Jaylen Brown’s trip for the NBA Africa Game continues his quest to become a leader
To conclude a remarkable rookie season off the court as much as on it, Jaylen Brown traveled to the Motherland: Africa.
The 20-year-old Celtics renaissance man, who has aspirations of being one of the league’s trailblazers, is one of 24 players who participated in the second NBA Africa Game on Saturday in Johannesburg.
Brown is the youngest player on either roster, but the magnitude of making this journey is not lost on him. Brown views this as more than just an average trip afforded NBA players because of their status. He views this as a learning experience, an opportunity to explore a different culture, and to erase stereotypes or notions about one of the world’s most mysterious lands.
“It feels great. There’s a lot of perceptions of what Africa looks like or what it is, and it’s completely different from what I thought it would be,” Brown said. “It’s similar to back home and I feel at home. At first, when we first arrived, there’s buildings everywhere, there’s the big city, marketing, branding, everywhere. I felt like I was outside the city in Augusta, Georgia, or something rather than being across the world.
“But it’s a beautiful city, a beautiful country. I’m happy to be here.”
Brown scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, leading Team World to a 108-97 victory over Team Africa.
The NBA has increased its presence in Africa. The NBA Africa Game, which features first-generation, second-generation, or players of African descent against a team of selected NBA players, is a landmark event in a country that is growing in basketball knowledge. Many of the players have found themselves overwhelmed by being in a part of the world many have never visited. Brown, who turns 21 in October, brought his mother, Mechalle, on the trip.
“To be honest, I really couldn’t stop smiling for some reason,” Brown said. “I was just waving at people incessantly, just smiling. I came off probably a little weird to the people but I was happy to be here. I didn’t come here with any expectations. I came here with empty spaces, hoping to see what Africa was about. I wasn’t really surprised but I was pleased with a lot of different things. A lot of the stereotypes don’t apply to Johannesburg, South Africa.”
During the week, players toured the city and participated in various basketball skills camps with the kids of Johannesburg. The NBA realizes that Africa has untapped marketing and talent potential. It’s been overlooked for too long. It’s not some primitive land.
“It doesn’t feel like how people depict Africa is supposed to be,” Brown said. “It feels like a regular city where they have everything, just a lot more black people, to be honest. It feels like a regular city, kind of like home.”
Brown said working with young people during these camps has been just as beneficial for him and the other players as it’s been for the youth. They see how badly these kids want to learn the game but they lack the resources and training sometimes taken for granted in the United States.
“They’ve helped me a lot, just how they approached their opportunity,” he said. “No matter what, they just come out and have a lot of energy, super excited, super locked in, with an eagerness to get better and learn the game. I have that same drive in me but they have it to a whole other level. I have an appreciation for the talent level. Some of these kids are really talented but they have less opportunity.
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“The game of basketball presents so much and it’s so universal. It touches every corner and now they have an opportunity to show their game and show who they are.”
Brown takes pride in making an impact off the court. He organized a get-together for fellow NBA players under 21 who were too young to fully experience Las Vegas during NBA Summer League. Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum and a throng of other young standouts showed up to support Brown at a golf center.
This trip to Africa continues Brown’s quest to become more of a leader among his brethren, as well as in the community.
“I got this quote from Isaiah Thomas, ‘If I die, if I’m known as just a good basketball player, then I didn’t do my job, I failed as a human being,’ ” Brown said. “That says a lot. He lives by that and I kind of hold myself to the same standard. If you’re just remembered for being a good basketball player, I didn’t do enough while I was here.
“It’s my driving force, just using the game to make an impact on my community, spread light on a lot of different things. Athletes have a voice. [Making an impact] crosses my mind a lot. Being here [in Africa] changes your perspective on what’s going on [in the States]. People here are a lot more deprived and a lot more poor than in America but they don’t seem to be [deterred] by it. They seem more happy, in a sense. It just seemed interesting to see that.”
Keene inspired by Thomas’s success
Count Marcus Keene as another undersized player who uses Isaiah Thomas as motivation. The 5-foot-9-inch guard led the nation in scoring at 30 points per game for Central Michigan. Keene, 22, entered the draft after his junior season but went undrafted. He joined the Washington Wizards’ summer league team, where he found himself in a similar position as many diminutive scorers of the past.
Keene had to prove he could play point guard and put more emphasis on running the offense, but he did shoot 50 percent from the field in the four games, averaging 11.2 points. Thomas, of course, was a high-scoring guard at the University of Washington who was the final pick in the 2011 draft. He has emerged as a two-time All-Star for the Celtics.
Keene’s road to NBA success could be a long one. He’ll have to carve out an opportunity by playing both backcourt positions and, like Thomas, find a situation that will allow him to display his scoring abilities.
“I just have to show that I can be a basketball player — if I have to score or pass, I’m just playing basketball,” he said. “That was what I was telling people who were asking me after the game why I wasn’t shooting. I’m trying to get in the league so I’m trying to show them other stuff I can do. I’m not just going to go out there and jack shots [up]. That’s what I tell them. Everybody wants to see more scoring but I have to be a good, smart basketball player to get into the league and if I get the shots, just knock them down.”
