BERKELEY, Calif. — Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown was ecstatic to see seven new African American head coaches, including one for his own franchise, get hired in the NBA this offseason regardless of what the true motive may have been.
“Whether it was because they were just trying to shut us up, or because they actually believed it was the right thing to do, it don’t matter to me. That representation is important,” Brown, a 24-year-old African American, told The Undefeated. “And that’s giving people access and resources that they need and deserve to have, especially former players. They deserve to have a seat at the table too, especially in coaching positions, as well as in-office positions, ownership positions. Those are important as well, especially if they’re qualified.
“That’s my argument. People may disagree, like, ‘They’re not qualified. They’re just getting the job because they’re African American.’ You’ve seen people say that in the media. And things like that. That’s some [expletive]. There’s plenty of qualified African Americans and Black people that can do their job. And they deserve to have a seat at the table.”
The NBA entered the 2020-21 season with seven African American coaches among its 30 teams despite the league being about 75% Black. Brown told The Undefeated that he told the Celtics ownership and front office last offseason that it was important to hire a Black head coach after Brad Stevens was promoted to president of basketball operations. The Celtics seemingly listened, hiring former NBA player Ime Udoka, who was a Brooklyn Nets assistant last season and has nine years of coaching experience, on June 28. “They were on board with it. They talked about it. It wasn’t like it was just about being African American. [Udoka is] more than qualified,” said Brown.
The 13 Black NBA head coaches who will start the 2021-22 season are one short of the all-time high at the start of 2012-13. If the Charlotte Hornets’ James Borrego (Mexican American) and the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra (Asian American) are included, half of the NBA’s head coaches are now people of color.
Brown spoke to The Undefeated after a basketball workout on Sept. 18 at Haas Pavilion, where he starred for the University of California, Berkeley during the 2015-16 season. The 2021 NBA All-Star averaged career-highs of 24.7 points and 3.4 assists as well as 6.0 rebounds last season before suffering a torn ligament injury in his left wrist that sidelined him for the postseason. Off the court, Brown has earned a reputation as a strong voice against social injustice and systemic racism, is a mentor for countless youths and has spoken at such schools as Cal, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) Clark Atlanta and Morehouse.
The following is a Q&A with Brown in which he talks about the NBA’s social justice movement during and after the NBA bubble, gives his thoughts on social injustice and racism, the speeches he has given at universities, his health, the Celtics next season and much more.
In the NBA bubble you stood up in a players’ meeting to offer support to the Milwaukee Bucks for boycotting a playoff game after African American Jacob Blake was shot by a white policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Why was it important to you to voice respect for the Bucks amongst your peers?
I did respect what the Bucks did, for sure. And I tried to be an advocate for them in those meetings. And things like that. I understand the amount of pain, the amount of frustration that goes through these neighborhoods when they lose somebody. So, you can’t control how somebody responds to that.
What gave you the strength to do that in front of everybody?
It wasn’t no strength, necessarily. I just thought people were so immune to the fact that this stuff goes on, they’re kind of numb to the pain, because we see it so much. 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. 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.
Do you think the social justice movement momentum in the bubble continued through last season or dissolved?
A little bit of both, in terms of the popularity, but 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, 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.
What kind of a realization did you, and perhaps the players, have in terms of your power that maybe you didn’t realize before the work stoppage in the bubble to protest against police brutality and social injustice?
Sports and entertainment, art, culture are some of the most influential podiums on the planet. So, the more people use those podiums thoughtfully, we educate ourselves and do research, and work with each other, the more work we can get done. Athletes, we have a lot of influence on the next generation. So, 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. 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.
And the people who won’t, we still have these things that are institutionalized in systemic racism that are affecting people’s lives every day. 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. 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.
So how do you change that?
I don’t have the answer to change it. I just think pressure needs to be applied. People need to step up and use their platform and continue to use the time and temperature to make people aware that this is not OK. I think certain people made sacrifices before to get things and the social climate to where it is now, and I think more people need to do the same. Celebrities are looked at as the ones who need to have all the answers, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
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. 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.
When you have all your speaking engagements, whether it’s at Cal-Berkeley or Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or such HBCUs as Clark or Morehouse, what is your typical message?
