The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express on Thursday 13 November 2003:
There was a buzz on Sunday in the lounge area of the Southdown Club, Lewes, East Sussex. It was a smart sports bar equipped with everything from a diner to pool tables and, of course, a big screen television.
English Premier League football fat cats, Chelsea, were hammering Newcastle in a contest that set tongues wagging around Britain. Yet, it seemed that Trinidad and Tobago hockey star Kwandwane Browne matched the enigma of Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich on the day.
“Good day, I am the president of the Sussex Hockey Leagues,” said one smiling grey haired gentleman, as he introduced himself to Browne. “I have heard so much about you…”
In Britain and much of Europe, it seemed as if everyone had heard about ‘Kwan’. His resume should place him in the elite stratosphere of Trinidad and Tobago’s top athletes.
West Indies cricket captain Brian Lara is widely considered the game’s most talented present batsman and holds two illustrious world records.
Former 100 metre runner Hasely Crawford is the country’s lone Olympic gold medal, Ato Boldon is unmatched for his collection of major sprint medals while Dwight Yorke became a household name for his starring role during Manchester United’s most illustrious football season.
(Nine years after the publication of this article, Keshorn Walcott became Trinidad and Tobago’s second Olympic gold medal recipient in the javelin event at the London 2012 Games.)
Browne has nothing as glamorous among his collection of medals, but sometimes success is relative.
Hockey is still a minor sport in terms of spectator and media interest while Trinidad and Tobago is barely a blip on the game’s international map. The twin island republic in the Caribbean has never qualified for a major senior field hockey competition. While, in contrast, England have an Olympic conquest to their name.
So then, why is there a seven-foot high poster of Browne in the England National Hockey Stadium at Milton Keynes?
How has he managed to hoist almost every trophy available in club competition including the European Cup as well as the English and Dutch domestic titles?
It is a remarkable tale of sacrifice, genes and good fortune.
Browne’s introduction to sport was as humble as Yorke’s, albeit for a totally different reason.
While the ex-United striker played street football in Tobago before being invited to a modest coaching school by now renowned coach Bertille St Clair, Browne trained with the national hockey team from the age of five. Only, it was the women’s team.
His aunt, Ann Browne-John—the current West Indies women’s cricket team manager and a former national standout in cricket and hockey—took an early interest in Browne’s appetite for sport and took him along to her training sessions with Paragon and the national team.
Browne’s mother, Beverly Browne, was also a national hockey and West Indies cricket player while aunts Louise, Gerarda and Marianne Browne were international hockey regulars during the 1970s.
(Louise Browne retired with a batting average of 41, which is still the highest by a women’s West Indies player while his mother is third on the all-time list with 30.50).
Maritime Checkers coach Leroy Sookdeo—then at Paragon—and UWI and ex-national ladies coach Mervyn Skeete quickly warmed to the tiny, willing ball-boy and Kwan became virtually the team mascot.
He was barely old enough to remember his multiplication tables, yet he was already training three times a week and even toured with the national team.
Browne reckoned that it set the stage for the rest of his sporting career.
“They would let me do the physicals and everything,” said a smiling Browne. “I would even get to play for a few minutes when the national team played practice games. I remember Mervyn Skeete would buff me like I was just another of his women players during the drills.
“I remember too that the national women’s team had to go to a tournament in Barbados and my aunt paid for me to go and even had a uniform made for me just like everyone else.
“Hockey was everything for me. If I was up for 12 hours, I had the hockey stick in my hand for 10 hours.”
In truth, Browne-John was afraid to let her nephew play with the bigger and supposedly tougher boys, although Browne was already displaying a remarkable knack for the game. His talent was matched only by his hunger to develop himself.
“Some players just happy with saying ‘aye, I play for the national team’ or ‘I get a scholarship’,” he said. “Not me. I always wanted more. If I watched an international game and saw something I can’t do, I would practise it over and over until I could do it even better than the guy who did it.”
He gave an anecdote about when he first saw a player shoot with reverse stick from the edge of the penalty area, with hands far apart on the hockey stick.
The reverse stick shot is comparable to a reverse sweep in cricket since, as in cricket, the ball can only be struck from one side of the willow.
The stroke is a difficult one to master, especially as it is hard to impart much venom in the shot and most players pull it off by bringing their hands close together on the stick handle for maximum power.
A reverse stick shot with hands apart—a trademark of former Indian star player Dhanraj Pillay—has the benefit of surprise while it can also be done quicker and without much back-lift on the run.
After three weeks of practise, Browne could execute the shot at either corner while running at pace, and, at just 15, scored from the stroke in the Junior Pan American Games.
The admiration of his teammates was accompanied by teasing and wisecracks, although, by then, he was already earmarked to become a legend.
“They called me a ball ‘peeyong’,” he said. “But there was just no way I would miss the opportunity to watch two top teams play live to go drink a beer or chase skirts.”
He had been called worse. Nothing hurt more than being labelled ‘too small’.
