Jaylen Brown is wary.
“Some of these questions you may ask,” he says as we begin, “I may not have the answers because I’ve never thought of them.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon at the Celtics practice facility and the gym is mostly empty. Brown has agreed to talk to me about meditation and mental strength training, which means that I’m going to ask him questions about how his mind works. Anyone would be on guard in this kind of situation, let alone with a media member.
Beyond that, Brown is wary for a number of other reasons. He meditates to quiet his mind and everyone, it seems, wants to claim a piece of it for themselves right now. As a first-year starter on a Celtics team with championship aspirations, he’s just beginning to understand the platform that comes with that position.
In his short time in the league, Brown has been scrutinized on everything from the form on his jump shot to his keen intellect. In the midst of learning how to live under that microscope, he’s had to come to terms with the sudden death of his best friend. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 21-year-old, and Brown doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.
“Five years from now I’m going keep seeing things differently,” he says. “That’s just a part of life.”
He’s wary of being caricatured as the smart basketball player (or is it the basketball player who’s also smart?). In his one year at Cal, Brown took a graduate-level education course and immersed himself in the Berkeley culture, playing chess with locals.
Even attending Cal, as opposed to say, Kentucky, marked him as a unique prospect in the basketball universe. Before he was drafted third overall by the Celtics in 2016, there were anonymous whispers that there were too many things vying for his attention to be a single-minded basketball automaton.
“Certain things I like to do,” he says. “I don’t want people to feel like I’m doing it cause I’m trying to be different.”
He’s also wary because the world has been coming at him at 10,000 miles per hour, which is how fast his brain moves when ideas and thoughts compete for attention.
Early in January, The Guardian published an interview in which Brown expressed his thoughts on everything from how systemic racism is embedded within our education system to the notion that sports are a mechanism for societal control. There are interview requests piling up from outlets far beyond the scope of professional basketball anxious to hear him speak.
The Guardian piece also prompted an invitation from Harvard to further the conversation with students at the Graduate School of Education. There are more academic opportunities waiting for him to further his studies.
All that and in just his second season, he’s become one of the Celtics key players. They are counting on him to become a lockdown defender in time for the postseason. They also need him to make open jump shots and learn how to create his own. Oh, and he needs to rebound, too.
So Brown is wary, but he’s also game. For him, meditation isn’t about becoming a better basketball player. Rather, it’s an open-ended exploration that allows his mind room to grow and develop.
“I think it’s becoming cool to have mental toughness or to meditate,” Brown says as his wariness begins to give a little ground. “It’s a thing, but I don’t think people really understand the value of it.”
Jaylen Brown is present.
When he first started getting status in the basketball world as a prep phenom at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., Brown was motivated by a specific kind of outcome. He didn’t want to be the person who didn’t make it.
He didn’t want to be that person so badly that he pushed himself harder and harder until he began to think that maybe this wasn’t the healthiest approach. Brown had been curious enough about meditation to read up on it, and he wondered the same thing as everyone else: “How do you know if you’re really meditating?”
Enter Graham Betchart. The two met at a prospect camp at the University of Virginia when Brown was just 16 years old and Betchart was giving a presentation on mental skills development. They kept in touch and as Brown began to emerge as a top player in his class, he reached out to Betchart.
“Basketball chose him and that’s a heavy responsibility when you realize at a young age that I can make it if I do everything in my power,” Betchart says. “You have this pressure: I don’t want to fail, I don’t want to fail. It drives you.”
It drove Brown until it began to become self-defeating. Rare losses became catastrophic and temporary setbacks felt permanent. That was the state he found himself in when he began working with Betchart. The first step in their practice was to quiet his mind. To get the most out of his potential, Brown had to learn how to let go of his anxieties.
“Graham helped me do that,” Brown says. “Just be the best version of myself and I’ll be doing everyone a service.”
The breath is the only thing that truly matters in meditation, which is where Brown returns time and again. There are numerous breathing techniques across multiple meditative disciplines, each with their own distinct character and personality.
Brown chose a Japanese method where one fills the belly with fire and releases it with the force of a dragon. He was particularly drawn to the notion that expert practitioners are said to be able to understand others simply by the way they breathe. “I thought that was super dope,” he says.
Exploring other people’s minds is a particular interest for Brown. He’s an avid chess player and it’s part of his unofficial narrative that he spent some of his free time in college at the Bohemian cafe in Berkeley engaging the local players.
“I’m not going to give away everything why I like chess,” he says, giving me a look as we detour down this road. “Sometimes the way people play, you can tell how their minds work.”
Fascinating, but we’re getting distracted, so let’s return to the breath.
Brown prefers to meditate at home. With minimal distractions and a comfortable environment, he finds it easier to get into what he calls, “A place of peace, where ideas are relaxed and fully developed.”
