Sterling Brown has taken the court in these playoffs as he always does, telling himself "the game as far as itself is the same." Winter or spring. Regular season or playoffs. Still, this is the NBA postseason, and when you've only been in the league for two years, it's good to remind yourself that the effort needed to become a key piece for the league's winningest team this season shouldn't change in April and May. Go out there, play hard, play aggressive on both ends of the floor, and have fun, he reminded himself. Don't let outside things, outside opinions, perceptions of what the game is dictate anything.
Brown couldn't do that at this time last season. It's not easy to keep the game at the forefront of your mind when you are the subject of national news headlines.
In January 2018, Brown, then a rookie, parked across a few handicapped-accessible spots in an empty parking lot to make a quick run into a Walgreens. After emerging from the store around 2 a.m., a police officer confronted him about where his car was parked. Backup arrived. While surrounded by six officers, Brown was told to take his hands out of his pockets. When he told the officers his hands were full, Brown was tackled to the ground and tased before being handcuffed and arrested. News reports claimed he was "combative."
Months passed before the Milwaukee Police Department released police body camera video that showed Brown was calm throughout the interaction.
The Bucks released a statement calling the "abuse and intimidation that Sterling experienced at the hands of Milwaukee Police ... shameful and inexcusable." Giannis Antetokounmpo told CBS News the team discussed the matter and told Brown, "No matter what you believe, that was wrong. We're going to have your back."
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said, "No citizen should be treated this way."
Two sergeants and an officer received short suspensions. Brown soon after filed a civil rights lawsuit that is still pending.
"The incident was just confirmation of what I knew was going on all the time, and it happens in every city," Brown said. "It happens in Chicago, Milwaukee, if you want to go up to New York, it happens in Texas, it happens in L.A. It happens everywhere ... and I knew—not going into the incident but afterwards—I had to say something about it; I couldn't just let it happen and just let it go, let it go by the wayside. I had to step up and be that voice for those who really can't say anything or do anything because of their situations."
So in February, he participated in a Team Up for Change event co-hosted by the Bucks and Kings that discussed relationships between the teams' communities and police. He partnered with Puma to release a black-and-red sneaker to bring attention to the prison system and memorialize the blood of those who have been oppressed. And he participated with teammate Malcolm Brogdon in a couple of Barbershop Mondays, during which he and other teammates met with teens for haircuts and frank discussions about issues they encounter in their communities.
It's a dialogue Brown, the son of a policeman, has been having since he was a kid.
"It was difficult ... growing up," he said. "Not too many people around the area liked how police operate. With my dad being one of the louder people around me, a lot of people I was hanging out with always looked at me different ... thinking I'm going to act this way because my dad's a police officer. A lot of my growing up was just ... trying to get people to understand and know that I'm not ... in that bowl that you all try to put me in."
Confronted again with questions about his relationship with police, Brown advanced the debate.
"I thought about it at first: What was I going to do with it?" Brown said. "I'm not an activist. I'm not one of those guys who decided from a young age I want to go out and do this. I love to play basketball, so in that itself I have a platform. I looked at that. I have a large fanbase—not just black; all type of fans that follow me—and I knew it was just going to be a way to bring awareness. Once I set in on that and I thought about it and my team, people around me that supported me, we talked about it, and it was a decision I had to put forward."
Last year, Brown mostly watched the playoffs as a rookie, receiving minutes here and there but otherwise not factoring into Milwaukee's seven-game, first-round loss to Boston. Now, the 6'6" guard out of SMU has become a valuable puzzle piece for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, starting all four games of Milwaukee's sweep over Detroit in place of the injured Brogdon and averaging close to 15 minutes per game against the Celtics in Round 2. "He feels he belongs on this court," Milwaukee's Khris Middleton said. "As a player, that's the kind of attitude or confidence you have to have in yourself: that you belong. The week that I knew that he was going to start the first round of playoffs, we knew he was ready for it—just the way he competes during practice, competes during card games. It's just him."
