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Jaylen Brown often calls himself an old soul, a 44-year-old mind inside of a freakishly athletic 24-year-old body. It’s a soul that won’t allow him to just stick to basketball. It’s a mind that is constantly seeking to learn while simultaneously teaching and leading.
This seriousness was evident to other players, who made him, at 22, the youngest-ever member of the NBA Players Association’s executive committee. And it was evident in May after the murder of George Floyd, when Brown, driving 15 hours from Boston to his native Georgia, decided to participate in a protest march. He walked from The King Center in Atlanta to his people, using a bullhorn to offer encouragement, and to give his opinions on the state of racial affairs in America.
He took those desires to foster change to the NBA bubble, the quarantine complex in Orlando where the NBA season resumed during the pandemic. When he wasn’t helping the Celtics reach the Eastern Conference Finals, he was speaking eloquently and often about social issues, imploring his young brethren to vote, suggesting that the term “police brutality” be replaced by “domestic terrorism,” and recommending that those struggling with these pandemic times take care of themselves and get mental health checks.
Brown told the Globe at the time that our definition of athlete needs to change, that they are much more than just entertainers. “I’m not a politician. I’m not a civil rights leader or anything like that,” he said, “but I do recognize that I have a platform and hopefully I can enhance voices that get lost in the midst of things.”
His deep voice rings loud and impactful, even when his opinions are not popular. After the video of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin went viral, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to sit out their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. In a meeting the next day, several NBA players accosted the Bucks, angry that the team did not inform them of their intentions beforehand. Brown stood up, with 200-plus players paying full attention, and supported the Bucks players for their brave stand. And when NBA players discussed leaving the bubble and abandoning the season because they felt their social justice statements weren’t making a difference, Brown rose again and said to them, “If you’re going to go home, make sure it’s to do work in your communities. Don’t use this as an excuse just to get out of [the bubble].”
Eventually, the players decided to resume the season, imploring the league’s owners to use arenas as voting locations and to send stronger social media messages encouraging people to vote. The NBA has been the foremost league on addressing social issues, such as the Celtics’ just-unveiled $25 million plan to revitalize communities of color and promote equality and inclusion in Boston. Eventually, Brown’s words turned into concrete change: The NBA actively promoted voting on its social media platforms during the season’s final weeks, and cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles used their arenas as polling sites.
Brown says it would be cool to be in the NBA Hall of Fame someday, but that’s not what drives him. “I want to be great, to have influence, to bring about positive change,” he said. “That’s what pushes me every day, to lead my community, the people that look up to me.”
2020 BOSTONIANS OF THE YEAR
The Front Line
The Front Line
In 2020, they stood up to fight the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. Meet the people leading us through a harrowing year.
THE COVID SCIENTISTS
Stacey Gabriel and the Broad Institute, plus Galit Alter, Lindsey Baden, and Ashish Jha
THE SOCIAL JUSTICE ADVOCATES
Monica Cannon-Grant, Queen-Cheyenne Wade, Segun Idowu, and Sofia Meadows
THE COMMUNITY LEADERS
Gladys Vega and La Colaborativa
THE ESSENTIAL WORKERS
Health care workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and so many more
THE HUNGER FIGHTERS
Erin McAleer and Project Bread
THE ROLE MODEL
Jaylen Brown, activist and athlete
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.