For years, undersized scorers were an afterthought because of the perception that the shortest player on the floor had to be a point guard and distributor. Thomas has showed the ability to score and distribute while score-first point guards such as Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry are dominating the league.
“I study the game, I watch Isaiah Thomas,” Keene said. “[Phoenix’s] Tyler Ulis is a different type of point guard. He’s more of a defender, pass first, and [Cleveland’s Kay] Felder, he’s the same way. I just pick up from all three of them because they are in the league and they all got there and I’m trying to get there.”
Keene played two years at Youngstown State (his only Division 1 offer) before transferring to Central Michigan for his junior season. He scored at least 30 points in 17 of 32 games, including a 50-pointer against Miami of Ohio and two 41-point outbursts vs. Kent State, including his final collegiate game in the Mid-American Conference Tournament. He became a YouTube sensation and would have certainly garnered attention if the Chippewas had reached the NCAA Tournament, but they lost their final eight games, taking some of the glitter from Keene’s remarkable season.
“I got a lot of recognition for what I could do at the mid-major level,” he said. “If we would have won more games, I would have definitely gotten more looks. I feel like the [lack of winning] hurt me but that’s how the plan was and I had to battle through it and work my way around it.”
Keene had no delusions about being drafted. Like Thomas, his ability to score was overshadowed by his size. He has no issue trying to change perceptions like those who came before him.
“Going into this process, I had in my mind that I wasn’t going to get drafted,” Keene said. “But I still wanted to go through it and be a man about it. I like proving people wrong and that’s what I like to do. The year I had and the year [5-8 Monmouth guard] Justin Robinson had the year before, and then Isaiah Thomas’s year and Tyler Ulis [making the Suns], it was a big year for little guards and it helped me out a lot.”
WNBA stands tall among leagues
The WNBA has taken the lead among professional sports leagues regarding players making social statements without fear of retribution. Last July, four Minnesota Lynx players wore T-shirts prior to a game that read “Change Starts with Us. Justice and Accountability” with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two African-Americans shot after being confronted by police in well-publicized cases. Those players, along with players from the Indiana Fever and New York Liberty, were fined for wearing protest T-shirts. But those fines were eventually rescinded. WNBA president Lisa Borders said she takes pride in her league being at the forefront of social progression. And she should.
“[The players] have perspective on many things in their lives — their professional lives and their personal lives,” Borders said at the WNBA All-Star Game in Seattle. “So I am always heartened to see young people become civically engaged. Our players first among equals. It started last season, it has carried right over into this season, whether it’s [New York Liberty center] Tina Charles talking about race, or [Seattle Storm guard] Sue Bird talking about being gay.
“I think these women are strong. That’s who they are. And we really love that about them. I mentioned that I grew up in the South in the 1960s. It was a difficult time. I would submit to you that this is an equally difficult time. We used to think that you could legislate behavior, you could just pass a law and everything would be OK. We know that’s not true. You have to change the hearts and minds of people and put a face on some of the issues that we encounter.”
The WNBA has taken its share of criticism about the on-court product. At this point, it has become essentially a two-team league — Minnesota and Los Angeles — and there has to be overall improvement from the other 10 teams. But the league has made tremendous strides in celebrating and promoting itself, and being a role model for social activism.
The NFL hierarchy could take a lesson from the WNBA in how to accept and even embrace its players who speak out on social issues.
“Having served in public office in a former life from 2004 to 2010 in the city of Atlanta, I got a first-row seat in having to deal with the public and public perceptions about how far we had come or not come in Atlanta, which is the cradle of the civil rights movement,” Borders said. “I would tell you that women’s rights are also civil rights today, and this is the next iteration is what I would tell you of where our society needs to focus.
“So our players are engaged. They are focused like a laser on the work that they do with their bodies and on the court when they perform every day, but equally so on what’s going on in the community, in our country, and in our world. That means we’re in awfully good hands with this next generation taking on leadership roles, whether they are truly elected in a traditional sense or whether they are leading by example here in an arena or out in the community.”
Borders encourages her players to express themselves, and the WNBA has become a league that has made as much of an impact off the court as on the court in its 21 years.
“At the end of the day, I want our players embraced for who they are, period, full stop, without the judgment. This league is comprised of people, women in particular. We should be able to choose who we love, what we do with our bodies, how we feel about public safety, how we feel about education,” Borders said. “We shouldn’t have to defend ourselves and our right to speak up and have perspective on anything we want to talk about.
“Women are 52 percent of the population in this country, more than half of every community. We’re not yet half of the people in Congress or half of the governors in this country or half of the CEOs, but trust me, my friend, it’s coming. It’s coming. Women are today, I think, in better position to make the statements they want to make than they ever have been before, and I think players like Sue Bird leading the march and saying, feel free to talk about whatever you want to talk about, professionally or personally, sets a shining example and inspiration to little girls and little boys everywhere.”
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