Jaylen Brown was one of five players to be awarded the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for his contributions and strong voice during the past several months, especially speaking on social issues during the Celtics' time in the NBA bubble.
Brown doesn’t turn 24 until Oct. 24, and he is already one of the leading social voices in professional sports. During his time in Orlando, he spoke on the Breonna Taylor case, urged young people to vote, called for the reassessment of the term “police brutality,” and implored his fellow players to give back to their communities when they returned home.
He does not see himself as a new-age leader or particularly special.
“I guess [being in the spotlight] doesn’t mean as much to me as people would think,” Brown said. “I think that needs to be normalized. I think that needs to be a redefinition of what a modern athlete is. Yes, we’re here to play basketball and entertain, but at the same time there’s a lot of influence and responsibility that comes with it, to be honest, especially in American sports.”
Athlete activism over the past few months has put “shut up and dribble” to rest. Brown said he hopes that players feel more comfortable expressing themselves, taking advantage of the opportunity to reach their vast audience.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m not a civil rights leader or anything like that, but I do recognize that I have a platform and hopefully I can try to enhance voices that get lost in the midst of things and also enhance all these grass-roots organizations that are devoting their time, energy, and life 24/7 to this. I just really want to enlarge those voices, but it’s less so about me, it’s about the cause and things we are fighting for.”
Brown said he is most concerned with making an impact on his community, whether it be in Boston or his native Georgia. He’s was born in the mid-1990s, but Brown said he fully realizes that he is a role model to millions of young people who are just trying to form opinions on social and racial issues.
“Any time I’m in front of a camera or I know people are going to see me, I always try to think of the people that’s watching in my community,” he said. "I’m human. I’m young. I make mistakes. I carry myself with the regard that people are going to be watching me and I want them to know that things that are cool now, that are trends, don’t have to be trends.
“The cars. The lifestyle. The women. All that type of stuff is cool, but also taking care of your family, speaking on your community, helping your community, using your voice. I want that to be cool, too. Not just who you are dating on Instagram, not what kind of car you’ve got or house you’ve got. It also should be cool that you helped your community, that you started a community store in your neighborhood. Those should be flexes, rather than the jewelry or the stuff that’s the norm for NBA players.”
Brown scoffs at the question of whether his passion for social issues affects his ability or dedication to basketball. He can pull off both, he assures.
The Celtics' playoff elimination was painful. Brown has worked feverishly on improving his game over the past few years, so much so that it would be a surprise if he wasn’t named an All-Star next season.
“I think I love the game more than I did before,” he said. “My love might just be different from other people’s. My love was always attached to the fact that I wanted to be great. But it’s great to have influence to bring about positive type of change, that’s what pushes me every day, to lead my community that look up to me. That’s why I want to be great. I don’t want to be great because it’s all about me. I want to see my name in the Hall of Fame. That’s cool, nothing wrong with that, but my reasons for being great is to help as many people as I can.”
Those who are interested in Brown’s personal growth — and even those who aren’t — better prepare themselves for him using his platform to speak for those whose voices cannot be heard. He will not be silent on issues of human rights.
“They always want to put a camera in an athlete’s face, but they don’t want to respect when we have something to say,” he said. “What’s the point of putting a camera in our face?”
A BETTER FIT
Howard got it right the second time
On the verge of his first NBA championship, Dwight Howard is grateful. He had seen better days before arriving to the Lakers. He had a forgettable stint with the Rockets. A homecoming to Atlanta didn’t work out as expected. He was considered an unpopular teammate with Charlotte. He signed a two-year deal with the Wizards and missed 73 games because of a gluteal injury.
In the summer of 2019, the Wizards traded the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to the Grizzles as a salary dump. That August, Memphis cut him. Howard was a 33-year-old free agent with a poor reputation and crowded injury history looking for a new team.
The Lakers were one of his former teams, and if you recall, that didn’t go well, either. It was 2012 and he was supposed to team with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for a new Los Angeles Big Three. But Nash got hurt, and Bryant and Howard didn’t get along.
Yet Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka listened last summer when Howard said he would sign for the league minimum and leave his ego, troubles, and even his injuries in the past.
Howard is not the player he once was offensively. He would soar for alley-oops, spin for jump hooks, and crash the boards with unbridled athleticism. He is still freakishly athletic and in premium condition, and in spurts, Howard remains an impact defensive player. He has rejuvenated his career, capitalizing on his final chance. And the reward could be sweet with a long-awaited title.
Howard is headed to the Hall of Fame. That’s not for debate. But this past year he has improved his image as he has atoned for many of his past mistakes.
“This year has been like a really great roller-coaster,” he said. “We’ve had some really good things happen, some terrible things happen with the Lakers. And like I said earlier, with the passing of the greatest player ever to come out of LA, the Lakers, one of the greatest players ever, Kobe Bryant, that situation in China, the pandemic.”
The Lakers' season began a calendar year ago with a preseason trip to China. During that time, Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support of independence for Hong Kong, which sparked controversy throughout China, with the NBA providing added security to the Lakers and Nets for the remainder of their trip.
That was the first of several events — some positive, some negative — throughout the Lakers' season. Howard, meanwhile, stayed healthy, warmed to his reserve role, and averaged 14.3 points and 14 rebounds per 36 minutes played, more than respectable numbers.
