BOSTON — When the doors opened on the Celtics locker room after an improbable 92-88 win over the Warriors, Jaylen Brown sat facing his jersey on the wall, head hung low. Unsure of what to do, a TV reporter was consoling him. Brown stood, wiped tears from his eyes and made his way to the media scrum.
“My best friend passed last night,” he said, holding back his emotions.
A few hours before his Celtics were slated to host the defending NBA champions on national TV, Brown called Brad Stevens. He wasn’t sure he could play. “I told Brad I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it,” said Brown. “I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I couldn’t gather myself.”
Stevens was on the other end of the phone, offering Brown the same advice he’d given Isaiah Thomas seven months earlier, when the former Celtics point guard lost his sister Chyna on the eve of the playoffs.
“Take as long as you need,” said Stevens.
Brown met Trevin Steede soon after transferring to Wheeler High outside Atlanta. “I didn’t have any friends,” said Brown. Each day, the self-proclaimed introvert sat alone in the cafeteria for lunch at his new school. “And he walked up to me on the third or fourth day and asked me who I was sitting with, even though I wasn’t sitting with anybody, and he told me to come over and sit with him. Ever since then, we’ve been best friends.”
“Ever since then,” added Brown, “he’s been my brother.”
Alone with his thoughts in the hours before he was scheduled to square off against Golden State’s cast of All-Stars, Brown wrote on Instagram in a post that went largely unnoticed by the Boston media amid the pregame drama of Celtics-Warriors: “I understand my brother and I will miss you so much. You were there with me from day 1, and I know you still are. I know in my heart you found the peace you were looking for, and that’s all that matters.”
Moments after Brown got off the phone with Stevens, he received a phone call from Steede’s mother. “She gave me a whole new inspiration,” said Brown. He talked with Steede’s friends and family. They all knew Trevin would have wanted Jaylen to play. “I wasn’t in any shape to come out,” said Brown. “I didn’t want to leave my room, but they inspired me to come out and play.”
So, Brown called Stevens back. “I’m going to get this win,” he told his coach. “I’m going to be there for my teammates.”
And Stevens responded: “I’m OK with that, too.”
As the Celtics prepared for their biggest game of the young season, riding a 13-game win streak into a showdown with a juggernaut that nobody gave them a chance to beat, Kyrie Irving told Brown, “The energy that your best friend is carrying is still with you, so don’t you ever forget that.”
Brown’s teammates tried to console him, but he preferred they turn their focus to the task at hand, if only so he could find a few hours of reprieve. “Like Isaiah,” said Stevens, “he wanted to use it as a distraction.”
“You do your best to console him, to encourage him,” said Irving, “but at the end of the day, it’s about the strength within himself.”
Brown grabbed his first rebound less than two minutes into the opening quarter and charged down the court determined to get to the rim. His shot was blocked by Klay Thompson. Brown corralled the rebound and missed a layup. A few possessions later, he missed his first 3-point attempt, and after a few more trips down the floor, his first jump shot caromed off the back rim.
The heart was there, but the results weren’t, not midway through the first quarter, when the Warriors had already grabbed a 15-6 lead. Then, wide open under the basket, Brown found himself. He beat Kevin Durant backdoor and threw down a reverse dunk over the reigning Finals MVP.
Three minutes later, Brown announced his presence again. He stripped two-time MVP Stephen Curry, took it the length of the court and hammered it home. “I came out and played in his spirit today,” Brown said later of Steede.
The Garden of Boston erupted.
“To be honest, it just felt like nothing,” Brown said of his emotions. “I just felt like I was out there playing. I didn’t know who was out there. I just felt like it was me and him. I was just out there playing, and I wasn’t thinking. I was just getting up and down the floor, and we turned it out.”
His next 10 minutes on the court brought bucket after rebound after block, and he entered halftime with team highs of 11 points, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal. The Celtics trailed just 47-42. Word from the bench was that Brown had a look of determination in his eyes they’d not seen before.
He was the best player on a floor full of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.
The Warriors pushed their lead back to 17 midway through the third quarter, but Brown played like a man divinely possessed during a two-minute stretch at the tail end of the frame. He followed a 15-foot jumper with back-to-back 3’s, the second of which came over Durant and cut the deficit to seven.
A pair of Brown free throws brought the Celtics within 66-65, and they entered the fourth tied at 68.
“Much respect for him,” said Celtics teammate Al Horford, “because that’s difficult, and he was hurting. He is hurting, and I didn’t know if he was going to play tonight, but it just speaks of his character. … He was able to pull all that aside and play, so I’m very proud of him.”
Brown played the final six minutes, his impact already solidified. He didn’t score again. Didn’t need to. He shadowed Thompson and grabbed a crucial rebound with the game tied at 88. Irving and Jayson Tatum netted the final four points of a 92-88 win on free throws in the last minute and change.
“He was playing for not only the Boston Celtics, but he was playing for his best friend,” said Irving, “and you’ve got to commend a man for doing that. Nothing short of proud of him. We’re all with him.”
Irving handed Brown the game ball. “This one was for Trevin,” said Irving.
“My teammates helped me out, picked me up,” said Brown, his team-high 22 points speaking for themselves, along with seven rebounds, four combined blocks and steals, and stout defense opposite Thompson (a season-worst 5-of-18 shooting). “They knew I was down. They knew basketball was my escape. I wanted to play, his family inspired me to play, and we pulled it out.”
“We’re here for each other,” said Tatum.
Brown let out an exhale as he stared glassy-eyed into a sea of cameras and microphones. He had just put the finishing touches on the finest performance of his career in the biggest win of the season. His Celtics pushed their league-best win streak to 14 against the defending champs, their contender status legitimized. Yet, Brown was still struggling to accept his best friend’s death. Still in shock. It was only a few weeks ago that Brown and Steede were playing 1-on-1 at the Celtics practice facility.
“All we can do is just pray for his family in remembrance of him and the light that he spread while he was here,” said Brown. “And I feel like he was with me here tonight.” His voice cracked. “Yeah, I can hear him now.”
As he walked out of the Garden, solemn after bringing so much joy to the building, Brown typed on his phone. “This one was for you bro. #RIP”
All $1 donations to Parquet Post this month will go to suicide prevention. If you or someone you know is dealing with depression, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line for help at 1-800-273-8255.