In a draft class that appears chock full of unknowns, one thing shines bright in the darkness: Jaylen Brown is very intelligent. The 19-year-old Brown chose to attend and play basketball at the University of California at Berkeley over perennial powerhouses like Kentucky and North Carolina not necessarily for basketball reasons, but because of the college's academic record.
When he arrived on campus last fall, Brown passed on enrolling in the typical 100 level classes and instead enrolled in a master's level course that is a part of Cal's Cultural Studies of Sport in Education curriculum. In addition, he learned Spanish to a near fluent level over his lone year at Berkeley. By all accounts, Brown appears to be a smart and intellectually curious person.
Yet, in a piece published last week on ESPN's The Undefeated, Marc J. Spears reported that Brown's intelligence and general inquisitiveness may hurt his draft stock come late June. In the piece, an anonymous NBA assistant general manager is quoted as saying:
"He is an extremely intelligent kid. He took a graduate school class at Cal in his freshman year. He is a person who is inquisitive about everything. Because he is so smart, it might be intimidating to some teams. He wants to know why you are doing something instead of just doing it. I don't think it's bad, but it's a form of questioning authority. It's not malicious. He just wants to know what is going on. Old-school coaches don't want guys that question stuff."
I was appalled when I first read this quote. That this thought process could exist in 2016 seems insane. In a world in which high levels of intelligence are often exalted, it seems deplorable that Brown's may be held against him.
This is even worse when compared to the case of Andrew Luck. Selected number one overall by the NFL's Indianapolis Colts in the 2012 draft, Luck was often praised for his off the field intelligence. He attended Stanford, which, much like Cal, is a highly regarded academic institution, and graduated with a degree in Architectural Design in four years. Luck was the starting quarterback for three years at Stanford (he redshirted his freshman year) and became an All-American and the Heisman Trophy runner up in 2011.
So why is it that one attribute can be praised for one athlete and rejected for another? The answer to this question becomes a little less vague when you realize that both the NFL and the NBA are predominately led by white coaches and owners. Even if there is no intentional racial bias, at the very least, this issue has racial undertones.
I see nothing wrong with Brown wanting to understand why the team is doing certain things. The idea that wanting to know why is a form of questioning authority is completely unreasonable. That thought process shows that Brown is striving to know things on a deeper, more complex level rather than simply waltzing onto the court and going through the motions. One would think that would be a mindset many coaches adore and would want present in the players on their teams.
The thought processes behind the thought that a young, intelligent black male is too smart for his coaches and that it would be better if he just went through the motions rather than trying to dig deeper into the schemes and game plans set before him sounds less like a professional sports league and more like the 1950's.
I also don't buy into the argument that the negative take on Brown's intelligence is because of his arrogance or cockiness or whatever you want to call it. Every single player in professional sports has an air about them. It is a necessary personality trait that helps players ascend to the heights of becoming a professional athlete. Why Brown's intelligence in combination with this arrogance is perceived in a negative light while, say, Draymond Green's arrogance is often perceived in a positive one (it is a common thought that it is the "edge" that helps push the Golden State Warriors and even Steph Curry to another level) is baffling. Divide out the common denominator and what you are left with is Brown's intelligence.
Knock Brown all you want for what he can produce on the court (look for John to have a deeper dive into what exactly that all entails soon), but his intelligence should be on the positive side of the ledger in any evaluation. We should be inspired by his hunger to learn, to understand, to experience new things, to pursue his NBA dreams with such clarity and belief in his own process even if it's not the norm.
In Brown's case, the fact that his intelligence is seen as a potential negative, perhaps mistaken for arrogance or questioning of authority, reminds us how much race shapes our perceptions. We can find plenty of knocks on Jaylen Brown, but his desire to understand everything that's happening around him shouldn't be one of them.