“You know, 2020 has been crazy,” Howard said, "but it’s also been one the best years of my life. Despite all the things that have happened, a lot of things have turned around. It’s just a testimony to anybody. Just always stay positive, and no matter what life gives you, life is really a journey.
“This year has been crazy, and hopefully we can top it off with a great championship.”
While several players have said maintaining strong mental health has been an issue because of the limitations in the bubble and separation from family until last month, Howard said he has remained upbeat.
“I think some things should be left outside of being put out to the public,” he said. “But being able to get that feeling of anxiety and depression out of your system I think is great. During this time there is a lot of reasons we could be depressed, could be down, sad about just being here while there is a pandemic going on. But we all understand what the mission is. We all understand that we have to stay focused and locked in.”
‘Glenn’ starts anew in Philadelphia
Glenn “Doc” Rivers made a bunch of new friends in Philadelphia with one statement: “There’s only one Doc in Philly."
That’s in reverence to Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who remains the King of Philadelphia. Rivers will be trying to get the 76ers back to prosperity as their new coach, a stunning development when it appeared he would remain the Clippers' coach for the next several years. Three days after he and owner Steve Ballmer agreed to part ways, Rivers was the Philadelphia coach, inheriting two All-Stars and monumental expectations.
“It’s been crazy . . . I needed a day to just gather myself,” Rivers said. “Then [agent] Lonnie [Cooper] and I talked, narrowed it down to a couple teams, and the first team I wanted to talk to was here in Philadelphia. Truth be told, mainly because of what they have on the floor.
“Meeting the ownership group, talking to them, talking to [GM] Elton [Brand] — after meeting those guys, I just thought it was a terrific fit for me. Once they decided on me, I had to make the decision: Do I want to do that? Because you have to jump fully. You have to jump all the way in. This week I’ve been back and forth several times already. Back and forth, LA to Philly, LA to Philly. It’s been a heck of a week.”
Rivers said he is convinced the 76ers can win a championship with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and doesn’t have to resort to the popular small ball, spreading the floor with 3-point shooters.
“I think you have to be who you are,” Rivers said. "The Lakers didn’t worry about going small. They actually went bigger. The mistake a lot of teams have made [was] everyone wanted to be Golden State, but no one can shoot like Golden State. So, to me, everyone made a mistake. You have to be the best version of you, and not apologize for that.
“This team has great size, great athleticism, great multipositional players. I think that is new, I think that is the new wave. What I do like, from afar, is this team has the ability to morph in three or four different lineups that can create problems for other teams. That’s something we will definitely do here.”
If there is one thing Rivers knows about, it’s coaching superstars, and those stars who may not be necessarily close off the floor. The biggest question going into the offseason is whether Embiid and Simmons can play together and win a championship. Rivers is convinced they can.
“We have two young stars here in Philadelphia. [Ben and Joel have] already had success,” said Rivers, who will turn 59 Tuesday. "My job is to add to that, and try to take them to a place that they’ve not been. They’ve done a lot of winning, but we want to be the winner. Winning is great, but being the winner is the best. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.
“This is a historic organization, and a historic town, that I want to be part of. I love the pieces here. I love what we have to work with. With Elton, I’m looking forward to turning this into a championship team. I really just can’t wait to get to work.”
The 76ers fired Brett Brown after they were swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. They jumped on Rivers the moment he was available, and he gives the organization a level of legitimacy it hasn’t had in decades.
“[Doc] is a proven leader with one of the NBA’s most accomplished résumés, and he’s helped guide some of the best teams and brightest stars,” Brand said. “As we prepare for the upcoming season, I believe Doc can help us unlock our full potential on and off the court.
"Ultimately, Doc and I share the same passion to bring another NBA championship to the city of Philadelphia. I also respect that Doc will use his voice to have tough conversations, to change, and make a positive impact on society.”
Don’t expect the remaining NBA teams to make fast coaching hires while there is no schedule yet set for the 2020-21 season. The Pacers have kept their favorites close to the vest, but they have talked with former Memphis and Sacramento coach Dave Joerger and also former NBA player Chauncey Billups, who has no coaching experience but is considered a bright mind that is destined for coaching or the front office. The Pelicans are interested in former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, but he has another suitor in the Clippers. There are plenty of big names, such as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, who would be interested in returning in the right situation. The Clippers are also expected to get consultation from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, each of whom have opt-outs on their contracts next summer. The Thunder have been eerily quiet regarding their coaching search, but it believed they are not against hiring a rising assistant to lead the franchise into the next stage. Assistants such as David Vanterpool and Wes Unseld Jr. are ready to take the next step. Another name that doesn’t get as much mention as it should is the Lakers' Phil Handy, who has become an expert in player development. The Rockets are considering former NBA coach and player development guru in John Lucas for their position. Lucas served as an assistant coach this season and was key in the club helping develop big man Clint Capela. Lucas hasn’t been a head coach since 2002-03, when he went 8-34 with the Cavaliers the year prior to them drafting LeBron James. Lucas, however, has developed a basketball academy in Houston and has a strong bond with several Rockets players . . . While Lawrence Frank of the Clippers was named Executive of the Year, which was voted on by other GMs, the Lakers' Rob Pelinka deserves recognition for putting together a team on the verge of a championship on his own following the sudden resignation of team president Magic Johnson. Pelinka acquired Anthony Davis but also signed Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, and hired coach Frank Vogel, a decision that was heavily criticized.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.