GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
Jim Davis/Globe staff
While Jaylen Brown is making a meteoric ascension, transforming from a freakishly athletic but flawed rookie into a dependable and skilled second-year player for the Celtics, he is still dealing with great personal pain after the sudden death of his best friend.
It’s been an emotional few weeks for Brown. In October, he turned 21 years old, a steppingstone for most seeking adult acknowledgment, but Brown celebrated for a different reason.
As he dined with his family and counted his blessings, Brown reflected on his journey. That was his celebration. There were no popping bottles at some VIP section in a club with complete strangers that adore him only for his wealth and talent.
Although Brown said he doesn’t really celebrate birthdays, something about his 21st prompted a small family dinner. Soon after his birthday, Brown lost his best friend, Trevin Steede. Brown played through the pain, missing only the Nov. 25 game against the Indiana Pacers to attend the funeral.
Rewind to that night of Oct. 24, after the Celtics beat the Knicks, 110-89, and Brown’s birthday dinner with mother, grandparents, and friends. There was something different, a reason to reflect and show gratitude.
“I really never felt so grateful my entire life,” he said. “I’m not really a birthday person. I don’t really celebrate birthdays. That’s not really my style. But this one, I just felt so humbled and grateful for everything, the good and the bad.
“I was kind of emotional about it, but I was thankful. I don’t know what it was, it just hit me though. I couldn’t really tell why I felt some type of way. It felt different from all the other ones.”
Brown is mature for his age. He has an old soul. He handles himself well.
During NBA summer league in Las Vegas, the 20-year-old Brown, realizing that many summer leaguers were too young to enjoy the Las Vegas nightlife, organized a get-together at a local driving range/restaurant. Many young summer leaguers showed up, including 19-year-old teammate Jayson Tatum.
He also was named the Celtics’ player representative for the NBA Players Association before his 21st birthday. The Celtics lost their union player rep when Kelly Olynyk was signed by the Miami Heat. Brown volunteered for the position, speaking to his teammates about his desire to become active in union issues.
“That’s my ballpark,” he said. “That’s stuff I’m really interested in. I can’t wait to represent our team and learn more about the league, where it’s come from and where it was and where the [direction] is going into. I’m super excited about it. I just can’t wait to get started.”
He wants to be a leader. He has been a critical part of the Celtics’ stirring 21-4 start. He is a potential franchise cornerstone, a player who could become one of the faces of the league when LeBron James retires.
Brown was considered bright when he decided to enter the NBA Draft after one year at California. While his transition to the NBA was smoother than most one-and-dones, he said he’s experienced unprecedented growth in the past 18 months.
“I can’t really put into numbers but there’s a lot of stuff people haven’t seen as well,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of stuff people still haven’t seen. So my quantification is probably different from everybody else’s.
“There’s a lot of stuff last year that people didn’t see and a lot of stuff this year that people haven’t seen. So I just try to keep chipping away.”
This should be Camelot for Brown. But it isn’t. He is thriving and grieving at the same time, and he doesn’t know when the grieving will end.
He is in the midst of a breakout season, second in scoring on the league’s best team, but there are moments when he reflects on his friend and is brought back into a difficult reality.
It will take time for Brown to find peace, but he is embracing the process.
“It’s tough, especially always having to talk about it and reopen it,” he said. “But just take a deep breath and look at things in a positive manner. That’s kind of how I see it. Because if I don’t, it could get heavy.
“Time heals all wounds, and I’m just trying to give it some time for everybody to grieve and to [move forward] and transfer the energy into positive. Everybody has their own way of grieving. I have mine.
“Basketball is definitely an outlet for it. Music is definitely a great outlet for it. Writing is something I like to do.”
When asked if he is in a good place mentally, Brown couldn’t say yes. There are still struggles.
“I wouldn’t put it in those words,” he said. “I really don’t even know how to answer that.”
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