Ahead of the 2016 NBA Draft, some scouts expressed concern that the UC Berkeley lottery prospect Jaylen Brown was “too smart” to fit seamlessly in the NBA.
Now, more than seven years later, his intellect and initiative is treasured. Most recently, Brown was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Local Boston list, largely due to his social activism and philanthropy with his 7uice Foundation.
“Because he is so smart, it might be intimidating to some teams,” an anonymous NBA executive told The Undefeated back in 2016. “He wants to know why you are doing something instead of just doing it.”
Such comments likely wouldn’t be made today. In the post “shut up and dribble” world, there’s a deepened understanding that athletes’ contributions are not confined to the court, and that thoughtfulness and intellect are an asset, not a hindrance. The implication that athletes shouldn’t be outspoken is often racially-charged, and is one that countless NBA players have challenged.
Jaylen Brown is one of the biggest proponents of athletes speaking out, and today, serves as one of the best examples of how off-court leadership can benefit a community. Doubts around Brown’s abilities to excel in the league have been squashed as the #3 pick has become an elite wing, a two-time All Star, and, most recently, the recipient of the richest contract in NBA history.
At the same time, Brown has shined light on and began tackling a range of social issues — like racial injustice, education disparities, and the wealth gap — with an urgency we haven’t seen from a Celtic great in several generations.
“Jaylen Brown is a forward guard for the Boston Celtics, joining the team after the 2016 NBA Draft as the third overall pick. He has served as a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association since 2019, and is known as one of the most outspoken players in the NBA. Brown is also the founder of the 7uice Foundation, which aims to attack systematic and economic inequities in education. In a partnership with the MIT Media Lab, the foundation developed the Bridge Program, a multi-day camp for Black and Brown Boston high school students that introduces them to STEM-related opportunities and provides resources on emotional literacy, leadership and financial literacy. Brown just extended his Celtics contract with a yearly salary of $52.4 million starting in the 2024-25 season, per The Boston Globe.”
A timeline of Brown’s off-court endeavors
Since his relocation from Marietta, Georgia to Boston, Massachusetts, Brown has helped lead the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals five times, been named to the All-NBA Second Team, and averaged nearly 18 points per game at efficient rates. Simultaneously, he’s taken on a plethora of leadership roles, tackling the same issues he came into the league shining light on.
In 2019, he founded the 7uice Foundation which partners with institutions, organizations, and social change leaders to bridge the opportunity gap for youth in traditionally underserved Black and Brown communities.
In 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Brown drove 15 hours to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest, and subsequently, become a leading voice for racial justice, calling on players to speak out and serving as a key decision-making voice in the NBA bubble.
Jaylen Brown has been one of the most vocal advocates in the NBA Bubble for race reform. This isn't just a trend for him. pic.twitter.com/DTOS7LU2Pp— Andscape (@andscape) August 12, 2020
In 2021, Brown launched the Bridge Program, a 12-week summer leadership program for under-resourced high school students in the Boston area, centered around three core pillars: 1) Leadership and Activism, 2) Mental Health and Wellness, and 3) Sustainability, Innovation, and Technology. That program recently completed its third summer term.
“[I’m] just trying to take those three pillars and put some energy back into the community,” Brown said in a recent interview on NBC news. “I got a sense of community, I’m all about community.”
In 2023, upon signing the richest contract in NBA history, Brown made headlines for announcing his plans to bring Black Wall Street to Boston, and turn Boston, a city with a long history of racism and segregation, into a hub of economic opportunity for Black communities.
“Through my platform, through influential partners, through selected leaders, government officials — a lot who are in this room — we can come together and create new jobs, new resources, new businesses, new ideas that could highlight minorities but also stimulate the economy and the wealth gap at the same time,” Brown said.
Why Bridge is Brown’s top priority
The Bridge Program, which Brown has described as “a summer camp without basketball,” has become one of Brown’s flagship endeavors.
This year, Bridge collaborated with both MIT and the Museum of Fine Arts, two of the city’s premier institutions. Brown actually opted to sign his historic contract at the MIT Media Lab, with dozens of Bridge students standing in the background.
American icon John Carlos introduces Jaylen Brown to open up his extension press conference alongside the kids from Jaylen’s MIT Bridge program, before Jaylen officially signed the deal. pic.twitter.com/7xunVUdPoc— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) July 26, 2023
He cites his own upbringing as his inspiration for this work.
“I was able to have a great sense of mentors and community centers that I kind of relied on,” Brown told NBC. “Where your zip code is can determine your future and social mobility in this country. That’s the idea of the American education system, so being able to provide resources to those kids who get forgotten about because those resources aren’t allocated to those areas, to those neighborhoods, is something I became passionate about.”
The Bridge targets students who have overcome or are facing adversity. Boston Public School teachers nominate prospective candidates, and a search committee further evaluates them.
“Obviously, I’m one of those kids who come from those lack of resources, those lack of opportunities,” Brown said. “I had a lot of things go right for me to get here. Some students don’t have those same opportunities, so I want to give them all the chances in the world to become who they are intended to be.”
The program aims to cultivate the next generation of leaders in science and technology, and features a diverse curriculum spanning topics like community organizing, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and music. This year, one group worked to launch a telehealth platform that will be piloted in Dorchester in order to decrease the healthcare access gap for immigrants. Another group, titled “Sustainable Drip” worked to help lower income community members access environmentally sustainable and affordable clothing alternatives.
During a Harvard University talk in 2018, Brown spoke about the challenges of being both a world-class athlete and an outspoken political voice.
“I get this question a lot: ‘Jaylen, what do you identify as? The intellect? Or do you identify as an athlete? ... I hate the dichotomy of it,” Brown said. “I hate the fact that it has to be one or the other. I hate the fact that there’s no possibility for both.”
Brown has since worked tirelessly to ensure that this possibility exists, and perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of that work are the city’s youth.
“It’s in my design. God gave me this opportunity, this platform, to be able to make a difference,” Brown said. “I take that responsibility very seriously. Our next generation is pivotal. As our society and community continues to evolve, it’s up to the people with influence to try to push things forward. I’ll give everything to make this world a better place. I pride myself in using my platform to the utmost ability.”