DETROIT — Wendell Brown’s eyes were bloodshot. From the tears of joy. From the 24-plus hours of constant, sleepless travel. From the stress of the final days of finally getting out of the Chinese prison that housed him — wrongly he has always contended — for the past three years.
He was standing in the baggage claim area of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, surrounded by family and friends, by smiles and hugs, by a sense of peace after a nightmare completed and a future suddenly before him again.
As the 32-year-old former Ball State University linebacker spoke, he focused on what might be considered an astounding point of view.
No bitterness at China, the country in which he was coaching football and teaching English when he was involved in a bar fight in 2016 (he says he was attacked and merely defending himself). No resentment at the legal system there. No negatives at all.
“It was a beautiful time,” Brown said.
No, prison wasn’t beautiful. And being away from his family, which includes a now 12-year-old son wasn’t beautiful. And the frustrations of dealing with a draconian legal system that even if he were guilty as authorities claim (and evidence reportedly never showed anything close to that) wasn’t beautiful.
But … yes, he said it was a beautiful time because out of the ugliness, he said the beauty of his faith prevailed.
“I am thankful for every experience that I have in life,” he explained. “Everything is a lesson, and if you can’t use every situation you go through to grow from then you are doing something wrong. At least that is what I was taught.”
So he was asked: What’s the lesson?
“The lesson from this is to always have faith in God,” Brown said. “Always believe in his power that he can do all things. If you believe fully and give yourself to the will of God then greatness awaits you on the other side. My family feels it every day. I feel it every day. We are stronger because of this. Our faith was tested and we never lost hope. We always believed. And because of our belief I am standing here today.
“They said this wasn’t possible,” he added. “But we are able to celebrate it. I am just excited.”
How Wendell Brown ended up in a Chinese prison
Nearly two years ago, three UCLA basketball players, including then-freshman LiAngelo Ball, were detained for shoplifting while in China to play a game. The story was huge, in part because of Ball’s look-at-me father, LaVar, and the fact no less than President Donald Trump claimed he lobbied the Chinese government to get their early release when they were facing what he claimed was up to 10 years in prison.
The players did get released, and although it remains a question what exactly, if anything, Trump did to facilitate it, his interest in the story certainly didn’t hurt. Yet when he wondered on Twitter if he’d get a thank you from the players and their families, LaVar ridiculously shot back he wouldn’t in part because the players didn’t get a ride home on Air Force One. Instead LaVar sent Trump some Big Baller Brand sneakers because he was never one to miss a marketing opportunity.
It was a modern story in all the worst ways — spoiled celebrities breaking the law and then getting preferential treatment, two showmen engaging in a pointless feud to drum up headlines and a decided lack of respect and gratitude that a positive end was achieved, no matter how it was achieved.
It was also something everyone was reading and talking about.
It was then that I first heard about the story of Wendell Brown, a former college athlete who grew up in an anonymous, dangerous Detroit neighborhood. He was stuck in a Chinese prison and lacked the ability to gain the kind of publicity that might attract presidential interest and nightly cable news hits.
Soon I was sitting in the living room of his mother, Antoinette Brown, and her husband, Travon King, trying to figure out what had happened. It’s a small, but tidy spot in a neighborhood federal prosecutors have dubbed “The Red Zone” for its incredibly high rate of murder and violence. It was as far from America’s power circles as it gets.
This was the depths Wendell had risen from only to find himself incarcerated halfway around the world after a confusing incident stemming from a birthday party he attended at a Chinese bar. Brown, and his friends in China, maintain he defended himself from a bottle attack by pushing a man away. Local police, though, charged him with a crime. No one could figure out what was going to happen.
Antoinette Brown was no LaVar Ball. A hairdresser on Detroit’s East Side, what she lacked in money and connections she made up for in desperation and an ethics-based character.
“I’ll thank him,” Antoinette said that day. “If Trump helps us, if he helps Wendell, I won’t stop thanking him. He helped get three basketball players who were guilty get out. I pray he’ll help my innocent son. And if he does, I’ll thank him and thank him and thank him.”
