By interning at a venture capital firm, chess aficionado Jaylen Brown is ahead of the game in the NBA

Jaylen Brown has always been a few moves ahead, from playing chess with his grandfather to interning at a local venture capital firm. He is a known commodity on the court, but what he's doing off of it to build his brand -- and to understand what that brand means -- is the real master stroke.

Before Jaylen Brown announced his decision to declare for the NBA draft, he went home to Marietta, Ga., to play chess with his grandfather, Willy Brown.

The two sat down and played. It was Willy Brown who taught Jaylen the game. Brown, proudly, said he can finally beat him.

“I wasn’t quite decided,” Brown told BearTerritory. “He’s the one who taught me how to play chess. He’s the one how to move the pieces.”

Five days later, Brown made his opening move.

Standing in the wings of the Haas Club Room in Haas Pavilion was a clutch of a dozen youngsters, youth scholars from Deecolonize Academy, who were an integral part of Dr. Cecilia Lucas’s Global Poverty and Practice class, which Brown took in his first semester – the same semester he took a graduate-level course -- Theoretical Foundations to the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education.

One of the guest lecturers and co-instructors along with Lucas and Mara Chavez-Diaz of that class – Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, a co-founder of POOR Magazine and Deecolonize – dressed in a cut-off bright orange jumpsuit and a well-worn ballcap, takes the microphone first.

“As one of your teachers and mentors, I’m really proud of you, and I’m proud that you’re doing this, but I’m also going to challenge you,” Gray-Garcia began. “You are sitting in front of a lot of corporations, and I understand that’s part of sports, so I’d like to ask you to speak a little, because there’s youth scholars here who are really looking up to you, and I also want to ask you a question about the power that you have, being a face in this ginormous industry, to help communities of color, poor people, etc., if you could speak on that.”

Brown doesn’t hesitate. He knows the right move.

“Yes ma’am. Thank you for that question. That’s a question I would love to answer,” Brown said. “Like you said: This is what it’s about, being here at Cal Berkeley, being amongst people who change the world, and I want to be one of those people, using my influence as an athlete.”

“Everyone always wants to hear what we have to say,” Brown continued. “I have so many people look up to me that I don’t even know exist.”

One of the youth scholars asks what inspired Brown to make his decision. “Really? You guys,” he said.

“I have a lot of influence,” Brown continued. “I have a lot of influence, and I want to make sure to use it the correct way, because you guys are the ones I care the most about, and you guys are coming up after me. I appreciate that question, because I wish somebody would have come back and pulled me to the side and said, ‘California-Berkeley is a great place to be.’ I’m here to say I want to represent this University in the best way possible, and represent myself and my family in the best way possible.”


Jaylen Brown sat back in a chair in the back of a meeting room at the offices of Base Venture, off of Ashby, in Berkeley. He was completely silent. He’s staring intently at a presentation that will eventually become RapChat. They’re looking for seed funding. Think Shark Tank, but with less Mark Cuban.

The target of the pitch was Erik Moore, and his two partners in Base Venture. He looked over at Brown, one of his interns.

“He sat back, in the audience, and was sitting in a pensive manner,” Moore said. “You wouldn’t have known, just looking at him, you would have thought he was almost disinterested, but in fact, he was thinking about the whole thing, and taking it to the next level. He thought about it in a way such that maybe he’d done this before, and the fact of the matter is, he hasn’t.”

Were he not headed to the NBA, Moore said, Brown would be a natural in the world of venture capital. He should know. He was one of the first investors in He’s invested in Maven – a hair weave company based in Oakland – and Sixth Sense Analytics – a predictive analytics company.

“All of these companies are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and when I invested, they were worth $10 or $15 million,” said Moore.

Moore is joined by two other principles at Base Venture, including Kirby Harris – who played basketball at Alameda (Calif.) St. Joseph’s with Jason Kidd – and Lisa Parks, another Golden Bear, who is in charge of investor relations.

