My favorite part of the Derrick White buzzer-beater for the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals was Jaylen Brown.
Of the five guys on the court, Brown was the only player who did not—and could not—do anything to affect its outcome. The play’s main participants were White and Marcus Smart, but Jayson Tatum and Al Horford were also responsible for crashing different sides of the hoop in case Smart missed.
But Brown kind of just… stands there. He takes six total steps and moves about three feet into the key before getting sealed off by Bam Adebayo. He is completely stuck. If anything, he had the hardest job: to watch it all happen yet do nothing at all about it. At least Tatum got to go flying into the floor seats.
Yet Brown still found a way to steal the scene. In the post-buzzer mania, he found Tatum and gave him the biggest hug anyone has ever given or received on a basketball court. His smile was more real than real, and you could almost see the boulder of worry leave his shoulders.
A guy raised by the game was totally blown away. His only idea was to find his brother and hang on for dear life.
My fascination with Brown’s life and career is well documented, and he wrote a new chapter this week by signing the first $300 million contract in NBA history. The dialogue surrounding it was to be expected, complete with questions about if he is actually worth all that, jokes about his left-handed dribble, and a “league source” alleging that Brown is the fourth or fifth-best player on the Boston Celtics.
There has been ample time and intellectual resources spent on those questions, but to summarize: Brown’s extension was a no-brainer given the alternatives and will be softened by an expanding salary cap and plenty of soon-to-be bigger contracts incoming. Many realized these truths instantly, but in case you or your neighbor’s pet turtle was still spreading the anti-Brown propaganda, there’s your ultimatum.
But what if the dialogue was always wrong? What if the questions about Brown as a true number one rather than a sidekick were always outlandish, and discussions of whether he did (or should) want a trade perennially preposterous?
It’s as though much of the negativity surrounding Brown was concocted from outside his own person as a form of scapegoating. The trade conversations were a construction born out of frustration, not logical calculus. His value to the team and his commitment to the city of Boston were routinely tried in the court of public opinion, but I’m starting to think the opinion was actually trying itself.
Brown is and is not a lot of things, but he might be tuned into the feelings of fans better than any other Celtic. He has repeatedly shown an ability to feel the emotion of the moment, like when he claimed energy was about to shift, or that the Heat better not let the Boston Celtics win one game. Neither worked out in the end, but he gave us hope. Rebellions are built on hope.
My personal favorite? When Brown manually shifted it in Game 7 against Philadelphia, calling out the TD Garden fans and then setting the tone personally. He jumped a passing land and squared up the 76ers bench.
Brown turned on the burner that Tatum used to cook the 76ers harder than anyone could imagine. He even photobombed the slo-mo replay of Tatum shouting in celebration, letting off his own roar as he flew across the camera lens.
Arguably, Brown has made more of an emotional impact on the last half-decade of Boston Celtics teams than their well-touted and dearly-departed emotional leader Marcus Smart. While Smart’s effect may have been more consistent, Brown’s emotional power came out in all the right spots.
So who or what is at fault for the recent negative energy surrounding Brown? Some criticisms are perfectly valid, such as the second-annual horror movie of the Miami Heat diving at Brown’s left hand whenever he put the ball on the floor. That plainly cannot continue, but most of the “criticisms” are actually just half-baked-attention-grabby jokes, so try to smell the difference when deciding who to take seriously.
But jokes aren’t to blame, and I’ll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that it was the misappropriation of history that caused much of the toxic narrative. Brown is the subject of a multi-year imposition of historical precedent onto his basketball life, and it probably shaped his current perception far more than observable reality.
The belief that he must want his own team apart from Tatum is a story ripped off from the Kobe vs. Shaq saga but is present throughout the history of the league.
Russell Westbrook got his own world apart from Kevin Durant, and then Durant did the same to Stephen Curry. Scottie Pippen felt numerous times that he had grown out of his role on the Michael Jordan Bulls, but could never justify leaving.
This history of second-stars wanting their own playgrounds is everywhere, but all those tales have documented bad blood between the 1 and 1A players. As far as I can tell, Brown and Tatum have nothing but love between them.
These guys basically grew up together, and because of the chaotic upbringing through AAU circuits, high school choices, college recruiting, and entering the NBA after only one year in school, Boston is the closest thing these guys have had to a home in a long time. I see no evidence that Brown thinks he is above that.
Jaylen Brown is redefining his Boston Celtics narrative
But history tells us that Brown should be sick of the jokes about his left hand, and sick of being thrown into every fake trade for a superstar concocted by Boston Celtics websites and NBA podcasters. He has endured what most people would consider significant disrespect, but most people’s considerations are irrelevant if Brown himself never felt that way.
The lone example I can think of that would indicate Brown felt miffed is a Tweet (or an X? What do I call tweets now?) that read “SMH” [shaking my head] after reports surfaced of a Brown-Durant trade discussion.
I’m not a psychologist or a federal judge, but I’d say that a single three-letter abbreviation is not evidence—or at least not evidence that would reach the totally real NBA-player-vibe-check-burden-of-proof—for real discontent. Nor would the pair of profiles for the New York Times and The Ringer, in which Brown iterated his desire to “stay where he is needed.”
I’m not a linguist either, but his decision to use the word “stay” is an English term paper waiting to be written. Brown could have just as easily used the word “go” or “play” as neutral terms for “being on a basketball team,” in place of a word that implies he would remain somewhere. Saying that he will stay where he is needed feels like a statement of loyalty, not a lament.
And so the negative dialogue was baseless all along, conceived of the opinions themselves to serve the purposes of whoever created them. Brown’s commitment to the Celtics and to the city of Boston may not reflect historical precedent, but it holds up to any real inquiry. It’s no wonder his first public statement as the $300 million dollar man was about investing in the city and its black business owners, and not playing basketball.
Of course, Brown is a complicated figure who has made controversial and sometimes very problematic off-court statements, which I have discussed at length elsewhere and thus will not open a discussion of here. Nevertheless, it is understandable if certain Boston Celtics fans will not or cannot hold him in an entirely positive light.
But if derived from his basketball or financial life, negativity still surrounding Brown should be treated as a referendum on those spreading them—human or turtle—and not the man himself.
Side Note: I hid exactly two film and TV references in there for those of you with an extra-keen eye. If you didn’t notice, here’s a hint: The first one is a one-liner said by Cassian Andor in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). The second one is a chunk of a monologue said by Toby Ziegler in an episode of The West Wing, which ends with the words “…it was LEO, WHO NO ONE ELECTED!”