ON THE FIRST floor of a gray, block-like, four-story structure on the campus’ northwest corner, a dozen students shuttle into a three-hour class taught once a week on Monday mornings. It’s the early fall of 2015, and inside Tolman Hall, the longtime home of the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, professor Derek Van Rheenen is set to lead graduate-level students in a course that he has taught for about two decades: Education 257: Theoretical Foundations of the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education.
Except now, for the first time, there’s an 18-year-old freshman present.
Jaylen Brown, a highly touted basketball player from Georgia, has campaigned to take Van Rheenen’s class, even asking former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas to lobby on his behalf to the dean of the College of Letters and Sciences. Thomas had taken the class years prior when he completed his master’s degree at Cal.
Permission granted, the 6-foot-7 Brown towers over classmates several years his senior. Everyone sits at long tables positioned like a box around Van Rheenen, and Brown sits on the right side. He does not miss a class, sometimes arriving on a two-wheel standing scooter. He asks questions and is deeply engaged.
Initially, Van Rheenen had marveled at Brown’s curiosity and drive to be challenged intellectually; to take a heavy course load that focused on race, poverty, inequality, social injustice; to surround himself with mentors who had roots in Berkeley and its foothold within activism and the civil rights movement. Brown had submerged himself in the campus culture, devouring as much knowledge as possible, churning out essays, blazing through books, conversing with his professors after hours — all while balancing his role on the men’s basketball team.
As the weeks continued, Brown developed a deeper sense about the history of race in America; about the social constructs that perpetuated inequality; about the division and lack of opportunity. In sports, he learned more about privilege and exploitation: For instance, how Black athletes were typically praised for athleticism while IQ was cited for white athletes. He read how athletes often weren’t accepted as public intellectuals or scholars. He kept pushing, wanting to learn more while fighting the stigma that he was just an athlete passing through en route to the NBA and its paychecks with several zeros.
“Jaylen wanted to be thrown to the wolves, intellectually, and to really fight to find his intellectual identity in his first term,” Van Rheenen says. “So he had to fight to demonstrate — I’m not kidding — ‘You know, I chose to be here because I want to get a genuine education. I want to be challenged.'”
While Van Rheenen saw that Brown was gaining knowledge at an intense pace, and could see how a young, prominent Black male athlete who hailed from the South was learning more about extensive histories and systems that were tied specifically to him and his background, on one particular Monday, Van Rheenen could also look at Brown’s face and see the overall toll.
“He was exhausted,” Van Rheenen recalls. Later that night, Cal’s men’s basketball head coach, Cuonzo Martin, called Van Rheenen just to check in, because he, too, could see at practice that day that Brown seemed out of sorts. “Not physically exhausted,” Van Rheenen points out, “but he was spiritually and emotionally exhausted from the intellectual journey he was on.”
Just five years later, that journey would lead Brown to the forefront of arguably the most intense intersection of sports and race in NBA history, and a flash point in American history itself.
Georgia natives Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon protest police brutality in Atlanta.
IN SUCH AN outspoken league, the 23-year-old Brown has become one of the NBA’s most demonstrative players. It’s clear why the Boston Celtics guard is not just a thoughtful player in this moment but one for this moment.
He drove 15 hours through the night to join a peaceful protest in his home state of Georgia. He has called for the reenactment of the George Floyd bill to combat police misconduct. On multiple occasions, he has spoken at length about justice for Breonna Taylor.
During an emotional meeting after the players went on strike following the shooting of Jacob Blake, Brown told fellow players in the NBA bubble that they should leave only if they intended to actively protest racial injustice and police brutality in their home markets or elsewhere.
“I get this question a lot: ‘Jaylen, what do you identify as? The intellect? Or do you identify as an athlete?’” Brown said during a 2018 talk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “And, to be honest, I never give anyone a straight answer because I hate the dichotomy of it. I hate the fact that it has to be one or the other. I hate the fact that there’s no possibility for both.”
Brown grew up in a single-parent household in Marietta, Georgia. His mother, Mechalle, emphasized to his older brother, Quenton, and Brown that compassion and activism were worthwhile pursuits. “Speak up for yourself,” she would say, “and speak up for others who may not be able to speak up for themselves.”
There was another emphasis that Mechalle hammered home: higher education.
Mechalle earned two degrees, a Bachelor of Science from Michigan State and an MBA from American InterContinental University, and the inner and outer rings of their family were populated with relatives who were educators, doctors and lawyers. Jaylen would be the fourth generation who would head to college — of that there was no doubt. Now a professor of marketing communications at Cambridge College in Boston, Mechalle says of education, “That’s the family business.”
