Jaylen Brown: Hoops, Chess and Becoming the Best

It is difficult to imagine a 6-7 basketball player hunkering down over a chess board, but Jaylen Brown enjoys one game as much as the other. Never mind that chess is rigid and defined compared to the free-flowing motion that is hoops. All that matters to the Georgia native is the thought process. Not his own. His opponent's.

Checkmate is the end game, but that is not Brown's favorite part. He loves seeing his opponent's actions and reactions, especially as they morph from one phase of the game to the next. How does his matchup like to start? When does he prefer to get aggressive? How does he recover when a weakness is exposed? 

“I like learning how other people think,” Brown said. “I love to win. I’m super competitive. But sometimes, I just like to see how people think. If I’m getting to know you, I play you in a game of chess just to see how your mind works a little bit.”

The same process holds true on the court. Brown is strikingly intellectual when it comes to basketball, expounding upon the finer points of the sport much like legends on the final lap toward retirement. His athleticism, the most obvious part of his skill set, is just the final stroke after a series of moves and adjustments made to utterly conquer his opponent.

“I kind of compare chess to the game of basketball, just making the right reads, making the right decisions,” Brown said. “I kind of consider myself a king and everybody else are pawns.”

Brown and his brother, Quenton, were raised by their mother in the inner neighborhoods of Atlanta, GA. It was not easy, especially for a single parent raising two boys who would both grow to be 6-5.

She was able to provide food, a home and an example, however, thanks to her education. Mechalle Brown earned her PHD and doctorate from the University of Michigan, making it clear that education would play a very significant part in her children’s lives.

“For us, it was always about teaching, always about learning different experiences,” Jaylen Brown said. “Our family members helped pass down knowledge from generation to generation.”

The Brown boys spent many summers with their grandmother, but they were not the idyllic getaways many children experience.

“Any time we wanted to go out and play,” Brown recalled, “she used to make us do Hooked on Phonics when we were younger, write book reports, all that stuff that we hated.”

Over a decade later, when Brown began studying at the University of California, he learned that his grandmother’s early education was known as concerted cultivation. Realizing how those boring hours of his childhood summers had prepared him, he couldn’t wait to call her and say thank you.

“I was emotional and she was too,” Brown said. “I just thanked her for everything that she did.”

As fast as Brown’s mind works at times, it appears like his body operates at even greater speeds. He is the basketball equivalent of Marvel’s Juggernaut – once he establishes momentum toward the hoop, no force can stop him.

At 6-7 and 223 pounds, he has an NBA body despite not yet turning 19 years old. Opponents discovered this the hard way when typically strong fouls were not enough to prevent him from scoring through contact.

In many ways, Brown is the perfect modern-day forward: quick enough to blow by slower defenders, big enough to overpower smaller opposition. Get into an NBA conversation with him, however, and you’ll find many of his references date to before he was born.

“It was a different style of basketball back then,” Brown said. “They have a lot of history, a lot of stories. I’m a junkie for that kind of stuff. I love hearing about the inside stuff between the Bulls and the Pistons, the inside stuff between the Pistons and the Lakers, or the Pistons and the Celtics.”

“I’m not concerned with being a top-five pick in the draft. I want to be a top-five player in the league.”

— Jaylen Brown

The frequent mention of the “Bad Boys” Pistons is due in large part to one of Brown’s mentors: NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas.  Brown gleans all that he can from the former point guard, especially his mental observations of other former greats.

“Learning about Isiah’s perspective of Michael Jordan, his perspective of Larry Bird, his perspective of Magic Johnson helps you see things in a different light,” Brown said. “They had a bunch of tricks and knowledge about the game of basketball. He passes it down to me and I expect to apply it right away.”

That process – the immediate action after obtaining knowledge – is what Brown enjoys most. Whether it’s at a chess board, in the classroom or on the court, he yearns to apply what he has most recently absorbed. Despite still enjoying his teenage years, he does not want to waste a minute.

Brown is already looking past the draft. That is just one move away on the board of his NBA career. As he does in chess, this teenage talent, full of potential hardly exposed, is already thinking several steps ahead.

“I’m not concerned with being a top-five pick in the draft,” Brown declared. “I want to be a top-five player in the league.”