With a bullhorn in hand, Jaylen Brown shouts, “WHAT DO WE WANT?”
And the crowd responds, “JUSTICE!”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?” Brown screams, soon followed by those within earshot of his voice, “NOW!”
And so goes the back-and-forth cadence between Brown and his fellow protesters, who collectively are trying to raise increased awareness of social injustice and police brutality during a peaceful protest recently near his hometown in Atlanta.
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His activism in many ways was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota who was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, after Chauvin planted a knee in the back of Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while Floyd lay on the ground, in handcuffs, gasping for what eventually turned out to be his last breath.
There’s certainly an increased level of awareness among professional athletes to speak out and take upon themselves more of a leadership role in this movement for systemic change.
But Brown and leadership have been hand-in-hand long before now.
That’s why the role he is in now — as a leader both on and off the court — is one that allows him to speak candidly to many as an athlete using his platform to both enlighten and educate those around him.
“Since day one when I met Jaylen, back in (2015), it was so obvious that he’s just special — a special person with special character,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck told WBZ’s Dan Roche. “He has educated me, to be perfectly honest. I’ve spent time talking with him and a couple other players in-depth over the last few days because I’ve realized I have a lot to learn, that I thought I knew and I didn’t know, just to be honest."
Grousbeck added, "And so, I’ve spent time listening to Jaylen, talking to Jaylen, trying to learn from Jaylen to be perfectly honest. I didn’t know that I would have, really, but the whole situation is shocking and surprising and stunning and disappointing and all of that. Jaylen might be a way for us to sort of move forward. He is a very, very good person with a very good conscience.”
And when looking at the genesis of Brown’s evolution into someone whom many are now leaning on for direction and leadership, you have to go back to where his growth as a player and person began to take shape in his hometown of Marietta, Ga.
THE EARLY YEARS
Desmond Eastmond has been around the elite basketball scene in Georgia for years as both a trainer and an AAU coach, so it’s not unusual for him to get a call from a friend about an on-the-rise baller they believe he should check out.
When Eastmond got a call about checking out this kid named Jaylen Brown, Eastmond’s expectations were soon exceeded when he saw the then-12-year-old play.
“I brought him to the gym and took a look at him and was like, ‘Wow,’” Eastmond, Brown’s AAU coach and strength coach in high school, told NBC Sports Boston. “He had everything. Of course at 12 he was missing key components but the base was there, his hunger was there, his ability to retain information was there.”
The talent was undeniable, but Eastmond knows all too well that the best players also have an elite level of toughness, too.
That’s why it wasn’t unusual for Brown to compete in pick-up games against some of the area’s college talent, like when he played against some players at Georgia Tech who didn’t take too kindly to the high school kid giving them the business.
On one move to the basket, Brown was hit mid-air and landed awkwardly, suffering an ankle injury that sidelined him for weeks. He spent that time in the gym getting bigger and stronger, making him better equipped to handle the pressure of being the team’s go-to guy.
That physical play wasn’t limited to just college players, either.
“He (Brown) did a move, went to the hole and I hit him with an elbow, hard,” Eastmond recalled. “It was around the chest area.”
Soon after the hit, Eastmond recalled Brown taking a quick glance over at his mother, who was in the stands.
“She put her head in a book,” Eastmond recalled. “I said to myself, ‘She’s not gonna baby him.’ And then he at that time realized, ‘It’s over with. I gotta be a man.’”
And for most of his prep career, Brown was indeed a man among boys in lifting Wheeler to be among the top high school teams in the country while raising his own stock as a highly sought-after talent ranked among the best players in the country.
Brown was seemingly at his best when it mattered most, displaying the kind of clutch play and leadership that has become a prominent part of his narrative.
Trailing by one in the closing seconds of the state championship game his senior year, Brown was at the free throw line. Eastmond readily admits he wasn’t sure if Brown would come through.
“He hit 10 for 10 (from the line) so I know we got some misses coming,” quipped Eastmond. “This is the wrong time to get a miss.”
Before he went to the line, Eastmond recalled, “He (Brown) looked at me (and said) ‘if it hit the rim it don’t count.”
Both went in and Wheeler won another state title.
That would be the last state title for the perennial state power until last March when Wheeler once again squeaked out a win in the title game.
Shortly after the win, Brown, as well as teammates Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum, were on FaceTime congratulating the players on their win. But Brown’s call was about more than just congratulating them on a big win.
“Typical JB,” Eastmond said.
"Alright, settle down. Settle down. I have to talk to you,” Brown says to the players.
He goes into a speech about their performance and what lies ahead for them. And while the euphoria of the moment is still coursing through the veins of the entire team, they all sat down and listened, on the edge of every word spoken by Brown.
“Typical JB,” Eastmond repeated.
It’s not unusual for elite basketball players to stand out in games besides basketball.
Brown not only played chess; he was the captain of his high school team. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Brown, whose interests have always been greater than just the game of basketball.
Since coming to Boston, Brown has been a keynote speaker at Harvard University. He has also been named to the prestigious MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellows Program along with being an outspoken advocate for revamping the educational system to foster more equality.
His high school coach Doug Liscomb said Brown was also making efforts to get involved with his high school’s curriculum.
“I don’t know if it was marketing or what the topic is but he’s going to be heavily involved in whatever the topic is,” Liscomb told NBC Sports Boston. “That’s his way of giving back. He’s a fine example … that’s what we’re here to do.”
Said Brown: “I’ve never seen myself as just a basketball player, or just a student or just anything. There’s more to me than just one thing or one interest.”
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens agrees.
“He’s got a lot of great stuff to him, and I think we recognized that when we drafted him,” Stevens said. “But I think that he has been even more unbelievable every day, every year. I’ve always personally really enjoyed listening to him and talking to him about things outside of basketball.”
When it comes to Celtics fans, you can never be sure how they will react to something.
But few would have anticipated the amount of boost the team got when they selected Brown with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
“Oh, I remember,” said Brown, grinning. “I definitely remember.”
The work that Brown has put into becoming a better player has not gone unnoticed. Brown has improved his numbers across the board, and most were at career-high levels this season. The numbers are great, and his impact on winning is undeniable.
But it is what Brown is doing now — lending his voice and platform to a cause that’s bigger than him — that’s very Celtics-like.
Despite the negative reputation the city of Boston has had for decades when it comes to race relations, the Celtics franchise has been among the NBA’s more progressive organizations.
The Celtics were the first NBA team to draft a black player (Chuck Cooper, 1950); the first with an all-black starting five (1964) and the first to hire a black head coach (Bill Russell, 1966) who would soon go on to become the first black head coach to win an NBA title (1968 and 1969).
Brown has long since been an agent of change who wasn’t shy about butting heads with aggregators of the status quo.
While Brown is pleased with his progress as a player, it’s clear that he’s also focused on making an impact on a larger, more global away-from-the-game scale as well.
“More level-ups for me,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “Hard to look down and say where you’re at when you’re still climbing that ladder.”
Said Stevens: “Jaylen’s greatest impact, as good as he is at basketball, won’t be in basketball. He’s a special guy, he’s a special leader. He’s smart but he has courage.”
Courage to stand out, on and off the court.
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