The life of an NBA player is anything but calm. There is constant travel and arenas that are loud and chaotic. If you can meditate in that environment, you can do it anywhere.
“Focus on your breathing,” he says. “Control your mind, and just exist within your own space.”
Before games, Brown visualizes his place on the floor and his role within the game. For inspiration to get through the long grind of the season, he puts himself back in moments when the game first provides its initial spark of joy: His first dunk, playing in his grandmother’s driveway.
Meditation is a discipline, but it’s also an exercise. In his practice, Brown is not only exercising his mind, but preparing his body. The two are inextricably linked.
Jaylen Brown is strong.
Our pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore, trust the physician and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility. — Khalil Gibran
Jaylen drops that quote on me during a conversation about pain. We’re discussing the idea that pain can be managed by the mind. He’s a believer in that concept.
Pain, of course, takes many forms. If a player has an injury, it will be listed officially by the team. If the pain is mental, it will be whispered about in hushed tones and coded language. More than anything, Brown would like to change the perception that mental fitness is something to be kept hidden out of sight.
“A lot of players get to a certain point they don’t want to make mistakes,” he says. “They just want everyone to see how great they are. That ends up being their downfall. You put a cap on yourself.”
What we’re really talking about is fear, which also takes many forms. There’s fear of making a mistake and being criticized. There’s fear of not reaching your potential. At this early stage of his career, Brown’s game is marked by an absence of fear. That’s by design.
“I don’t have any fear of failure whatsoever,” he says, “I used to and I told myself I wouldn’t allow myself to anymore. I don’t care if I get embarrassed. I don’t care if I miss 20 shots in a row. I don’t care if I turn the ball over driving left eight times. Embarrassment is where growth happens.”
During last season’s conference finals, Brown was asked about guarding LeBron James. He said LeBron was just a regular guy and added that he wasn’t afraid of the challenge. In that moment the horde of media Yoda’s pointing their microphones at him whispered, “You will be.”
Sure enough, LeBron was devastating throughout the series and punctuated his performance with a vicious dunk on Brown in Game 4. Yet, Brown showed his mettle throughout the matchup and refused to back down. He remains flummoxed by the whole episode.
“I think that was fair statement,” he says. “People can critique it. Maybe I see the world differently, but I thought that was a pretty understandable.”
He laughs at the absurdity.
“Am I in danger, am I going to die? No. I’m not.”
And see, now we’re talking about mental toughness.
“We definitely have, I would say not misconceptions, but different ideas about mental toughness,” Brown says. “A lot of people relate it to perseverance. It’s not always the best example of mental toughness. Perseverance is one, but also being able to let go. Mental toughness is stopping yourself, the power to withhold.”
Over the summer Brown fasted from sunup to sundown during his daily routine that involved three sets of workouts. It was a brutal regimen that pushed his body to the limit. In doing so, his mind grew stronger and more resilient.
In November, Brown’s best friend Trevin Steede took his own life. That night, Brown played one of his best games in a thrilling comeback victory over the Warriors. It was the kind of performance we immediately associate with mental toughness. An athlete puts aside his grief to focus his energy on the task at hand and lives a heroic existence.
But what happens the next day, and the day after that? The moment fades and the pain is still there. It ebbs and flows, but it lingers, waiting to be addressed. Brown believes that his summer workouts helped his grieving process.
“Without that it would have been a much harder recovery road,” he says. “Somehow my body knew that I needed to do something to prepare myself for something like that.”
Jaylen Brown is evolving.
Labels are a touchy thing with Brown. He likes to read and create music. He makes YouTube movies with his friends. Is any of that really so strange?
“Society still thinks basketball players should be basketball players, nothing else,” Brown says. “They shouldn’t be musicians. They shouldn’t be politicians. They shouldn’t be venture capitalists. They should just be NBA players and be happy with that. And I disagree.”
He’d like to become a vegan, although he catches himself and backs off the official designation. He simply prefers to not eat meat. His teammate Kyrie Irving is also moving in that direction, so there’s a bit of inspirational motivation.
“The only thing that’s holding me back is ice cream,” he says. “I am so happily addicted to sugar.”
As the new year dawned, he came up with areas of focus for personal growth. He’d like to resist making assumptions about people and their intentions. He wants to be selective in his movements and direct his energy in a positive manner so he can get out of his own way.
There are many other things he wants to explore, but he’s already given a lot of himself and he’s decided to keep them close for now. “You never know what I might try,” he says.
So, he returns to the breath.
“Just breathe and control what you control,” he says. “It’s simple.”
He pauses for a moment and smiles.
“Nobody wants to hear a basketball player talk about all of this other stuff. They want to hear about how many points does he average, how many turnovers does he have, what’s his three-point percentage. And that’s cool. When I get all these categories maybe they’ll listen to me a little bit more.”