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For Love of the Game: Corey Brewer brings zeal to the court

Blue-collar upbringing helped Denver Nuggets gain appreciation for hoops

Nuggets forward Corey Brewer brings a defensive mindset to the floor as a key reserve for Denver.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Corey Brewer can talk some trash and tell you about garbage time.

Just not in the context you’d expect from most NBA players

As far back as he can remember, Brewer would wake up on Friday and Saturday mornings on the family farm in rural Portland, Tenn., and accompany his dad on his trash route.

“We didn’t live in the city limits,” he explains. “You had to have somebody pick your trash up. My dad had all the routes out in the country.”

Luckily for young Corey, there was one thing that always guaranteed an exemption from trash duty.

Sports.

“If I had a basketball game or a baseball game or a football game, I didn’t have to go,” Brewer said. “Between having to haul trash or go play a sport, I’d rather do that.”

As motivating factors go, hauling trash certainly fueled Brewer, now in his sixth NBA season and second with the Denver Nuggets.

After growing 12 inches between 8th grade and his sophomore year of high school, Brewer led the Portland Panthers to their first state tournament appearance and earned a scholarship to the University of Florida.

During his three seasons in Gainesville, Brewer teamed with future NBA players Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green to win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007.

Drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2007, Brewer has carved out a niche as a high-energy reserve who can run the floor, knock down 3-pointers and guard three positions defensively. Equally important, Brewer is an ideal teammate.

“His energy is contagious,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “His enthusiasm and attitude toward being a good teammate in the locker room is consistent. He’s just one of those guys (that) when you talk to him, you feel good.

“He has that ‘life is good’ energy that a lot of NBA players don’t have. Corey is in awe of what he gets paid and respects it.”

Brewer’s experience hauling trash and working in the tobacco fields on his grandmother’s 70-acre farm helped him maintain his humility and blue-collar perspective while earning a living playing the game he loves.

No one smiles every waking moment. With Brewer, it just seems that way.

“You walk in here some days when you’re not feeling too good or down a little bit and he comes in smiling for no reason,” teammate Ty Lawson said. “One day, I said, “Why are you smiling?” He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He’s a people person just loving life.”

Brewer attributes his sunny disposition to his father Ellis, who was known around Portland as Pee Wee.

“He was a little runt when he was a baby,” Corey said. “They called him Pee Wee and it just stuck with him.”

Pee Wee Brewer supported his family by any means necessary, working in a ladder-making factory and a slaughterhouse and harvesting crops on the farm. He later took over the trash route handed down by his late brother.

Heart problems slowed the elder Brewer, and diabetes forced doctors to remove his left leg when Corey was playing at Florida.

“When he got his first leg cut off, he would still go on his trash route,” Corey said. “He’d tell his two guys what to pick up and what houses to go to. He knew every house in his mind.”

Pee Wee later lost his other leg and gradually went blind because of medical problems related to diabetes. Corey returned to Portland for a week after his father died last Feb. 5. He scored 19 points in a Nuggets victory on the day after the funeral.

“I’m always thinking about him,” said Brewer, who points to the sky after the national anthem each game. “I always look up at him. He liked to watch me and my brother play sports. He was just a happy-go-lucky guy.”

Brewer has always embraced his father’s outlook on life, and the rewards have been plentiful. In addition to winning consecutive NCAA titles at Florida, he earned an NBA championship ring while playing for the Dallas Mavericks in 2010-11.

“I’m definitely blessed,” he said. “Every time I’m on the court it’s a blessing. But it’s also happiness. You play a sport and get paid to play basketball. It’s the best life in the world.”

It’s an attitude that Brewer, 26, now tries to instill in younger teammates such as Jordan Hamilton, a 22-year-old who is adjusting to the ups and downs inherent to the NBA. It might come in the form of a pep talk on the bus or an extra workout session on the practice court.

“Corey, he’s like my mentor and older brother,” Hamilton said. “He’s helped me out a lot. He’s a great dude. Words can’t explain how much he’s helped me.”

Brewer is also helping the Nuggets in their push for a 10th consecutive playoff appearance.

After leading the team in scoring during the preseason, Brewer averaged 11.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.33 steals as part of Denver’s dynamic second unit. During a four-game stretch from Dec. 3-9, he averaged 18.3 points and added seven steals.

“He’s definitely a team player,” Lawson said. “He’s a great teammate, works hard, gets everything done and keeps a light energy in the locker room.”

Brewer’s production is even more impressive when you consider that he’s four years removed from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Built like a greyhound (6-foot-9, 188), he is running the floor as well as he has in his first five NBA seasons.

“I feel like I’m faster,” he said. “I might be faster and jump higher. They do miracles now. It used to be ACL surgery (meant) it was over for you. Now, you come back stronger.”

And for that the Nuggets are grateful.