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
Jaylen Brown is one the most intelligent and interesting young athletes Ive 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.
Weve 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: Whats up guys, hows the water? The two younger fish turn around and look back at the wiser fish and ask: Whats water? Theyve never recognised that this is what they actually live in. So it takes somebody special like Martin Luther King to see past what youve 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.
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. Weve already spoken about Browns 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 well be good in two years but I think were good now. Right now weve 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 Browns life. Racism definitely still exists in the South, he says, remembering his youth in Marietta, Georgia. Ive experienced it through basketball. Ive had people call me the n-word. Ive had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. Ive had people paint their face black at my games. Ive had people throw bananas in the stands.
Racism definitely exists across America today. Of course its 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 its 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.