*Before I get started …
When Jaylen Brown entered the Orlando bubble in July, he had a lot on his mind. Back in Boston, his 79-year-old grandfather was embarking on a battle with cancer, only relenting to treatment when Brown promised he’d join his Celtics teammates for the Disney restart.
A month before the NBA reboot, Brown had made a 15-hour drive from Boston to his native Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor weighed heavy on Brown’s mind and he viewed the bubble as an opportunity to bring attention to racial inequalities.
So many of his press conferences in Orlando opened the same way: With Brown first speaking eloquently on a topic of social injustice before fielding questions, which typically steered the conversation away from basketball and onto something far more important.
Before I get started …
Brown spoke with poise and grace about Taylor and Floyd. He raised thought-provoking questions about the national anthem and our education system. All this while the walls inside his Orlando hotel sometimes felt like they were closing in around him.
"I love basketball but I also love to be able to get away from it, then come back to it,” said Brown. "There was no escape, it was like being at work all the time, it was tough. Mentally, life is going on and, sitting there, the room seems like it’s getting smaller on you every single day. It’s tough.
"I didn’t want to be one to complain because everybody else was complaining already. I’m not just going to add to that. It was definitely really, really tough for me. The cause, of course, why I was going down there was bigger than myself and also to be able to speak on social injustice and have a platform to do that was bigger than myself. It was an easy decision but it was definitely tough, personally.
"I would do it again for those same opportunities.”
Brown might have emerged as the star of the bubble. Not only was he Boston’s most consistent player on a run to the Eastern Conference finals, starting the leap that should deliver him to All-Star status this season, but his willingness to speak on prickly subjects made him one of the faces of the NBA’s social justice movement.
Brown recognizes the spotlight he has as an NBA superstar and isn’t bashful about using his voice to speak on topics outside of the game. In early January, after news that no charges would be brought against officers in the Jacob Blake shooting -- this just hours after rioters stormed the halls of Congress -- Brown and teammate Jayson Tatum delivered a powerful joint press conference after a win in Miami.
Brown simply won’t sit idly by and simply ignore the examples of racial inequality around him.
"What’s crazy is that we’re so tuned to it that we don’t even notice it anymore,” said Brown. "In terms of opportunities, in terms of education opportunities, wealth and economic opportunities, and inequalities that exist within those. You see them on an everyday basis.
"Whether it’s you walking into a store and somebody following you around. Or if you’re trying to get a job, you’re denied but your qualified or overqualified for the position, and somebody less qualified gets it. There’s so many examples that we see on a normal, everyday basis that have been deeply rooted into society and that just becomes normal cognitive functions that we don’t even pay attention to. But I encourage people to analyze and think deeply about where these things come from.
"I think there’s so many examples. It was hard finding experiences and talking about situations where racism was obsolete, rather than the opposite.”
Brown’s willingness to be a voice in the fight for social justice has endeared him to a lot of his peers, who marvel at how he’s handled that stage at just 24 years old.
“He’s just a natural-born leader,” said NBA big man turned TV analyst Kendrick Perkins. "Every time he gets ready to talk on social justice and what’s going on in the world, I learn something new. It’s coming from a genuine place. You can tell he knows what he’s talking about.
"You can tell he’s studied his history, he’s studied what’s going on in America, he knows politics. He's a very, very intelligent young man. And he’s a great leader and he’s going to continue to be a great leader. And I’m just proud of him to be representing the way that he has, and standing on the front line.
"This is why, not only because of his skill set, he’s one of my favorite players in the world. But what he does off the court is why he’s one of my favorite people in the world.”
Brown is pleased with the spotlight the activism of NBA players has put on the social justice movement but believes there is so much more progress needed.
"I think there’s definitely more awareness that’s taken place, which is a great step in the right direction,” said Brown. "I think the system that’s kind of been set up has been a system that has been set up a long time ago and I think the world has changed a lot. So I think we need to re-look at how the system operates and is set up. And create a way where things could be changed.
“I think that will be part of making the right step. I think there are words that we continue to use like 'reform' but, to be honest, we’ve been saying these words for a long time. I think that we need to take a look at the foundation and that includes the Constitution, that includes the national anthem, that includes the education system that we function on. All of it.
"I think we should take closer looks and see ways that maybe we can keep those intact but creatively changing over time. Because, during the time periods that some of those things were created, it wasn’t inclusive. I’m not saying to forget about history. But definitely we don’t want it to repeat it, at the same time. Obviously, the world is in a different place than it has been. The thing that we pledge allegiance to should match that, that’s just my personal opinion. People may disagree with that. I understand, that’s just Jaylen.”
And Jaylen is just getting started.