Jaylen Brown: ‘Sport is a mechanism of control in America’

As the Boston Celtics star prepares to play in London, he talks to Donald McRae about race, the NBA and the death of his best friend

By Donald McRae | The Guardian | January 9, 2018

Jaylen Brown is one the most intelligent and interesting young athletes I’ve met in years and it seems fitting that, midway through our interview in Boston, he should retell a parable that brings together Martin Luther King and the great American writer David Foster Wallace.

“We’ve got two young fish swimming one way and an older fish swimming the other way,” the 21-year-old star of the Boston Celtics says as he considers the enduring backdrop of race in the United States. “They cross paths and the older fish says: ‘What’s up guys, how’s the water?’ The two younger fish turn around and look back at the wiser fish and ask: ‘What’s water?’ They’ve never recognised that this is what they actually live in. So it takes somebody special like Martin Luther King to see past what you’ve been embedded in your whole life.”

Three years before his death, Foster Wallace included the parable in one of his most widely-read pieces of writing. Yet it carries fresh resonance when said with quiet force by a young basketball player who stands apart from many of his contemporaries – to the extent that there have been numerous articles in which an unnamed NBA executive apparently suggested that Brown might be “too smart” for the league or “his own good”.

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Brown was the No3 pick in the 2016 NBA draft and now, in his second season with Boston, he is a key figure as the Celtics arrive in London this week as the leading team in the Eastern Conference. We’ve already spoken about Brown’s desire to learn new languages and his interest in books and chess – while he loves playing the piano and listening to grime artists from east London. Even more intimately he has relived the death of his closest friend Trevin Steede in November. In the two games after that devastating loss Brown produced inspirational performances, which he dedicated to Steede.

He has also looked forward to playing in London on Thursday, against the Philadelphia 76ers, and answered a question as to whether his young Celtics team may become NBA champions in the next few seasons: “Why not this year? People say maybe we’ll be good in two years – but I think we’re good now. Right now we’ve got one of the best records in the league. I think we could be as good as we want to be. But the more we let people construct our mindset, and start saying two years from now, is the moment we lose.”

Last week the Celtics beat LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers 102-88. Excitement and anticipation surrounds the Celtics but race still stalks our conversation – and it has echoed hauntingly through Brown’s life. “Racism definitely still exists in the South,” he says, remembering his youth in Marietta, Georgia. “I’ve experienced it through basketball. I’ve had people call me the n-word. I’ve had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. I’ve had people paint their face black at my games. I’ve had people throw bananas in the stands.

“Racism definitely exists across America today. Of course it’s changed a lot – and my opportunities are far greater than they would have been 50 years ago. So some people think racism has dissipated or no longer exists. But it’s hidden in more strategic places. You have less people coming to your face and telling you certain things. But [Donald] Trump has made it a lot more acceptable for racists to speak their minds.”

Jaylen Brown takes on LeBron James earlier this season

Jaylen Brown takes on LeBron James earlier this season. Photograph: CJ Gunther/EPA

Brown admits that, when he was 14, “It wounds you. But when I got older and went to the University of California [Berkeley] I learnt about a more subtle racism and how it filters across our education system through tracking, hidden curriculums, social stratification and things I had no idea of before. I was really emotional – because one of the most subtle but aggressive ways racism exists is throu