In high school, Brown gained acclaim for basketball. He visited powerhouses Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan. But some other things happened during high school: Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman; Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; and Eric Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk after a police officer tightened a choke hold around Garner’s neck while Garner repeatedly stated, “I can’t breathe.”
In the modern era, these deaths served as critical boiling points of race, police brutality and social injustice in America, and they left an indelible mark on Brown. “So, as I’m choosing the school, as I’m making a life decision, all of this is in the back of my head,” he said during a TED Talk in 2020. He had come to know a former star basketball player from his hometown and high school, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who played for more than a decade in the NBA. Though they never talked much about college choices, Brown’s focus turned to Abdur-Rahim’s alma mater, UC Berkeley, a school that was by no means a basketball powerhouse. But it was the No. 1 public university in the country. Brown paid for his own visit to the school, having used his five allotted visits elsewhere.
But he wasn’t just going to a world-class institution of higher learning. He was going to Berkeley, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of thousands in 1967; where the student-led Free Speech Movement of the era was born; where the Black Panthers organized; where rallies, seminars and peaceful protests helped establish a global reputation as a heartbeat of free speech and activism against social injustice. When Dr. Ameer Hasan Loggins, who taught a class on Black representation in the media, met Brown in a recreation center gym on campus, he recalled Brown saying, “I came out here on my own dime. And I came out here because I want the intellectual rigor, but also want to be involved in the culture of the Bay Area.”
When Hashim Ali, a Cal alum who co-founded the AAU Oakland Soldiers, met Brown, he asked him to name the last book that he read. Brown replied, “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Ali’s eyebrows rose. Brown, he realized, was different.
Brown built a circle of advisers that included Loggins, Abdur-Rahim, Thomas, Van Rheenen and Ali. He interned under venture capitalist Erik Moore at Base Ventures, where Brown learned about technology and investing and sat in on meetings in which companies pitched themselves.
He audited Loggins’ class, just as Colin Kaepernick had before him. He spent hours conversing with Dr. Hardy Frye, a professor who participated in the civil rights movement and marched with the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in the 1960s.
“He was just literally in a bubble of everything at once,” says Brown’s brother, Quenton.
The first time I hung out with Jaylen Brown @FCHWPO he was an 18 or 19yr old freshman. My first thought was he should forget wasting time in the NBA and just run for the Senate. But then I remembered Bill Bradley and thought…(shrug) why not just do it all?
— Counting Crows (@CountingCrows) November 13, 2017
But Basketball Hall of Famer Thomas is clear on one point — the credit belongs to Brown.
“You can lead a kid to the library,” Thomas says, “but you can’t make them read.”
Brown would leave after his freshman season, but he carried Berkeley with him.
“Jaylen has been having college-level conversations with professors ever since then,” says Loggins, a writer and lecturer at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University. “The educational process is not limited to the campus space. Jaylen has continuously been educating himself and having one-on-one conversations. So, if anything, you could almost look at it like — Jaylen may have left college campus, but he’s been doing office hours every f—ing year. He’s still reading books. He’s still taking suggestions. He’s still working through ideas with academics, with activists, with grassroots organizers.”
“He grew up as a person even in that one year,” Mechalle says. “It was the best place for him.”
MICHELE ROBERTS WAS looking for Jaylen Brown. As a fellow Cal alum, she had designs on befriending him. So at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan before the 2016 NBA draft lottery, where Brown was in attendance, they met. Brown began telling Roberts, the National Basketball Players Association executive director, how he wanted to be involved in the NBPA. “I was completely floored,” Roberts says.
Roberts had never before — or since — heard an incoming rookie say he wanted to be involved in the union. Some rookies don’t even know that there is a union, but there was Brown, wanting to be involved at a top level. So he became the youngest vice president in their history, at 22, and he has been consistently active on calls and in meetings. He has plans on becoming its youngest president ever, and, Roberts says, “He’s absolutely on track.”
“He is a phenomenal member of our executive committee,” Roberts continues. “Thank god he’s interested, because he’s exactly the kind of guy that you want to have: young, bright and has a lot of respect already from his peers — both his biological peers and the vets. And he really doesn’t have any problem with — and in fact is anxious to — roll up the sleeves and do the work. But he’s delightful. And then he can hoop! It’s amazing. He’s a complete package.”
Yet before the Celtics drafted him, one bit of feedback in their background checks seemed surprising — NBA talent evaluators kept suggesting Jaylen Brown might be too smart for basketball.