During the season, Brown’s mother sat next to Moore at Haas Pavilion. Moor also happened to be friends with Oakland Soldiers founder and Cal alum Hashim Alaudeen. During the season, Brown approached Moore to ask about interning. “When the season’s over,” Moore said.

After the season concluded, Brown took him up on that meeting.

“Hashim told me about this incredible kid, special, more mature than you’d believe,” Moore said. “We met, and we talked a little bit, and he told me about what he was interested in, in general – big-picture – and I told him what I was doing, and he took a liking to the idea, and wanted to learn more. He just was thirsty for knowledge.

“He understands that basketball is phenomenal, and I’m sure he’ll have a long career, but there’s something later, something afterwards, and he’s friends with athletes who, at the end of their careers, are trying to figure out what’s next. Thinking about that, thinking long term, he is interested in finance, he is interested in tech. He’s a big tech guy, a big social media guy, and given that that’s what I do, he was interested in hearing a little bit more about what Silicon Valley is all about, what does it mean to invest in a company, how does the money flow, and I spent a lot of time talking about the whole industry that is venture capital.”

When asked about Brown’s future in the NBA, his now-former head coach Cuonzo Martin said, “He has the size, but he also has the ability to listen, which, nowadays, is truly a skill.”

Brown abides by the notion that the human face is perfect in its geometry: Two eyes, two ears, and just one mouth.

“My friends, they know I talk about a lot of things when I go on my rants – talking about interning at a venture capitalist firm, I could be talking about Messi’s last game, I could be talking about the stars in the galaxy – just to know that [they] even pretend to listen, hey, I’m just extremely grateful for that,” Brown said. “I always have opinions about everything, but I like to listen twice as much as I talk.”

When the Base Venture triumvirate asked Brown his opinion, he said, he was ready.

“At the very end, I asked if he had anything to say, and he pontificated on and on and on about a particular company, and why he thought it was a good idea, and what he didn’t like about it,” Moore said.

Brown, Moore said, has an intuitive sense of the venture capital world -- which ideas will work, and which won’t -- and how to read people.

“I can teach you how to invest, and I can teach you how to be a venture capitalist, but I can’t teach you the softer skills,” Moore said. “He’s got that, intuitively, and innately. He’d be great, in this role."

When Brown evaluates pitches, he sizes up the people behind them, just as he sizes up an opposing defender at the top of the key. He slices, carves, probes and parses. He doesn’t make a move unless he’s absolutely certain.

That’s how he approached his decision to leave for the NBA. But that decision was about more than just basketball.

Martin, when asked about one-and-done players, chafes. He doesn’t like the term.

“I don’t like the term ‘one and done,’ because here’s a young man who has a chance to be exceptional in his particular sport, but he also has the mental capacity to own a team, and I think that’s the thing that needs to be understood about Jaylen Brown,” Martin said. “I don’t like the term, I don’t really know what it means; I know what it says, but not what it means. If you have the ability to make X amount of dollars to play the sport that you love, you should be allowed to do that. You look at other sports across the board, they don’t have terms and names for the same thing.”

Brown interrupted. “I’m not done continuing my education.”

Brown, still, is an intern at Base Venture. He’ll be done when he wants to be done, said Moore.

“We tend to have pretty defined timelines about when people intern for us, and we’ve had a few students from Cal intern with us, but it’s usually when school starts, or something in their schedule dictates they have to leave, but he’s on a bit of a different timeline, to the extent that he wants to stick around," Moore said. “It depends on what his schedule is like, and what his travel schedule is like. It varies, week to week. It can be as little as coming in once or twice a week to every day.”

Some of the individuals pitching Base Venture were one-and-done in another way – they went to college, had an idea, and threw everything into it, leaving school. Brown didn’t see a difference.

"It’s interesting. It is. The people there, a lot of them are undergraduates, the same age as me – not the interns, the people making the pitches, the people coming up with these creative ideas," Brown said. "They came up with these creative ideas, and they’re undergraduates – they haven’t graduated; they left school to pursue whatever dream or whatever skill set they have, and you can just feel it, when you walk in the room. You can feel that hustle. You can feel that passion. You can feel that enthusiasm, for what they love to do, and they’re sticking with it.”

