ATLANTA — Jaylen Brown’s route from metro Atlanta’s Wheeler High School to the Boston Celtics is taking center stage in ways he couldn’t predict, sparking a national conversation about race, education and the fate of young black men.
On Sunday, five years to the day Brown tweeted that a teacher told him he would go to jail, he scored 19 points in an NBA playoff game, including a posterizing dunk on Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Even before his viral dunk there was little indication in 2014 the then-17-year-old Marietta, Georgia, basketball phenom who practiced hot yoga, built houses for Habitat for Humanity and competed in chess tournaments would end up in jail.
But words matter.
“My teacher said she will look me up in the Cobb county jail in 5 years … Wow,” Brown tweeted at the time.
My teacher said she will look me up in the Cobb county jail in 5 years .. Wow
— Jaylen Brown (@FCHWPO) April 28, 2014
The tweet was posted on April 28, 2014, while Brown was a junior at Wheeler. He went on to play one year at the University of California, Berkeley, before becoming the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
Prior to Boston’s practice in Milwaukee on Monday, Brown said he was surprised the tweet resurfaced, but stands by it and says he would “never forget it” because “something like that, you hang on to.”
He would not name the teacher or say why she said it.
In an emailed statement Monday, the Cobb County school district said: “The teachers and staff of Cobb County are united in a single purpose — to see each and every one of our students succeed. We are proud of everything that Jaylen Brown has accomplished.”
“In Georgia, the educational system isn’t the best. I don’t really put too much blame on the teachers,” Brown said Monday. “You have one teacher handling 35 kids in one class. … So who knows what was going through her mind that day when she said that. So, I let it be in the past and use it as motivation.”
Brown’s tweet has been liked close to 10,000 times and retweeted another 4,000 times. It also has prompted some strong reactions.
“Jaylen Brown’s story is a classic representation of teachers and other adults viewing a young black male through the lens of stereotypes or personal experience,” said Bryant Marks, founder of the National Training Institute on Race and Equity and the former director of the Morehouse College Black Male Initiative. “The fact that an educator uttered this statement to her student is reprehensible, disgusting, and a fireable offense. The educator’s job is to facilitate human development, not destroy it.”
In his short three years in the league, Brown has emerged as one of the most thoughtful players on and off the court. He was just elected vice president of the NBA Players Association.
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 1, 2019
His presence on social media is filled with inspirational and hopeful messages, like his visit to Hubble’s Space Telescope Operations Control Center, highlights from his lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and visits back to Wheeler to talk to students.
He has also been outspoken about race and growing up in Georgia.
In 2018, he told the Guardian newspaper in the U.K.: “Racism definitely still exists in the South. I’ve experienced it through basketball. I’ve had people call me the n-word. I’ve had people come to basketball games dressed in monkey suits with a jersey on. I’ve had people paint their face black at my games. I’ve had people throw bananas in the stands.”
In March, Hank Stewart, a local poet and founder of the Hank Stewart Foundation, visited 25 youth detention centers over 18 days looking in the faces of a sea of black boys.
“Looking at them, I know what that teacher was saying and the negativity she was speaking,” he said. “We speak life and death by the tongue. When we tell kids they are going to be nothing, we are writing the check for them. When you speak positive and give hope, they rise. We have to be careful in what we say and do.”
African-Americans made up 12 percent of the country’s adult population but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population in 2016, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.
“Language is perhaps one of the most insidious weapons used to dehumanize and diminish black men,” said Fahamu Pecou, an Atlanta-based artist whose work centers on representations of black masculinity. “I often argue that prevailing narratives of black male fallibility contributes to the apathy and nihilism that many young black men come to embrace. Perhaps we should be more considerate, conscious, and cautious with the words we choose.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Raymond K. DeLoatch got into a typical sixth grade squabble with a classmate in his predominantly white New Jersey middle school.
“My teacher told me that I would never amount to anything and that I would probably end up in jail,” DeLoatch remembers. “Then he called me a hooligan. I went home and looked it up. I wasn’t a hooligan. I always made good grades and I just had this one incident. Which was just an argument.”
DeLoatch, who is a real estate investor with degrees from Clark Atlanta University and Walden University, said his parents sat him down and told him their family history. Particularly about his grandfather, Major Watson, who led voter registration drives with the Terrell County NAACP in the 1970s.
“Hearing those stories gave me a sense of pride and helped define who I was and became,” said DeLoatch, who attended McEachern High School in Cobb County. “But I will tell you this, even until this day, what that teacher said motivates me.”
Talking to reporters before Tuesday’s game against the Bucks, Brown mused on how things could have been different — at least in his old teacher’s mind.
“It’s definitely a pretty cool moment to be where I am now. Five years ago, who would have thought, especially where I come from. Everybody has aspirations and dreams,” he said. “I’m happy I’m here playing basketball with the Celtics.”