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Bradley Beal opens up about the Wizards, Russell Westbrook and social justice

Washington’s star guard spoke to teens from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance

During the virtual My Brother’s Keeper Alliance’s On and Off the Court speaker series on Tuesday, a teenager asked Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal who he thought was the toughest person to defend in the NBA. Without hesitation, the three-time NBA All-Star said, “Me,” before switching to a complimentary answer about Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant.

Based on how Beal is playing for the playoff-seeking Wizards, he could’ve stuck with his first answer. Beal, who was recently named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, leads the NBA in scoring with 31.4 points per game.

“I’ve seen Brad grow from a young player,” said Washington Mystics star Natasha Cloud, who was also part of Tuesday’s event. “He’s always been a bucket-getter and a two-way player on both ends of the floor to a leader of his team and the leader of the soldiers. And it’s been a really cool thing for me to see.”

Beal has also grown as a mentor for young Black teenagers with his own AAU team and the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, and has been a noted voice against social injustice.

On Tuesday, Beal spent more than an hour talking to the teens from the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance about his career, playing with Russell Westbrook, making the playoffs (the Wizards are currently 10th in the East), speaking out on social injustice, the Derek Chauvin trial and more.

The following are highlights of Beal’s interview:

You averaged over a 3.5 GPA and were a pre-med student at the University of Florida. Can you talk about the importance of education in your life?

I was a nerd. So, I was a little different, but in a great way, like, I loved school. My mom was an [athletic director] at a school, so I had to get good grades. She also taught me how to play basketball, so that kind of went hand in hand in our household. I put basketball and school in the same boat. I made them competitive. I got something out of both of them. And so a lot of us, as kids, we don’t like school. We don’t like going to school, we don’t like the long hours, we don’t like the tests. But you have to figure out ways to enjoy it.

Just like in basketball, you may not like sprints. You may not like the coach. You may not like something that he’s doing. You may not like a teammate. But you have to figure out a way to get your job done. You have to figure out a way to get the win. I’ve always kind of channeled my mentality to be that way knowing that they go hand in hand. Life is bigger than just basketball.

How did you gain a thick skin in terms of dealing with skeptics and criticism and being confident speaking publicly against social injustice?

I credit my upbringing. I credit my mom for that. I kind of blame her for that, in a way, because it was tough love with everything that we get in our house. And in order for us to succeed, she felt like that was the recipe for success. And I didn’t always grasp it at a young age. I was a really quiet, reserved kid. I never said anything. … But to just be able to see that and understand it now, as a grown man, what my mom was doing, what she was pushing me to do, it just propels me for social justice situations and situations centered around my team and me as a player. I feel like nobody can really get on me as tough as my mom. So, that kind of just eliminated all chips off my shoulders.

What were your thoughts on former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin being found guilty at the conclusion of his trial on April 20 for the death of African American man George Floyd, while 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot to death by a police officer the same day in Columbus, Ohio?

Around the time of the [Chauvin] trial, I was actually nervous, because – I hate to say it – I didn’t think they [the jury] were going to get it right. But that just shows the climate of where we are and how frequently this happens. To see guilty, guilty, guilty. That’s a huge win. But the score is still 1,000 to 1. So that’s progress, but it’s still not what we want. And then to see [police brutality] happen four or five times throughout the rest of the week, right after that, we’re not really moving this needle. So that’s the frustrating part.

And then being a young Black father of two young Black men, I have to endure that now and I have to process that. But they won’t grow up anywhere where I grew up. And that’s a new challenge for me. But regardless of that fact, it’s still scary, and we’re still in this environment of there’s still no change being brought about.

Being a successful Black athlete, do you feel pressured to respond to social justice issues?

I wouldn’t say pressure. … But what motivates me is that I come from those environments. I came from that. And I still have family and friends still living in those environments. And I’m their voice.

And on top of it, I’m a human being, a citizen, just like everybody else. If I take this jersey off, like I’m in normal street clothes today, I’m a citizen. I’m not a basketball player right now. … I’m a father right now. That doesn’t change. I’m just like everybody else in the world. And so it’s not pressure. But I think the only thing is we understand what comes with it. We understand there’ll be backlash. And, like Natasha, now we don’t really care about that.

What is it like being a teammate of Russell Westbrook’s on and off the court?

He’s been great. It’s been so ironic, because from the beginning of the year before the trade [for Westbrook], there’s always the misconception of Russ. He doesn’t get along with coaches or his team. It’s just all about ‘Me, me, me, me.’ It’s the complete opposite. And, like, I love everything about him. He’s a great character guy. And his approach to the basketball game is what helped me have the year I’m having. And it helped us turn the year around. His level of accountability, you want that. He pushes himself to levels that you don’t even think exist. And to be on the other side of that playing against him for years and seeing, ‘Oh, how’s he getting triple-doubles every game? There’s no way he’s getting it.’ To actually see that night in and night out. He has a different mode. And it’s all [mental]. And you can’t teach that. It’s either you have it or you don’t.