Brown's elevation arrived through hard work and circumstance. He did not factor into the rotation at the season's onset. Milwaukee chugged along, barely pausing when hit by injuries. Brown himself missed a chunk of games with a right wrist injury. But after Brogdon sustained a minor plantar fascia tear a few weeks before the playoffs and Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell were also sidelined around that time, Brown was needed, and ready.
"His physicality, his toughness, his edge defensively is a huge positive for us," Budenholzer said. "He obviously can shoot the ball well, but I think he's also growing as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, decision-maker, just a good basketball player. We had some games where—I think Khris and [Eric] Bled[soe] didn't play in Atlanta—he got more opportunities, and I think [being a] three-and-D [player] is like a starting point. I think he's going to continue to grow and just be a complete player."
The series win over Detroit—Brown claimed 13 rebounds in the clincher—marked the first playoff series victory for the Bucks since 2000-01. Fans are gravitating to the glistening Fiserv Forum and MVP candidate Antetokounmpo. But a deep playoff foray by Milwaukee will not suddenly heal the city's deep racial fractures that Brown has tried to address.
"I thought Sterling did perfectly."
This is Donnie Boyce, Brown's coach at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois. A second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1995, Boyce is filled with pride when he considers how Brown has handled the attention after his arrest. "Whenever you're placed in the spotlight, people always want to attack your character. ... He didn't shy away from it, addressed it head on. Obviously, he understood its importance socially for our neighborhood, for our kids, just like him. He didn't do anything wrong."
Boyce and Brown bumped heads often at Proviso East, but their conflicts also revealed a determination Boyce appreciated. "I didn't mind that because I like players that have a fiery edge about themselves," Boyce said. "To be great you've got to have a chip. You got to be a strong competitor. You got to like winning more than you do losing."
It was a side Boyce recalls seeing when Brown was asked to guard Jabari Parker, one of Chicago's most ballyhooed prep prospects ever, in the 2012 Illinois Class 4A state championship. The game had been earmarked all season. Neither team had lost to an in-state opponent.
"I remember in the locker room when we put the matchups up, you [could] just see the confidence when we were saying that he was going to start the game off guarding Jabari," Boyce said. "We put a number of guys on him, but definitely Sterling kind of set the pace for us."
Parker had just 15 points while Brown scored 10 of his 25 points in the third quarter to lift Proviso East to a slim lead. A late 8-0 run, though, helped Parker's Simeon to a 50-48 win.
"I sometimes still go back and watch it, watch the highlights, watch the full game," Brown said. "It's online. We had it and gave it up at the end. Some of those ... things that happened throughout the game—basketball repeats itself as far as some of the strategies, some of the mindset going into it, some of the tendencies of the flow of the game."
While Brown learned a lot about the universality of the game in his matchup with Parker, his basketball education began much earlier, at the will of his brother Shannon Brown, Sterling's elder by nearly a decade and a nine-year NBA veteran who won two titles as a bench spark plug for the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol Lakers.
"I was in grade school. We used to play full-court one-on-one, and he used to just kill me," Sterling said. "I wasn't nowhere near the conditioning yet. He didn't take it easy on me. And I ... love him for that. He didn't give me no slack, didn't take it easy blocking on shots, dunking on me, all types of stuff. It didn't do nothing but help me."
Sterling finally defeated his brother in a one-on-one game for the first time after he finished his college career as SMU's all-time leader in wins. "I was ecstatic, and I told him: 'I got a lot more in me. I got a lot more coming your way. You better be ready.'"
The brothers have not played one another since, despite briefly being teammates last season on the Wisconsin Herd, Milwaukee's G League affiliate. Shannon, with whom Sterling partnered to start a foundation to help at-risk children, recently joined the BIG3 as a co-captain for the Aliens, while Sterling has become a key cog in Milwaukee.
He is maturing as a basketball player while delicately balancing the utilization of his voice and platform.
No matter the Bucks' fate, Brown knows he's carved an important place in the Milwaukee community as much for what the team is doing on the court as for what he is trying to do off it.
"I've received support from a lot of people I never [knew would support me], received a lot of support from around the league, from the city of Milwaukee, from my family, friends, from Chicago, different people around the country," he said. "It's been great just knowing that they have that support and have that same awareness and understanding as to what's going on."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.