From the moment he declared, Brown was making a pitch of his own, and he’ll continue making that pitch for the rest of his career. He is, in a sense, his own start-up.

“Exactly," Brown said. "Absolutely. When you think of ‘One and done,’ for those types of people, they don’t use that term – they only use it for basketball – so it definitely crosses my mind, and I definitely had a different perspective, once I got to intern with this firm."

He’ll pitch himself to an agent. Then, he’ll pitch NBA teams at the NBA Draft Combine and at individual workouts. Then, he’ll pitch himself to companies who want him to endorse their sneakers, their workout wear, their subway sandwiches.

“He recognizes that in the companies that pitch us,” Moore said. “He gets it. He’s able to peel back the onion a little bit, and get deeper than most people.”

Brown thinks a few moves ahead. Just like Willy taught him. Now, he’s in control of the board, he’s moving the chess pieces of his life, managing his brand and his image. He’s in charge of the start-up that is Jaylen Brown, Inc., as it were.

“He’s a special kid, a really mature kid, and much further along than I was at this age – physically, mentally, emotionally – a lot of different ways,” said Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who Brown called his big brother throughout the process.

How is he more mature? For one, he didn’t cry during his announcement, a point he made to Abdur-Rahim before he stepped on stage. He had come across photos of Abdur-Rahim’s own announcement, photos, Abdur-Rahim laughed, should have been burned long ago.

“I don’t know, you hear him talk up there? I was sobbing and breaking down, and he’s ready,” Abdur-Rahim said. “He’s very thoughtful, very mature, and I think the process he went through to make this decision was very thoughtful, thorough.”

Abdur-Rahim has walked the road Brown is embarking upon. Abdur-Rahim came back to Berkeley to finish his degree in 2012 – just as Brown intends to do -- and then took on USC’s Marshall School of Business, where he’s an MBA candidate. He helped give Brown some advice when he was present during Brown’s visit to Cal last March. He had come to see his little brother, Bilal, but also wanted to answer any questions posed by Brown – who went to Abdur-Rahim’s alma mater, Wheeler High School, and was coached by Doug Lipscomb.

As Brown zeroed in on his NBA decision, he sought Abdur-Rahim’s counsel.

“I think you try to keep good people around you, good support,” Abdur-Rahim told Brown. “In the priority of the NBA, keep basketball first, and build out of there, and then, just work hard and stop and appreciate it. It goes fast. Stop, appreciate it and work really, really hard. A lot of things are out there than you can benefit from.”

Brown absorbed every morsel of advice he could find. He soaked up words of wisdom like a sponge, and it’s not something he’s going to stop doing, now that he’s a projected top-five pick.

“I’m a student of life,” Brown said. “Wherever I go, I just can’t wait to learn from the veterans, and learn from the people who’s shoes I’m walking in, to learn from the front office people – that’s what I love to do.”

He’s zestfully become a part of the Berkeley community to a degree rarely seen in athletes of his caliber, even Abdur-Rahim. That thoughtfulness, that intellect, that maturity and that ability to ask questions, to probe, to be what he is -- a Berkeley product -- that's what Brown is selling.

“He really, really, really has engaged the community, the University, things that I didn’t do until I came back to school,” Abdur-Rahim said. “When I was here, that was such a rush, there was so much going on athletically. I was doing my work, but I wasn’t engaged the way he was. He’s done an awesome job of really, really engaging.”

Towards the end of Brown’s announcement ceremony, another, older youth scholar took the microphone.

“Nice to meet you. I heard a lot about you,” he said. “My question is, what are you going to do, exactly, for the people?”

A Cal official said, smiling, under his breath, “Let him get there first.”

The student rephrased the question.

“Big picture, what are you going to do?”

Brown smiled.

“I’m going to try to help out as much as possible, and just be an influence, talking about some of the things that don’t like to be talked about,” he said. “I’m not sure, as of yet. That chess piece hasn’t been moved yet. But, you have my word.”

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