When Jaylen Brown was being recruited to the University of California, he met Derek Van Rheenen, a prominent cultural studies professor. They struck up a friendship months later, in a Cal summer program that Brown attended. Impressed by Brown’s intellect and persistence, Van Rheenen pushed for Brown to receive a special exemption to enroll in his graduate course the Theoretical Foundations of the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education.
One morning, Van Rheenen led a discussion about the ignorant belief that Black athletes are genetically more gifted than athletes of other races. “The corollary there is that maybe they’re not as intellectually or cognitively up for the task,” Van Rheenen tells me. “Like, yeah, you’re really good at playing basketball, but we don’t expect much more from you relative to your intellectual scholarship.”
The lecture lingered in Brown’s mind long after class. At basketball practice later that day, he lagged through drills and missed basic instructions. “There was this intense conversation; I’m working through it,” coaches recalled him saying. “I can’t just do the thing that you’re asking me to do.”
Brown was Cal’s highest-ranked basketball recruit since Jason Kidd, but he committed to the school ahead of the 2015-16 season hoping to find an identity beyond sports and to play for the predominantly Black coaching staff led by Cuonzo Martin. But on the way to practice that fall day, Brown felt like he was just another athlete living out the stereotype he’d discussed in class. Worse, he was the face of an institution making money off his talent.
“It make you not want to play at all,” Brown tells me. “Make you not want to even show up.”
When I saw Brown in Boston in January, he was going through a similar conflict. In the seven years since the Boston Celtics picked him third overall, Brown has blossomed from an inconsistent contributor into the face of one of the most successful franchises in sports. On the floor, he helped lead the Celtics to their first NBA Finals in a decade last season. Off the floor, the 26-year-old has used his voice and profile to enact social change. His foundation has partnered with colleges to create a bridge program for underrepresented youth aimed at closing the educational gap between races. And in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he led protests, became an advocate for social change, and inspired the Celtics front office to revamp its approach to community outreach.
But his quest to find worth beyond the game resulted in a number of public missteps in the past year. Last spring, he signed with Donda Sports, an agency founded by Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West; five months later, the agency went dormant, and the school associated with it shut down because of the musician’s offensive behavior and comments. A couple of weeks later, Brown publicly defended Kyrie Irving’s right to free speech after his former teammate tweeted a link to a movie that spewed antisemitic tropes.