HOUSTON — Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown was around 7 years old when he asked his grandmother Dianne Varnado for a new Xbox. Varnado, a longtime public-school teacher and social worker, made him write a paper about it.
“‘If you want something, you’ve got to be able to explain why,’” Brown, 26, recalled her telling him.
His wants are different now: to win an N.B.A. championship; for players to share in more of the league’s profits; to see an end to anti-Black racism in policing and school funding.
Brown has used his celebrity platform to explain why he is passionate about issues like income inequality. Derek Van Rheenen, one of Brown’s former professors at the University of California, Berkeley, described him as “intellectually curious” and “politically invested, socially conscious.”
But Brown’s growing profile has meant more pressure to explain himself: for working with the rapper Kanye West, who goes by Ye, after he made antisemitic comments, and for a misstep while supporting Kyrie Irving, who faced backlash after promoting an antisemitic film when he played for the Nets.
While basketball has been Brown’s primary focus, it has never been the only one. Brown said his family is full of educators, who laid the foundation for his activist focus on education inequality. Varnado, whom he said recently died “peacefully,” also helped him develop his voice by teaching him to argue for what matters to him. (He got the Xbox.)
Brown is averaging career highs in points per game (26.8), rebounds per game (6.9) and shooting percentage (49 percent). This is his seventh season.Credit…Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Brown sat down with The New York Times at a Four Seasons hotel in Houston on Sunday to talk about his career and his life, including the controversies. He had just come off a flight from Atlanta, where the Celtics had won the night before. Brown has firmly established himself as one of the elite guards in the N.B.A. on one of the top teams, averaging career highs in scoring and rebounding in his best season yet.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Work and Life in Boston
How important is making an All-N.B.A. team to you?
You want me to answer honestly?
I don’t want you to lie to me.
I think it would be deserving. We’ve been pretty dominant all season long.
Whether I’m in an All-Star Game, All-N.B.A., or whoever comes up with those decisions, is out of my control. I think I’m one of the best basketball players in the world. And I continue to go out and prove it, especially when it matters the most in the playoffs.
You and Jayson Tatum have pretty much played your entire careers together at this point. How would you describe your relationship today?
I would say the same as it’s always been. You know, two guys who work really hard, who care about winning. We come out and we are extremely competitive. People still probably don’t think it’ll work out.
But, for the most part, it’s been rarefied air.
The Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum, left, one year after they drafted Brown. Together, they led Boston to the N.B.A. finals last season but lost to Golden State.Credit…Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
Celtics center Al Horford recalled that the speed of the N.B.A. game was “really, really fast” for Brown during his rookie season in 2016-17. But now, “he just completely understands the things that he needs to do on the floor,” Horford said.
Brown made his second All-Star team this season, and his career-best 26.8 points a game places him among the top guards in scoring. He could be a free agent after next season, but he said he isn’t thinking about that yet. “I’ve been able to make a lot of connections in the city, meet a lot of amazing families who have dedicated their lives to issues about change,” he said.
Brown, who is Black, has spoken publicly about racism in Boston, where about half the population is white and about a quarter is Black. In 2015, a jolting study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston estimated that the Black households in the Boston area had a median wealth of close to zero, while the figure for white households was $247,500. “The wealth disparity in Boston is ridiculous,” Brown said.
What has your experience been like as a Black professional athlete in Boston?
There’s multiple experiences: as an athlete, as a basketball player, as a regular civilian, as somebody who’s trying to start a business, as someone who’s trying to do things in the community.
There’s not a lot of room for people of color, Black entrepreneurs, to come in and start a business.
I think that my experience there has been not as fluid as I thought it would be.
What do you mean by that?
Even being an athlete, you would think that you’ve got a certain amount of influence to be able to have experiences, to be able to have some things that doors open a little bit easier. But even with me being who I am, trying to start a business, trying to buy a house, trying to do certain things, you run into some adversity.
Other athletes have spoken about the negative way that fans have treated Black athletes while playing in Boston. Have you experienced any of that?
I have, but I pretty much block it all out. It’s not the whole Celtic fan base, but it is a part of the fan base that exists within the Celtic nation that is problematic. If you have a bad game, they tie it to your personal character.
I definitely think there’s a group or an amount within the Celtic nation that is extremely toxic and does not want to see athletes use their platform, or they just want you to play basketball and entertain and go home. And that’s a problem to me.
Erik Moore, the founder of the venture capital firm Base Ventures, mentored Brown in college after Brown interned at his company. He said Brown was always focused on social justice. “It’s not new or shocking or weird,” Moore said. “It’s just who he is.”
In April 2020, Brown wrote an op-ed for The Guardian decrying societal inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The next month, he donated $1,000 to the political action committee Grassroots Law, which, according to its website, fights “to end oppressive policing, incarceration, and injustice.” Weeks later, Brown drove 15 hours to Atlanta from Boston to protest the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis.
