pia and told her that her son had been pressured to go to parties. The boy found out that Kaleb wasn’t going to these parties and said he’s fine because of where Kaleb is at.

“Sometimes when he’s down, I have to remind him. This is where you’re at, you’re a mentor for other kids in your speech class and an example for players,” she said.



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