As COVID-19 began to roar across the country in March, Celtics forward Jaylen Brown immediately thought of his grandfather, Willie Brown, who lives alone in Atlanta. He knew he just had to get him to Boston.
But Willie was reluctant to leave what he viewed as his safe haven, even though it probably was not as safe as he thought. So Jaylen did not tell him he wanted him to flee because of a virus. He told him that he wanted him in Boston because he needed his help. He needed a trainer, and he couldn’t think of anyone better than his grandfather.
“And he’s been joyful about it,” Jaylen said by phone. “I feel like it keeps him going.”
Willie Brown, who turns 79 in August, did a tour in Vietnam with the Marines in 1963. Afterward, he worked as a truck driver, but really just used that job as an entryway to his true love: boxing. He dreamed of becoming a professional fighter but worried he could not make it a living. So as he crisscrossed the Midwest and the East Coast driving his truck, he offered his services as a sparring partner wherever he went.
Over time, he said, he developed a reputation as a reliable opponent for big boxers training for big fights. He said he sparred against Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Sonny Liston, among others.
“I always knew where the gym was,” he said. “At that time, it didn’t take that much to find out who is who, so I kept running from city to city. Once in the ’70s I sparred with Joe Frazier in Philadelphia, and he hit me with a left hook down below, and it kept me on the floor of my hotel room for three days.”
Willie’s son, Marselles, became a professional heavyweight, compiling a 33-18-1 record that included fights with former champions Tommy Morrison and Trevor Berbick. Marselles’s son became the biggest star in the family and was drafted by the Celtics with the third overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.
With gyms and basketball courts across the country shuttered because of the coronavirus, NBA players have been forced to find creative ways to train. And that’s where Jaylen’s grandfather has come in since being in Boston with Jaylen and his mother, Mechalle, and brother Quenton.
“We said we needed him to help me train and get back ready for the season, so he could feel comfortable sticking around here,” Jaylen said. “But on the other side of that, he’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to train then.’ We’ve been training hard and a lot. On one hand, it’s great that he’s comfortable being here, but on the other he’s making me work my [butt] off.”
Willie took the assignment quite seriously from the start. Each morning he would bang at Jaylen’s bedroom door at 7:30 a.m. and tell him it was time to work. As the days passed, he became more lenient with start times, but not with the training sessions.
He’ll hold up boxing pads as Jaylen pounds them with his gloves. He’ll have Jaylen jump rope, or carry 5-pound weights as he sprints up and down the street in front of his home. They do resistance-band, bodyweight, and core exercises. Jaylen thinks he’s in the best shape of his life.
“He has me doing a lot of things I’ve never done before,” Jaylen said. “It’s the old way of training. Everything he does is kind of a throwback, but it’s good. He’s never been stagnant, and I got that from him.”
Willie, or Paw-paw as Jaylen calls him, has been quite impressed with the progress of his student.
“It’s beautiful,” Willie said. “I can’t believe it myself. He works like a pro. It’s in his blood, you understand that? He does amazing things.”
Willie is not simply barking orders at Jaylen from afar. He jumps into the workouts when he can, with Jaylen flipping the script and serving as his motivator and biggest fan. Willie said with a chuckle that Jaylen thinks he’s the faster of the two, but once his left leg feels a bit better, he’d like to show him that he’s not.
“It’s been a wonderful way for them to help each other and have their bond grow, and I think [Willie] has been immensely happy,” said Mechalle. “Anybody getting older, they love just being involved and engaged.
"I’m glad Jaylen wanted to do this and wanted him to be a part of it. And to see the smile on his face when he’s helping him, that’s priceless. We didn’t want this quarantine, but sometimes things pull you together.”