Basketball, a game, is second nature to men like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They are superhuman talents who have failed more than any of us have in the thing they’ve mastered, yet have succeeded to a level so rare, it’s practically untouchable. Thus, the failures, while parsed at the moment, are rendered moot after 82 games plus the playoffs. But on the internet? Failure is front and center — failure to respond, failure to adhere to expectations, failure to please everyone. It’s a subjective monster, and yet Tatum and Brown seem to have conquered it all.
In writing about the way both Tatum and Brown have navigated, if not mastered, the age of social media, CelticsBlog’s Michael Pearce summed it up perfectly: “The maturity, judgment, and decision-making related sections of the human brain aren’t fully developed until 25, but Tatum and Brown have always been built different, so it’s no surprise they’ve surpassed their peers in yet another way.” And while I agree that Tatum has proven his wokeness, if you will, to the max, it’s Jaylen Brown who operates on an alternative stratosphere of turning his speech into action. Not just a separate wavelength from his teammate, but from any other face in the entire NBA.
He further evidenced exactly that yesterday in a conversation with The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, an interview in which Brown tackled topics such as representation in the NBA, the boycott inside the bubble two postseasons ago, and more with the same grace and intellect as always. Brown is candid and honest — what else is new? — and continues to exhibit honesty and vocality unlike that of which we’ve seen in sports since Colin Kaepernick. In my very personal opinion, stretching far beyond basketball, he’s more important to the NBA than just about any other active figure in it.
Speaking on his decision to voice his support for the Milwaukee Bucks when they boycotted a playoff game after Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, WI, a choice Spears said took “strength,” Brown said that it wasn’t necessarily strength. It was aiming to make sure that people no longer remain immune nor numb to the pain experienced in communities like Kenosha, pain we, disgustingly, see far too often. Pain that, horrifically, Brown has spoken about numerous times before this interview because nothing changes. “I think all the athletes cared about everything that I said, but because they see it so much they just think it’s supposed to happen,” he told Spears. “And it just happens. It’s normalized. It shouldn’t be normal.
“We should use our platform more to combat some of these things. And I believe if we have to sit out for a game, or put things on pause for a little bit, and continue, then put things on pause for a little bit again. If they continue, then that’s what needs to be done, but we’re not just going to keep just normalizing like this is just going to keep happening.”
Brown did acknowledge that the social justice movement that was witnessed in Orlando ever so slightly faded out of the foreground in terms of its widespread “popularity,” but he noted that “there are a lot of people that are doing some work behind the scenes. People putting their money where their mouth is. Social temperatures have changed,” he said, “so in terms of it being a trend, I’ve seen a lot of people that didn’t care. I felt like we’re posting things on social media just because that was what was popular at the time. They were following the trend. And just because it’s no longer a trend doesn’t mean real work isn’t getting done. But maybe that popularity and that urge has dissolved. But it’s still people, more so than ever, who have dedicated money, time, resources, allocations to these world issues.”
Of course, Brown is aware of how significant the podium he has, and knows how crucial it is to use it thoughtfully, not to take it for granted. “Instead of encouraging the culture to just dismiss our responsibility, like they try to do. … They try to encourage us, ‘No, you just need to focus on basketball. Oh, you just need to focus on this, go and get some cars, and some clothes, and some money and forget about everything to do with your community.’ But I disagree,” he said, to the surprise of no one who has ever heard him speak or seen him in action. “Just because I escaped some of the barriers that society has put up and reached a certain level of success doesn’t mean I’m going to not care about the community that I came from.
“People think racism is just me telling somebody I don’t like them for X, Y and Z, but systemic racism is, I think, where the fight really is,” he continued. “And that’s through education, not allowing certain kids to get through school, or overrecruiting them, or not allowing people to get jobs, not allowing them to apply for loans and get housing, or sending them to jails with max sentences for various crimes. That’s what racism looks like. And a lot of people, because of the traumatic experiences we’ve seen in police brutality and things like that, we forget about institutionalized racism that’s doing far more damage in the community than any of those instances.”
Does Brown have the answers? The secret roadmap leading toward change? No, and he’s not about to pretend that he does. What he will do, though, is apply pressure for change to occur, and encourage others to join him in that effort. To Spears, he further pushed the notion that people should step up and use their platform to make sure people know that what’s been going on is far from acceptable. “Celebrities are looked at as the ones who need to have all the answers, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” he said. “Yeah, I have a platform, and I have influence, but some people may be like, ‘I don’t really know. I’m not really educated in these aspects.’ But find somebody who is, to help you. And use your platform to highlight them.”
That right there — finding someone else, someone educated or interested in becoming more educated, to assist in your own education — is exactly what Brown has put at the forefront for so long. He’s spoken at schools from Harvard to Morehouse and Clark, the latter two being historically Black colleges/universities, feeling like, “it was time to share my experience, the things that I’ve learned and the research that I’ve done, and my experience. And it’s time we shifted to HBCU’s and things because I think that’s where my impact matters most.” He’s also spoken at Cal-Berkeley, where he played collegiately and is presently working on his bachelor’s degree, and MIT, where he also partook in a Lab fellowship and created a curriculum based off STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). His “whole goal was to reintroduce learning, make learning fun, cool and dope again.” Once again, doing his bit for the community.
Oh, yeah. Brown also talked about the Celtics. He expects a team effort — “It ain’t just going to be and JT” — and he wants to promote a focus on their games above all else. “No offense,” he said to Spears, a member of the media, “but keep the media [noise] out the locker room, just focus on the game. I think sometimes, especially depending on the market, you start to say things in the media, and then things start to snowball in terms of internal issues become blown out of proportion.” Someone’s been reading CelticsBlog.
He went on to provide an update on his wrist, which he said has been healing, though some days it’s better than others. He hated missing the playoffs, so he’s especially eager to be back at camp with his teammates and coaches, Ime Udoka obviously included. “I had a good rapport with him [before he was hired], and am happy,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to the season.”
When the season starts, don’t expect Brown’s focus on the game to deter his ongoing activism. He’s never let it stop him in the past, and he holds his platform in too high a regard to let anything of that ilk fall by the wayside. The conversations will continue as long as they have to; ideally, that isn’t forever. Hopefully, conversations that Brown is proud to champion continue to cause as much change as they call for.
“Your job is to just keep conversations alive, show people that you care, and put pressure on people where your influence resides the most. That is something that we all need to do more, as athletes, as entertainers, is to find where your influence is biggest and try to leverage it in a community of your choice.”