Bradley Beal (left) and Russell Westbrook (right) of the Washington Wizards high-five after Westbrook missed a dunk in the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Capital One Arena on March 17 in Washington.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

But what I love about him is that he tries to bring it out of everybody. He tries to bring it out of the 15th guy. A guy who probably won’t play that much. But when he gets that opportunity, he wants you to play exceptionally well. That’s what I love about him. He just wants to win. He wants to be the best player he can be. He wants to uplift all his teammates. And that’s one thing I stole from him is his mental approach to the game. I have a voice in my head and it’s Russ saying, ‘Keep going, B.’ He’s been terrific. I definitely tip my hat off to him because I can definitely see why he was MVP of the league.

What’s the key for the Wizards getting in position to earn a play-in game and make the postseason?

Being healthy is always key. Without all your soldiers, it can be a tough battle. And for us, we pride ourselves on all 15 being available and having an impact. But we’ve been playing really good. It’s been a defensive mindset. And it’s really been a tale of two seasons. The beginning of the year we probably having a list of excuses, whether it’s COVID, players being injured, bringing guys up from the G League in and out, not really having good camaraderie, not really having a good identity as a team. And then post-All-Star break, once the trade deadline hit, we add Daniel Gafford and [Chandler] Hutchison. We are who we are now. You know there are no changes being made. And now you know you have a certain number of games to push. And so literally, we’ve just been pushing. And it’s been clicking, and it’s all been on defense. And that’s the only way we’re going to get into it.

We got momentum now. … We feel like we should be a lot higher and a little bit more comfortable with being in the playoffs. But we’re in a good position and we’re going to be scary to face for sure.

As someone with an elite AAU program, what are your thoughts on Overtime starting a professional league for high school students, the G League Select team and the possibility of high school players being able to go straight to the NBA in the coming years?

I have mixed feelings. If you’re talented enough, you should give it a go. But I did a year in college and I understand the maturity you get in a year in college from a man standpoint, just growing up and educating yourself more. Being a little bit more prepared for when you get to that level. Living by yourself for a year or two or three versus jump right into it from your mom’s house. So there’s a lot of factors into it just from the game. You’re going to get stronger in college versus jumping straight to leave in high school. But they do have their perks and their advantages. Like, you’re going to learn a different and more advanced game than going to college. College is a little bit more system-ran. Pro is a little bit more free-flowing. Players run it. …

My biggest thing is the kids. I don’t want kids being affected in any way. The biggest thing is these kids have a tendency to love titles. They chase titles. ‘I want to be wanted, to be one-and-done. I want to go pro early. I don’t want to go to college.’ And those are just titles versus what is your endgame. What is your goal? What is the ultimate goal? The ultimate goal is to get to the league. And so you can’t skip steps in that process though. …

I reemphasize this to my AAU team all the time that there are only 450 basketball players in the NBA. And there are billions of people in this world, there are millions that play the game. That lets you know how special you have to be to get into this rare club.

How do you handle your finances and when did you learn how to?

Our [African American] community has no idea of any of that. And I honestly wasn’t taught that until I reached the NBA. … I have an adviser, somebody who basically takes my money and invests it with stock market or personal investments that I like. And I have an accountant who looks over my taxes and makes sure I’m paying taxes. And then I have another guy on the side who is an adviser, as well, who checks everybody. In our profession, we’re known for going broke, we’re known for having our money stolen from us. And so it’s very important to be able to have financial security, and a feeling of safety with your money. We have to have that type of legal team in place.

But at a younger age, we weren’t taught that. I’m cheap. I’ve always been cheap as a young kid. And so for me, it wasn’t really tough for me when I made it to the league, because I wasn’t giving anybody anything. And it’s the toughest thing, because everybody comes out like this, your cousin that you never met before, it comes out, comes out of nowhere. It is tough. But that is a great question. I encourage our community to learn younger, because that is how you create generational wealth.

What words of wisdom would you give to young Black men?

Embrace who are you. Embrace living your truth. Embrace the challenges of school. Embrace how hard it may be. And you got to work at it. Nothing is going to come easy. And no journey or step in your path to whatever it is that you want to be will be easy. There’s going to be some obstacle that crosses your path, and you have to work through it, around it, over it. Whatever it is, you have to be able to get through that to get to your angle, and that obstacle is going to build up who you are in the end. …

But, also it is about your opportunities. Take advantage of your opportunities, because they don’t always come our way as Black men in this world.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.