Hated Celtics HOF Rival Forged Unique Relationship With Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown of the Celtics, right, in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Getty Jaylen Brown of the Celtics, right, in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

BOSTON — Isiah Thomas was standing next to center court in TD Garden. He was aside the leprechaun logo of the Celtics, who had bedeviled his Pistons for a historically significant portion of the 1980s, until he and his mates slayed their dragon on the way to three straight NBA Finals trips.

Here in the present, the Celts are back in the championship series, and Thomas, working here for NBA TV, wasn’t doing a very good job of containing his pride for one of their numbers — not that he was trying to hold anything in. Several years ago, he had established a mentor-ly relationship with Jaylen Brown, a student at Cal, where Thomas had gotten his master’s degree. Brown spent just one year on campus, and he was trying to squeeze the most from it.

“He was trying to get into a graduate class. He called me to advocate for him to take this graduate course under this professor I’d worked with,” Thomas recalled. “Everybody was wondering if Jaylen could handle the course. He was just a freshman, but from talking to him and hearing what he wanted to do and what he wanted to get out of the course, I thought it was perfect for him.

“And, of course, his academic advisor wanted to make sure that he got good grades so he could stay eligible. They thought that course may have been a little too difficult. But that’s how we first met. We bonded and met over education.”

Thomas: ‘I Love What He’s Grown Into’

And now as the Celtics approach Thursday’s Game 6 against the Warriors with a 3-2 deficit, Brown is getting more graduate-level study — with hopes that if the Bostonians can come back with two wins and a title, he could secure a master’s of sorts.

As the 1A to Jayson Tatum’s 1 on the Celts, the 25-year-old Brown is carrying a major load in his sixth season, averaging 21.4 points in this series. He arrived in Boston as, among fans, a not-so-popular No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft, part of the haul the Celtics received in the blockbuster trade with Brooklyn.

But the local fans aren’t questioning the choice now. Brown was an All-Star in 2021 and might have had an even better chance at the honor this year had not he missed 13 of 18 games in November and December.

Thomas always trusted the process — even the part where Brown was chosen by one of his old rivals. Actually, especially that part.

“I love what he’s grown into — watching him play, watching him perform, on this stage, in that jersey as a Celtic,” Isiah told Heavy.com. “I remember telling this to Jaylen when he was coming out of college. I said, ‘You know, you don’t understand this right now, but one day you will. You are Celtic.’

“And, you know, he’s proven to be everything that we thought he could be. But the most important thing is that he’s put in the work. I mean, when you watch him play, you watch him shoot, you watch him defend, you can see it. It’s the work that he’s put in every summer; you can see it in his game and in this series. Like, you know, look at where he was as a basketball player a couple of years ago and where he’s at today. That’s work ethic, that’s wanting to be. You have to give him a lot of credit.

“You know, it’s one thing when a teacher gives you a book; it’s another thing when you go home and actually read it and then comprehend what you’ve got.”

Was Jaylen Brown … ‘Too Smart’?

Thomas laughed when reminded of a pre-draft knock against Brown — that he was “too smart.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But, you know, I learned from the Celtics, and I learned in Detroit, you win with smart people. You don’t win with people who make mistakes.

“And when Jaylen went to pre-draft camp, not only were teams interviewing him, but he had pen and paper, and he was interviewing teams also to see who fit his values, his personality. So the intellectual side and the personhood side of him is part of what makes him a good basketball player becoming a great basketball player. But also, you know, the intellectual travel of connecting mind and body. It’s so you can play and perform in games like this. I mean, the total body has to be connected, mind and body, and too many times we just evaluate players from the neck down. But Jaylen Brown, you know, has connected mind and body.”

Thomas is an objective observer of this series, and he appreciates that parts of his own game can be seen in a Steph Curry. But he clearly wouldn’t be unhappy if Jaylen Brown connects the Celtics and victory to create a Game 7. He knows, however, that whatever the outcome of this matchup, the person he’s counseled has charted a proper path.

“Everything that we hoped that he would be, he has become — vice president of the Players Association, and we hope one day he’ll be the president of the Players Association,” Thomas said. “The chance to be on a championship team. Everything that he’s looked at and said he wanted, he’s either reached or it’s in front of him. He’s worked for it. The key word is ‘work,’ because I don’t want anybody to think that these things just happened. He’s worked for them, and that’s a credit to him.”


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