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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

Jaylen Brown thrilled to address social issues with Harvard audience

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Celtics coach Brad Stevens talks strategy with Jaylen Brown during a recent game.

By Globe Staff 

He’s only 21 years old, born just after Michael Jordan started his first comeback. They call people from Jaylen Brown’s generation “millennials,” and in many ways that’s not a flattering label.

Millennials are stereotyped as self-centered and oblivious to the complicated, cold, and unforgiving world that surrounds them.

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On Thursday evening at Harvard’s Longfellow Hall, the Celtics forward traded his sneakers and thigh-high shorts for a sleek black suit and turtleneck and talked to an audience that was mostly comprised of students his age about pressing social issues.

With his mother and grandmother in attendance, Brown began with a 20-minute dissertation on the American educational system before taking about a dozen questions, including one from a 10-year-old boy about the importance of attending college.

It was as thrilling for Brown as a breakaway, 360-degree dunk, the opportunity to speak to his peers, express his opinions on social issues, continue his quest to be a savant, someone known as much, if not more, for their mental prowess than for their physical prowess in professional sports.

“I get this question a lot: ‘Jaylen, do you identify as an intellect or do you identify as an athlete?’ ” he said during his introduction. “And to be honest, I never give anyone a straight answer because, to be honest, I hate the dichotomy of it. I hate the fact that it has to be one or the other. I hate the fact that there’s no possibility for both. In my reality, there is.”

Brown wowed the crowd with his humor, telling them of his family’s reaction when he agreed to speak at Harvard and how their first question was, “What are you going to talk about?”

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“To be honest, I was more concerned with what I wasn’t going to talk about,” he said. “Speaking on something that connects with me and resonates with you guys.”

Brown touched on inequality in the educational system, such as how gifted students are told to “apply what they learn in class to the world,” whereas average students are asked to “regurgitate information and pretty much mimic what the teacher taught them.”

During the early days of his freshman year at UC Berkeley, Brown said he was brought to tears because of what he termed “social stratification,” feeling his education was being marginalized because he was an athlete. Brown intimidated some NBA teams during the pre-draft interview process because of his bright mind and against-the-grain thought process.

What’s more, Brown still has not retained an agent. He told the audience that he noticed a large percentage of professional athletes in dire financial situations just five years after retirement, and that encouraged him to hire advisers for particular financial situations instead of a full-time agent.

“I’ve seen tracking and the negative side effects from it,” he said. “I’ve seen the things attached to it, low self-esteem, rebellious behavior, all of it. Tracking since kindergarten. Standardized tests put you in a certain place, a certain track, and you stay in that track until high school and little do you know if you don’t do anything to determine that, you’ll be in the same social indemnity for the rest of your life. I’ve seen it.

“At this point, 2018, it’s time to mash the gas [pedal] because the idea of America is that some people have to win and some people have to lose. And there are certain things in place that exist to make sure people end up here [at Harvard] and certain people end up there [in a more difficult situation]. There are going to be some people that are going to be in the political arena as legislators and government officials and there are going to be some people that fill out prison industrial complexes and work vocalization jobs, and that’s just the reality of it.”

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Brown continued: “ ‘Jaylen, you’re an NBA player. You’re fine. You’re a millionaire.’ Yes this is true. [To the laughter of the audience.] But if I didn’t have the counter space of basketball, where would I be? Just because I escaped the barriers of society, why shouldn’t I think about the people who haven’t or didn’t or won’t? What if I didn’t have the counter space of basketball, where would I channel my energy? Would I do something positive with it? Would I resort to violence? These are real-life scenarios that kids in America wake up to every single day.”

Brown’s appearance at Harvard meant more to him than his 35-point performance in the Rising Stars Challenge or a key 3-pointer to lead the Celtics to victory. Brown seeks to be considered substantially more than an NBA player or a jock or a millennial seeking only personal success and gratification. Brown spoke Thursday for his family, his community, his home area of Atlanta, and those like him without a voice.

“Me coming up here means a lot but it really wasn’t about me,” he said. “I wasn’t speaking for myself. I don’t speak for everybody, but I know people in my neighborhood, in my community, feel a certain type of way. I was advocating for them. I made it to a point in a certain place in society where I have escaped the barriers that have been put in place. The people who didn’t, should we forget about them?”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.