It’s all different. Every talk that I’ve ever given has been different. They’ll be dropping soon and maybe people will be able to look at them and learn and take things from down the line. I did Harvard and MIT a long time ago, a couple of years ago. And I did Morehouse, Clark, two HBCUs, and Berkeley this summer. The reason for doing HBCUs, I just thought it’s time to use my voice there.
What was your experience like speaking at Clark and Morehouse?
Both of them were in person. I went to the HBCUs because I just thought 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 HBCUs and things, because I think that’s where my impact matters most. Harvard and MIT were great. I got a program at MIT right now, but I made sure I spent some time at the HBCUs down in Atlanta, where I’m from.
Can you tell us about your MIT Lab fellowship?
The one real requirement was I wanted kids that want to change the world. I pulled about 50 kids from [Boston’s] Dorchester Roxbury area, Boston Public Schools, the BPS school district, because that’s where I identified the lack of resources. And I built a program called The Bridge Program, named after the Bridge Year to Berkeley that I took at Cal-Berkeley. It’s building a bridge from higher universities to the low-income community. So, I created a curriculum based off STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] and partnered with MIT and Harvard, etc.
But the whole goal was to reintroduce learning, make learning fun, cool and dope again. So, we got artificial intelligence around technology, synthetic around technology and engineering. We got AI part of the program, synthetic biology for the science part of the program, in engineering. We got coding, for the math part. We got NASA exploration. We got scientists from NASA as a part of the program.
How close are you to your bachelor’s degree at Cal now?
I still have a lot of units. But I talked to them this weekend about finishing my degree. Talked to them about building a plan. Berkeley doesn’t have an education major, but I want to get my degree from Berkeley.
Possibly could be interdisciplinary, where I can craft the things that fit me, that’s part of me and my style, but just having an open conversation with my academic advisers and things like that because — my mom — she is not playing.
What do you expect from the Celtics this upcoming season?
Just to play basketball, have fun and play. You just got to play the games. That’s it. No pressure. No offense, 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. And it could be something small that can be resolved, but if the media takes it, then everybody’s going to be upset about it because now they got to answer for it. Coaches got to reply to it. We come to practice, we got to answer to it.
How do you and Jayson Tatum take this franchise to the next level?
It ain’t going to be just me and JT. We’re going to need everybody: Marcus Smart, Rob Williams, Al [Horford]. All the contributing parties. It ain’t just on me and JT. I know that we’re the ones that are in front of the media, but it’s going to be a team effort, and an organization and a coaching effort. We all are changing the culture, off the court and on the court. And it’s going to take every one of us. If it’s just me and JT, it ain’t going to work.
What have you done to improve your game this summer? Or what have you worked on mostly?
Mostly just trying to heal, and playmaking is one thing. I’ll definitely be more of a playmaker this season, for sure. Just making the right plays and empowering my teammates. I just want to win games, man. So, every year I just approach the season as just trying to get better. My body feels a lot better. I’m more athletic than I was last season. I had knee problems last year that were lingering and I hope that I won’t have this season. Somebody told me I had 12, probably like, 15 dunks in 58 games, or something like that. I’m like, ‘That’s not me.’
So, getting back to being athletic, running, just going having fun, being a playmaker, and having more responsibility. Different coach, so I’m looking forward to that journey and that process as well.
How hard was it to watch the playoffs, not being part of that?
That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do … just watch. That’s my first playoffs that I’ve ever missed in my career, and I look forward to the playoffs. I look at that as when the real basketball starts. So, this year the journey is to get to that point. So, everything starts now.
Will you be ready and participating at the beginning of Celtics training camp?
Yeah, that’s the goal. My wrist has been healing. Some days it’s better than others. I got to continue to push and work, but I’m excited to be there for camp. And I’m excited to be there with my teammates, and start to build, and start this journey, man. I missed a lot of time, so I’m looking at the season like I’m ready. I want to play. I’m ready.
We started back so quickly [last season]. I didn’t really have an [offseason]. I was dreading coming into training camp, like, ‘Oh, man.’ I was already hurting. I had a good season, but my body barely kept up. So, this year I think I’ll be a lot better in that category.
How familiar are you with Ime Udoka?
I played for him at Team USA with Pop [Gregg Popovich] for the World Cup [in 2019]. So, I already know Ime. I had a good rapport with him, and am happy. I’m looking forward to the season.