Black History Month Inspirations | Serving With Selflessness
The following article is based off the script for the third installment in the 76ers Podcast Network's Black History Month Inspirations mini-series of the same name.
When it comes to Elton Brand, it's important to remember this:
He was a really good basketball player.
In his prime, the big man was a high-volume scorer, a tenacious rebounder and shot-blocker, a no-nonsense big man who played his heart out.
Brand broke into the NBA in 1999 as the top selection in that year's draft, and went on to win co-Rookie of the Year honors.
He posted four 20-point, 10-rebound seasons in his first seven years in the league, and was twice named an All-Star.
Listen to the Black History Month Inspirations mini-series from the 76ers Podcast Network
Brand played for five different teams before calling it a career following his second and final stint with the 76ers in 2016.
"Retirement" ended up lasting only a few months.
Later in the year, Brand took a front office job with the Sixers. He was fast-tracked to general manager of the Delaware Blue Coats, then promoted to the same position with the Sixers in September of 2018.
For a guy who never dreamed of hitting it big in sports when he was young, it's pretty ironic that the soon-to-be 42-year old Brand has now spent more than half of his entire life in pro basketball.
"It wasn't in our minds that we could make a profession or a living in [sports]," Brand said about his childhood. "Sports was an avenue for teamwork, camaraderie, pushing yourself, testing your limits, and just growing as an individual."
Brand was raised in Peekskill, New York, a town of about 25,000 people in the southern region of the Hudson River Valley.
"Peekskill is hard-working, blue collar, 45 minutes outside of New York City where everyone got along," said Brand. "A lot of races, a lot of different people. Just a hard working town.
"You get the New York City vibe, New York City energy, then you go back to Peekskill and you could play ball. I had great, great friends."
When Brand was growing up, it was just him; his brother, Arthur; and their mom, Daisy.
"Being around my mom, she was great," said Brand. "She had a great work ethic. She never made excuses, would never allow me to make excuses, would never allow me to make excuses. She always pushed me, always pushed education, always pushed trying to make yourself better, and also help others around you. That was what she preached a lot to me. I was very thankful to have her in my life as an inspiration."
Daisy Brand was one of several people in Brand's life who made his upbringing in Peekskill impactful.
Another was Richard E. Jackson. Like Brand, he was born in the Hudson Valley, and went to Peekskill High School. He served as the town's mayor from 1984 through 1991.
"He was the first Black mayor in any city in New York State, but growing up, I saw him and that a person of color could be the mayor," Brand said.
Brand was five years old when Jackson started his first term.
While the two never met, Jackson's trail-blazing left a lasting impression.
"It wasn't a big deal, and the way he carried himself, ran the city, supported the community," Brand said. "It was commonplace, and it was great to see."
As Brand got older and more involved in playing sports, another important influence emerged - a JV basketball coach by the name of Walter Corney.
"He really instilled in me you want to conduct yourself as a professional. You don't want to be a professional basketball player - you want to be a professional person overall, from your habits to your work ethic. He did that for the entire community is what he instilled in us in being the best self you can be."
At first, Brand might not have believed he was NBA material, but over time, as he evolved into a dominant, two-way powerhouse that propelled Peekskill to two state titles, his talents became too obvious to overlook.
"Going into high school, I wasn't highly touted or projected to be a McDonald's All-American, so my mind was always education - go to college if you can get a scholarship, get a degree, and then I can still buy my single mom a house," said Brand. "That was my goal, buy my mom a house one day."
After Brand turned pro, he didn't waste any time getting his mom (pictured below on the night of the 1999 NBA Draft) that house, using money from his rookie contract to make the purchase.
On July 1st, 2014, Daisy Brand passed away from cancer.
"If my mom was here today, I think she'd say, 'Honey, you got to win a championship. Let's get it going,'" said Brand. "She was an avid basketball fan when I was a player, she rarely missed a game home and away. She'd fly commercial and make it to games on the road. She loved basketball, so she's rooting for the Sixers, and us to get a championship."
If anything, the story of Elton Brand buying his mom a house is a helpful anecdote that provides a glimpse into Brand's DNA:
If he says he's going to do something, he's probably going to do it.
The same thing could be said this past summer, albeit under far more public, tense, and somewhat dramatic circumstances.
Following the Sixers' first-round exit from the playoffs, Brand decided to make a coaching change.
Not only did Brand end up landing Doc Rivers - the biggest name available on the head coaching market - he also advocated for and helped usher in the hiring of Daryl Morey, to whom Brand now reports.
"How rare is that," Morey said shortly after his arrival. "He's told you he only cares about winning a title? This proves it. I love that about him."
"Elton's what you hope every player is," said Rivers. "We always talk about it on the player side - we want players to accept their roles, make room for the star player. But usually, in the front office, nobody does that.
"Elton did that. He said to make us better, Daryl has to come in here. Elton is what you'd want every player to be - a team player."
On the surface, the idea of yielding power might seem counterintuitive to personal gain or advancement.
But Brand's fabric is cut from the support system that surrounded him in his youth.
"I just feel like I'm going to be selfless," Brand said the day Morey was introduced. "My goal is to win a championship, enjoy the journey along with that. Whatever that role needs to be, I accept that role and look forward to growing this organization to the point to win. That's why I'm in this - to win."
Brand is keenly aware that learning is part of his journey. He's always embraced mentorship, regardless of whether he's on the giving or receiving end.
During his playing career, he established a training center back in Peekskill that prepares kids for adulthood.
"I still get back [to Peekskill] at least every summer or every time I get time off, just spend time with the youth in the community," Brand said. "Just try to pay it forward and give back."
Brand has continued to give back since making the leap to the front office world by advising local youth throughout the Delaware Valley.
"I think as an exec, mentoring is very important. It's helping to connect the dots, whether it's your staff or people in college who want an opportunity. They just don't know where to look. But you've been through it. You have the relationships. That's all someone needs sometimes, just a nudge in the right direction or a few words of advice to help them in their careers and their life."
In the context of his day job, for instance, take this gesture Brand made to Matisse Thybulle last January, when the rookie was on the shelf during a road trip due to an injury.
Brand sensed the defensive ace was in need of a pick-me-up, so he reached out and took Thybulle to the Museum of Fine Arts when the Sixers were in Houston.
During their visit, they talked about family, art, and photography. The conversation ran the gamut.
"It was a really cool experience to have as a rookie the GM pour into me like that," said Thybulle. "Also being hurt, and the things that come with that mentally and just feeling like I'm still a part of everything. It was pretty cool, a special moment for me."
For some parts better, other parts worse, Brand belongs to a small fraternity. He's one of six Black general managers in the NBA.
Brand remembers how empowering it was to see a Black mayor in his hometown. He realizes that through his leadership role in basketball, he too could help someone believe.
"I think when you see a Black person, or someone that looks like you or represents what you represent in all walks of life, that you can break barriers that can be you too," said Brand. "There's been a lot of research on that, from education to medical, to whatever field. When you see someone doing something that you aspire to be or do that looks like you, you feel you can do it too."
Click below to read additional installments of our Black History Month Inspirations mini-series.