It is not a coincidence that some of Jaylen Brown’s most notable growth on the basketball court has coincided with the addition of a unique training partner last year.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Brown relocated his 79-year-old grandfather, Willie, a former Marine and sparring partner for boxing royalty, to Boston and made him his personal trainer. After working out together during the pause in the NBA season, Brown emerged as maybe Boston’s most consistent player inside the Orlando bubble and has played at an All-NBA level through the first 10 games of the 2020-21 season.
So what were those workouts like?
"Hard to say the least,” said Brown. "You can’t even show him your good cards because he’s going to use that against you. He’s going to expect that every single day. He’s definitely the best trainer I’ve had, in terms of pushing me. No excuses, no limits. He expects you to be able to do things that you probably don’t even expect from yourself.
"Just his mind, his ability to persuade you and push you in those directions, and him being my grandpa, is unique. I love him for that. I’m appreciative for him to be able to push me and spark me in ways that a lot of people can’t.”
Now when you see Brown leaving a bunch of Indiana Pacers in the dust while racing away for a game-clinching layup in late December, you can trace it to early morning sprint work outside Brown’s home with Willie putting Brown through the paces.
"He doesn’t believe in getting tired. That’s him,” Brown said of his grandfather. "He’s grown up, he’s been a fighter his whole life. Fighters train the hardest, in terms of sports-wise, when you’ve got to train for people punching you and kicking you.
"He’s been a sparring partner for years. He’s fought with some of the greats, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston … So he’s always been around that energy. For him, conditioning and your body not getting tired, is one [focus]. Then, two, your left hand. He says, 'If you throw a jab with your right, you gotta feel like you could do it with your left. You translate that to basketball, you gotta be able to score with your left hand, score with your right hand. Or you gotta be able to defend and jab at the ball, steal with your right, steal with your left. Block shots with your right, block shots with your left.' That’s probably one of the things he mentioned that I translate to basketball.”
Willie also taught Brown a lot about toughness.
"He’s the toughest guy I know, the toughest guy I’ve ever met, to be honest,” said Brown. "He was a Marine. He did a tour in Vietnam. He’s been shot at, he’s been jumped out at, you know some of the crazy things that you experience in war. He’s actually been shot in the head twice, two bullets grazed him in his head when he was [in Vietnam]. Luckily, he still made it out alive and he’s still here. He’s got some stories. But he’s definitely seen a lot.”
Brown calls his grandfather a “superhero” and said he’s also fought through a heart attack and COVID. But a cancer diagnosis last year left Willie uncertain if he wanted to fight any longer. Brown had conversations with Celtics brass about potentially skipping the bubble in order to care for his grandfather but finally came to an agreement with him.
"He needed me around, whether he wanted to say so or not. He wasn’t in a fighting mood and it was strange because he’s been fighting his entire life,” said Brown. "So, for me, I wasn't going to go. I had early conversations with Danny [Ainge], early conversations with Brad [Stevens] about it. That he just needed me around to help push him towards the right direction, medically.
"We ended up coming to a conclusion where, I made a deal with him that I would go, if he went to his treatments and he started his chemo and his radiation. He loves watching us play, he loves watching the Celtics play, he’s a huge fan, so he agreed.”
Brown said last month that Willie had been cancer free since September. Before the 2020-21 season tipped off, Brown posted photos of Willie working with other Celtics players during informal workouts.
“Everybody's support, everybody’s prayers, has all been a part of that journey for him,” said Brown. “So I’m grateful for everybody who wished him well and everybody that in the organization that helped out.”
And Celtics fans should be grateful for the new heights that former Marine Willie Brown pushed his grandson to reach.