Jaylen Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and their off-court legacies

Jaylen Brown Black Lives Matter

Growing up, he was one of the people that I always connected with.

Jaylen Brown

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown expressed his deep admiration for NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 2018, as a dauntingly absorbed hall of Harvard students watched on, during an AskWith forum at the university. He made it patently clear that the esteem reached far beyond his efficiency around the basket. Two years later and the influence is clear to see; Brown has taken heed of Abdul-Jabbar’s passionate quest for social justice.

Long before the death of George Floyd, which inspired thousands to protest the social injustices which affect black people worldwide, Brown was determined to shine a light on similar challenges which remain commonplace in modern society. That day in Cambridge, he expressed his views on ‘tracking’ – an educational strategy that separates children based on their intellectual capabilities and subsequently reinforces social inequality.  

Harlem native Abdul-Jabbar is an undeniable, all-time basketball legend. He remains the leader in points scored in NBA history. He won six titles, was the Rookie Of The Year, won six MVPs and two Finals MVP awards. He made a staggering 19 appearances in the NBA All-Star Game and was named on 10 All-NBA first teams. His number has been retired by the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and the UCLA Bruins, with whom he won three NCAA championships. On paper, he is arguably the greatest to ever play the game.

But his unrivalled resumé is only half of the appeal for young athletes, such as Brown. Abdul-Jabbar’s work beyond the hardwood as an activist, writer and perhaps even satirical cinema star has inspired the current generation of players to transcend the game, when the world has traditionally told them to stick to sports, or shut up and dribble. He has even been recognized by the President – or, crucially, the former, properly functioning President – with the Medal of Freedom back in 2016.

When the NBA was temporarily brought to halt recently, after the Milwaukee Bucks’ boycotted playoff game against Orlando sent shockwaves that were felt across all of sports media worldwide, Brown – who serves as Vice-president of the National Basketball Players Association, aged 23 – reportedly urged to ‘be about it’. The Boston forward has earned the right to make such a plea.

Brown’s 15-hour drive back to his home state of Georgia in the aftermath of Floyd’s death has been widely covered and his hands-on approach to the related protests has positioned him as one of the league’s leading mouthpieces. Since entering the bubble he has routinely reminded audiences of the on-going battle for justice in the name of Breonna Taylor and spoke candidly about the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Though he has expressed frustration at being in a metaphorical bubble while others are marching through the streets, Brown has also acknowledged his advantageous position as a black athlete, surrounded by the world’s media and playing at the highest level with thousands of fans watching, absorbing their messages.

It’s not always easy for even the most public figures – especially those in their early 20s – to maintain a willing audience when it comes to the difficult conversations. If anything, those roles are usually reserved for seasoned veterans like LeBron James, but Brown has earned a great deal of respect within the NBA and his voice now holds as much weight as some of the most high-profile players.

Abdul-Jabbar – then named Lew Alcindor – grew up in Harlem during a time in when the neighbourhood was living among the echoes of its cultural and artistic footprint, forged by black artists such as Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong. He was inspired by such figures and began to work with the Harlem Youth Action Project in the 1960s, even coming into contact with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his formative years.

His understanding of the importance of community was clear and his commitment to social justice remained firm as his profile began to rise as a basketball player and public figure. He forged relationships with the likes of Muhammed Ali and even fellow hooper Bill Russell, who taught him the power and effect of courageous sacrifice. Similarly to Ali, Abdul-Jabbar’s public conversion to Islam caused a stir and attracted some hostility from Nixon’s government. He held firm, putting belief over convenience, always.

Oh, that’s fitting,” said Brown when he was reminded that Abdul-Jabbar had talked to Harvard students, in a similar manner to himself. He was audibly pleased to be sharing a similar platform to such a luminary.

Brown has been influenced by many sportspeople – he frequently gushes about the play of Tracy McGrady and was in awe of Colin Kaepernick’s willingness to stand up in the face of police brutality, long before our blacked-out Instagram posts. But whether holding a basketball or a megaphone, the path blazed by the likes of Abdul-Jabbar as an athlete and intellectual is something that he’s aware of.

It would be a lofty goal for Brown to even achieve half of what Kareem did on court, but he can become a beacon of hope in his humongous footsteps – albeit while wearing rival uniforms.