Jaylen Brown, the second year forward for the Boston Celtics, is an intriguing young talent on one of the NBA’s best teams, but it’s his poise and composure off the court that’s all the more notable.
When he entered the 2016 NBA Draft as a freshman out of Cal many talent evaluators deemed Brown “too smart for the league,” a statement laden with euphemism.
Brown, who taught himself the piano, is fluent in Spanish, and learning Arabic, gave an expansive interview to The Guardian ahead of the Celtics’ game in London against the 76ers on Thursday.
Brown spoke with Donald McRae about race relations in America, the Trump administration, the recent suicide of his best childhood friend, and the oppressive nature of sports.
It’s the kind of interview that reminds you that athletes are not monolithic. The sports world is filled with fascinating and thoughtful minds who are all too often silenced or told to “stick to sports.”
Here are some of the best excerpts from Brown’s Guardian interview.
On experiencing racism
Brown told McRae of his upbringing in Marietta, Georgia and witnessing racism against him in both society and in the context of basketball.
“Racism definitely still exists in the South. I’ve experienced it through basketball. I’ve had people call me the n-word. I’ve had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. I’ve had people paint their face black at my games. I’ve had people throw bananas in the stands.”
The Celtics forward conceded that while America has progressed a lot since the Jim Crow era, racism is still prevalent across the country. Racism is more veiled and complicated than it was in a bygone era, but the Trump administration has brought it back to the forefront of American society.
“Racism definitely exists across America today. Of course it’s changed a lot – and my opportunities are far greater than they would have been 50 years ago. So some people think racism has dissipated or no longer exists. But it’s hidden in more strategic places. You have less people coming to your face and telling you certain things. But [Donald] Trump has made it a lot more acceptable for racists to speak their minds.”
Brown then went on to describe how his own studies at Cal informed his understanding of institutional racism, specifically within the education system.
“It wounds you. But when I got older and went to the University of California [Berkeley] I learnt about a more subtle racism and how it filters across our education system through tracking, hidden curriculums, social stratification and things I had no idea of before. I was really emotional – because one of the most subtle but aggressive ways racism exists is through our education system.”
On socioeconomic privilege
Instead of turning his back on his community upon being drafted 3rd overall, showered with accolades, and a multi-million dollar salary, Brown says that getting this success has only made him more aware of those with less opportunity than him.
“Even though I’ve ended up in a great place, who is to say where I would’ve been without basketball? It makes me feel for my friends. And my little brothers or cousins have no idea how their social mobility is being shaped. I wish more and more that I can explain it to them. Just because I’m the outlier in my neighborhood who managed to avoid the barriers set up to keep the privileged in privilege, and the poor still poor, why should I forget about the people who didn’t have the same chance as me?”
On Kaepernick’s protest and sports being a “mechanism of control”
When asked about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Brown spoke passionately about how Kaepernick has shined light on an important issue in America.
“It was peaceful and successful. It made people think. It made people angry. It made people want to talk. Often everybody is comfortable with their role in life and they forget about the people who are uncomfortable. So for Colin to put his career on the line, and sacrifice himself, was amazing. But Colin was fed up with the police brutality and pure racism. He speaks for many people in this country – including me.
“We’re having some of the same problems we had 50 years ago. Some things have changed a lot but other factors are deeply embedded in our society. It takes protests like Kaepernick’s to make people uncomfortable and aware of these hidden injustices. People are now a lot more aware, engaged and united in our culture. It takes a special person like Kaepernick to force these changes – because often reporters and fans say: ‘If you’re an athlete I don’t want you to say anything. You should be happy you’re making x amount of money playing sport. You should be saluting America instead of critiquing it.’ That’s our society.
Brown went further to describe how sports functions as a way of hiding some of the ills of society.
“That’s the reality because sports is a mechanism of control. If people didn’t have sports they would be a lot more disappointed with their role in society. There would be a lot more anger or stress about the injustice of poverty and hunger. Sports is a way to channel our energy into something positive. Without sports who knows what half of these kids would be doing?”
On being “too smart for the league”
One anonymous NBA executive labeled Brown “too smart” to play in the NBA in a clearly veiled statement with the idea that (specifically Black) athletes shouldn’t be thinking and instead just playing.
Brown obviously disagrees with this and spoke of the racist implication therein.
“But I disagree that an athlete can’t be intelligent. Some people think that, in basketball, we have a bunch of masculine adults who don’t know how to control themselves. They’re feeble-minded and can’t engage or articulate ideas. That’s a narrative they keep trying to paint. We’re trying to change it because that statement definitely has a racist undertone.”
On being an Arsenal fan (woohoo)
On a lighter note, Brown talked about his appreciation of British culture, specifically grime music and soccer. He told McRae that he follows Arsenal, knows Thierry Henry, and hopes to get out on the Emirates Stadium pitch.
“I really like Arsenal too. I like their tradition, and their diehard fans. I hope to see them in London. I think Thierry Henry is going to be there so I’ll just hit him up and see if I can get some access to the [stadium] tour, get some shots on the field. Last summer I became really close with Thierry. I got to talk to him and we keep up with each other and he gives me advice – about sports and life. He’s one of the all-time greats.”
Welcome to the misery of being a gooner, Jaylen!
In all seriousness, it’s pretty awesome to see a young athlete (Brown turned just 21 in October) speak so candidly and eloquently about some truly complicated things. Good on Jaylen Brown and I’m hype to see where his curiosity take him next.