“Some of the things that came out about Jaylen, believe it or not, are interpreted negatively because he’s such a studious kid,” recalls Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations. “‘He knows more than others’ and ‘he thinks he knows it all’ — things like that because he was a smart kid. It wasn’t always conveyed in a real positive way.”
There was chatter about Brown wanting to do things beyond basketball, that maybe basketball wasn’t his biggest focus. And, indeed, he is eclectic. He taught himself Spanish, has studied Arabic, can play the piano, guitar, likes philosophy and meditation and hot yoga. He likes “saging the air,” which he learned at Cal. He keeps a journal. He didn’t hire an agent to represent him heading into the draft, instead relying on his circle of advisers.
Almost immediately after his final game for UC Berkeley, Brown plotted out on a calendar the dates and objectives. He kept in a binder of long-term objectives that were months and years ahead. He took notebooks with him to interviews so that he could take notes on the NBA general managers who were interviewing him during the pre-draft process.
“I never really thought that he’s too smart for basketball,” Ainge says. “There’s plenty of time to be lots of things in an NBA world and NBA life, and there’s a lot that you’re capable of doing and balancing and there’s multiple things that you can do and plenty of time to spend off the court. And Jaylen has been fantastic in our community from the day he’s got here. He practices what he preaches.”
From the first time he met Brown, Ainge says he could tell there was more substance to him than most people Brown’s age, which is a common theme from those around Brown: They often have to remind themselves that they’re speaking to someone so young because he doesn’t sound young at all. Ainge raved about Brown to head coach Brad Stevens constantly, to the point that Stevens had little doubt which direction the team was going in the draft.
For Stevens, few concepts in life are more important than “growth mindset,” the idea of constantly improving one’s intelligence through hard work and education, articulated in the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by professor Carol Dweck. Stevens recommends her book often and has given it out to his team over the years. In his first meeting with Brown during the pre-draft process, this concept came up. Brown had already read the book. He knew it well.
“We talked about ‘growth mindset’ and always wanting to improve,” Stevens says, “and he probably embraces that as much as any player I’ve been around. He takes everything as learning.”
During Brown’s rookie season in Boston, Abdur-Rahim attended a game and walked with Brown to the parking lot afterward. Staring at Brown’s car, the former Vancouver Grizzlies draftee thought back to his career. He, like Brown, hailed from Marietta, attended Wheeler High School and played only one year at Cal before going pro. And, like Brown, Abdur-Rahim was drafted No. 3 overall. But Abdur-Rahim couldn’t wait to buy an expensive car after being drafted — and so he did. But here was Brown’s car, and it was modest. “Not a Toyota hatchback, but something very practical,” Abdur-Rahim says.
“He’s a smart person — and wise. I think ‘wise’ is different than ‘smart,'” Abdur-Rahim says. “He’s right for this time. He’s measured. He’s really ahead of his years.”
THE LOVE FOR basketball traces back to Brown’s infancy, according to his mother, when a ball rolled by him as a 9-month-old on their carpeted living room floor in Georgia. But a love for a different game developed in Brown’s formative years that, those around him say, shaped him as much as anything. At some point before he turned 10, Brown’s grandfather taught him to play chess, and the game stuck. He played through grade school, became president of the chess club in high school, then challenged elders at a cafe in Berkeley.
But Mechalle noticed that from an early age, chess reengineered the wiring in Jaylen’s brain. He began to view things more methodically, as if he were planning out not just one move but several moves ahead. He started strategizing. “Chess helped me see like the long [view], the end game,” he said in 2018 at the MIT Media Lab. He took a chess class as an elective at Cal. He titled a YouTube series during his rookie year with chess moves.
Says Van Rheenen, “Chess serves as a metaphor for Jaylen, as he navigates the world and even the basketball court.”
It’s fitting, then, given what Brown submitted as his final assignment for Van Rheenen’s graduate class. The task was to write a “personal athletic academic autobiography” that served as a narrative of their athletic experiences up until the present. It asked students to think of critical incidents that have helped define who they are and who they see themselves becoming. It was 20 pages long, and, Ali says, Brown wrote his paper through the lens of chess.
“He has every part of his life broken down into a chess move,” Ali says. Van Rheenen will not betray specifics, except to say that Brown could and should turn it into a book. But what he does say, what many around Jaylen Brown say, is that his next move will be strategic and well thought out, as if he has been planning it for years.
“I believe his greatest impact, as good as he has been at basketball, won’t be on the court,” Stevens says. “It’s one of the many things I really love about him and really think so highly of about him. He cares about what’s right. He’s going to voice his opinion. And if he doesn’t know something, he’s going to learn it.”