Brown spoke about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before a game against the New Orleans Pelicans in January 2022.Credit…Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
Do you think things are better for Black Americans when it comes to dealing with police than they were three years ago when you went down to protest?
I have not seen it, to be honest. I think the issue is more systemic. I think what I learned about policing is that it’s not like the N.B.A., where everybody has these kind of rules that they kind of follow. How a police station in Memphis runs their police station is different from how they might run it in the New York Police Department. I don’t want to say it’s like the Wild West, but it’s different, you know?
I read an interview where you said “Educational inequality is probably the most potent form of racism on our planet.” What do you mean by that?
There’s different forms of bigotry or racism or inequalities. Directly confrontational still happens to this day, where people come up to you and just tell you their distaste for the way you walk, the way you talk, your skin color. And those are all extremely emotionally detrimental.
There’s other forms of hegemonic racism that are subliminal, such as the inequalities in the education system: the lack of resources and opportunities through local elections and people voting on how much money or resources should go in this area versus this area.
What about those kids who are extremely talented? What about those kids who are gifted who have contributions to make to society? But they’re stumped because of lack of opportunity.
I’ll forever fight for those kids because I’m one of them.
Ye and Irving
Brown first received widespread attention for his political views in 2018 when he told The Guardian that President Donald J. Trump was “unfit to lead” and that he had “made it a lot more acceptable for racists to speak their minds.” He also said sports were a “mechanism of control.” It was an unusual degree of outspokenness for a young, unestablished player.
So Brown raised eyebrows in May 2022 when he became one of the first athletes to join Donda Sports, the new marketing agency of a well-known Trump supporter: Ye.
“I think people still are loath to believe that Kanye really is a Trump fan,” said Moore, Brown’s mentor, adding, “So it might be easy to compartmentalize those things for Kanye specifically and say he’s a marketing phenom and he’s an amazing artist and he’s got that side of the world first and be OK with that.”
Brown was one of the first athletes to sign with the marketing agency of the rapper Kanye West, who goes by Ye, left. Credit…Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images
As Ye spiraled with a series of antisemitic comments and social media posts in the fall, Brown initially defended his association with Donda Sports before apologizing in October and cutting ties.
Months after your interview in The Guardian in 2018, Kanye goes to the White House and very publicly aligns himself with President Trump. When you decided to sign with Donda, how did you reconcile those two things?
You know, just because you think differently from somebody, it doesn’t mean you can’t work with them. I don’t think the same as [the Celtics owners] Steve Pagliuca or Wyc Grousbeck on a lot of different issues. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come together and win a championship.
What are the things you aligned with Donda on specifically?
One, education. Donda was his mother’s name and she was an educator, similar to my mom. And she was an activist and they had a different approach to how they looked at agency, how they looked at representation through marketing and media.
Everybody kind of follows the same script, especially in sports. They hire an agent. And that approach never really absolutely worked for me.
Look, I’m a part of the union. I see the statistics every day. Over 40 to 60 percent of our athletes, 10 years after they retire, go broke or lose majority of their wealth. Our athletes silently suffer. Nobody’s helping them manage their money, and [the agents] just get a new client once the oil has run dry. Nobody looks at that model and that approach as an issue.
Trying to be an example for the next generation of athletes.
You described Kanye as a role model in the past. How do you feel about him now?
Go to the next question. I’m not going to answer that.
You got in a little bit of hot water in November for sharing a video of the Black Hebrew Israelites [an antisemitic group] outside of Barclays Center in support of Kyrie Irving. You said that you thought it was a fraternity. Did that incident make you rethink how you want to use your platform?
At that time, being the vice president of the players association, Kyrie Irving was being exiled, so I thought it was important to use my platform to to show him some love when he was being welcomed back. And people took it with their own perspective and ran with it. That’s out of my control. I’ve always used my platform to talk about certain things, and I will continue to. But the more you make people uncomfortable, the more criticism you’re going to get. And that’s just life.
Brown, right, was one of several players who expressed support for Kyrie Irving, left, as he faced strong public backlash for promoting an antisemitic movie. Irving denied that he was antisemitic.Credit…Michelle Farsi for The New York Times
Brown is one of seven vice presidents in the N.B.A. players’ union. Chrysa Chin, a union executive, recalled meeting Brown before his rookie year. She said he told her he wanted to be president of the union one day. “I thought it was very unusual,” Chin said.
The N.B.A. and the union are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, with the players seeking a “true partnership” that lets them tap into more of the league’s revenue streams that would not exist without their labor, Brown said.
“We’d like to see our ethics, morals and values being upheld internationally and globally,” Brown said, “and we would like to have a say-so with the partners and the people that are being involved with the league, because our face, our value, our work ethic, our work, our labor is attached to this league as well.”