The story went semi-viral that day, leading to additional stories in additional outlets. Antoinette even appeared on Fox News, which spurred hope Trump would see her on his preferred television network. Ball State became interested. Someone thought they could get to Mike Pence. Letters and calls poured into the little house on Detroit’s Northeast Side. A GoFundMe attracted some new donations. A documentarian named Matt Liston got involved.
There was hope.
It led nowhere.
Navigating the Chinese legal system
Trump never came through. No other politician of any party really did either. At one point Antoinette and family traveled to Washington to meet with officials only to be confronted with a government shutdown. They drove all the way home, empty-handed.
Wendell had a trial, which his friends and attorney in China dubbed a sideshow that actually proved his innocence. But then he had to wait nearly 10 months for an actual verdict.
Back in the United States, wheels spun and enthusiasm dimmed. Antoinette went through the hell of a mother not knowing where her son really was or what he was doing. Traveling to China was expensive and experts in their legal system said it would do more harm than good.
At times it felt like it was this one anonymous woman against all of China. She did what she could do. She made T-shirts and prayed a lot. She posted on social media. Every so often I, and others, would write another story with an update. Sometimes I’d stop into her beauty salon to visit or just exchange text messages, which from her end always included two hands clasped in prayer.
“God will deliver,” she kept saying. “He will.”
Finally, Brown was given a sentence. Guilty, of course. Chinese prosecutors win 99 percent of their cases, so that wasn’t a surprise. The sentence was … a harsh four years. Still, it was a milestone, because finally lawyers who volunteered to help, most notably Sophia Wright of Los Angeles, said negotiations could begin.
A focus was put on raising money, which was needed to ostensibly pay off the Chinese government, or perhaps the “victim.” No one was certain. A group of former Ball State football alumni, led in part by Fox Sports host Jason Whitlock, put together about $50,000.
The family wanted to pay it all to China to get Wendell sprung immediately. Instead the government accepted a deal for about $25,000 for the sentence to be cut in half. A release date was set.
He would leave the country on Sept. 24, 2019, exactly three years after the incident. Just as important, in the interim, American embassy workers were able to visit Wendell in prison and set it up so he could occasionally Skype back to the United States with his mother, son and others.
At last she could see he was, at the very least, safe.
Wendell Brown finally comes home
Wendell touched down at LAX late in the afternoon on Tuesday. Antoinette, unable to wait any longer, had flown there to meet him after he hustled through customs. Matt Liston and his cameras were there to capture it all for a future project. Everyone then quickly boarded a red-eye to Detroit.
At the airport, dozens of family and friends arrived just after 5 a.m. to greet the arrival. Dan Redford, a sports marketer with extensive experience in China who had joined the rag-tag “Free Wendell” team, was there to coordinate. Like most people involved in helping with this case, it was the first time he would meet Wendell, or almost anyone else involved.
The reunion was as predicted: cheers and tears, hugs and kisses. They would soon head back to Detroit for a full and proper Thanksgiving dinner, as Wendell requested, made by his grandma.
“No Chinese food,” one cousin joked.
Wendell looked ripped, a combination he said of endless pushups in his cell and losing 30 pounds due to prison cuisine. He would utter no other negatives about his experience. He declined to criticize anyone or anything. He didn’t even want to describe his conditions.
“It was prison,” he said, leaving it at that.
China was behind him. Everything else was in front of him. Seeing his son. Teaching again, he hoped. He’d even learned how to speak a measure of Mandarin during his time in prison. Hopefully some coaching. Right now, though, food and sleep and time with his family.
“To be finally able to laugh together, those meals we have been missing together,” Wendell said. “My family is very tight-knit, very close.”
There was no doubt about that. This was an All-American family. A family built on love and support and faith. A family whose faith was tested. A family who, quite incredibly, found this entire horrible, frustrating ordeal was somehow, in the end, worth it all.
“We are together now,” Antoinette said. “That’s all that matters. God is good.”
In the baggage claim of the Detroit airport on Wednesday morning, good was, at last, everywhere.
If anyone was still paying attention, long after LaVar Ball and Donald Trump departed the narrative, it was one heck of a story to witness.
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