At five foot six and approximately 140 pounds, the 25-year-old Browne is hardly a heavyweight today. His physique was even less impressive in his pre-teen years, when he pleaded unsuccessfully with his aunt to play with older boys.
At 13, he turned out for trials with more than 40 players for the National Under-21 Team, but then assistant coach Jesse Blackman quickly sent him packing for fear that he hurt himself.
“I didn’t think it was fair,” said Browne. “I played for about 10 minutes in a screening game and he took me off and said I was too small and to come back in a few years.”
Eight months later, head coach Richard Quan Chan begged his aunt to send him back to the youth team after seeing the precocious player in indoor action for Queen’s Royal College. The late summons was hockey’s gain and possibly football’s loss.
Browne had just made his debut as a striker for QRC in the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) top tier, alongside the likes of ex-national youth player Jeremy ‘Checky’ Shortt. But his aunt insisted he chose between the two sports. He chose hockey.
Still 13, he became the youngest player to make a Trinidad and Tobago National Under-21 squad, although he did not play at the Junior Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in Venezuela.
Nine months later, he embarked on a memorable tour of Cuba for the Junior Pan American Games. It did not get off to a good start.
At the airport, his elder teammates apparently did not take kindly to Browne’s exuberance and, as they waited for their flight, took the opportunity to cut him down a couple notches. Even before he had seen Cuba, Browne was told he would not get a game and was only going to look on.
Browne retorted that he would become a better midfielder than any of them. A teammate fired back that he would never amount to anything.
“I cried my eyes out,” he admitted.
His counterparts were not as bold when they faced Canada in their opening match, though. Trinidad and Tobago could not get out their half of the field and were trailing 3-0 by the interval. During the break, one midfielder told Quan Chan that he did not want to go back out.
Browne was sent on to replace him and, although T&T eventually lost 5-0, the 14-year-old’s eye catching skill won him three short corners and the respect of his coach.
“After that game, I was never again left out of the starting line-up for Trinidad in my life,” said Browne. “From then, I went straight into the senior team too.”
Quan Chan was not the only person to have been impressed by a star in the making. At the final whistle, the Canadian captain came over and presented Browne with three hockey jerseys, some shorts and a stick in a touching tribute.
Eleven years later, Browne is accustomed to such generous gestures. The most memorable approach, though, came in the same competition from Argentine star striker, Jorge Lombi, who gave Browne all of his gear and insisted that he had never seen such talent from someone so young.
“He had been one of the top scorers in the last Olympic and he was by far the best player in the [Pan Am] tournament,” said Browne. “He was the best player by a long, long way too. I remember the whole Trinidad team were talking about one of his goals in the final against Cuba.”
Lombi could not have fathomed the future of the tiny player who he presented with his playing gear.
Nine years later, Browne was recruited by Dutch powerhouse team, Hertogenbosch HC, who were strengthening their squad for the upcoming season.
The south Holland club had to remain within its limit of foreigners, though, so they had to let someone go to accommodate the diminutive Trinidad and Tobago playmaker. So, they traded Lombi to a Spanish club to make room!
Hertogenbosch won the European and Dutch titles that season despite the fact that Browne was not granted a work permit and they took extraordinary lengths to play their Caribbean talent.
“They paid for me to fly to Holland every Thursday morning,” said Browne. “I would train with them on Thursday and Friday evenings and then play on Sunday before flying back to England after the game or early on Monday morning.
“I was still in school but I would do my course work on the plane or at the airport.”
He hopes to return to Holland in the near future, which ranks higher than England among Europe’s top hockey leagues—possibly only behind Germany.
There is still ground to break for Browne in Britain, though. He was the only player of African descent in the English Premier League when he joined Southgate in the 1998/99 season.
Now, he is the first ‘black’ coach at ambitious Division Two club, East Grinstead. Like on the field, no one knows what he will do next but he is capable of much and Browne promised to establish East Grinstead in the Premier League before he leaves. They are already well poised atop the second division with Browne leading their goal scorers.
His influence has seen the arrival of compatriots Dwain Quan Chan—the immensely talented son of his first national coach—and Dillet Gilkes.
Gilkes, who scored in their 2-2 draw on Sunday to Lewes HC, and Quan Chan sat quietly at the Southdown Club as Browne entertained presidents and officials.
The smartly dressed Sussex Hockey Leagues president was followed at Browne’s table by an East Grinstead official who spent half hour cooing on the features of the Voltswagon Tauran utility vehicle, which the club would present to the Trinidadian in a week’s time.
“It has airbags right around the vehicle,” said the official excitedly.
Patrons as well as opposing hockey players, some of whom used roughhouse tactics to try to stop the midfielder less than an hour earlier, regularly walked up to give their regards to Browne and congratulate him on the birth of his son, Kai, on Friday.
One person presented him with a bottle of champagne; another a cigar.
He is the country’s most gifted hockey player for more reasons than one. And it is only the beginning.
Editor’s Note: Wired868 will publish Part Two of this Kwandwane Browne feature on Sunday 27 December 2020.