Jalen Brunson has had dozens of teammates since he started playing basketball. And it didn’t take long for the Dallas Mavericks’ guard to reveal his most important teammate of them all.
His mom – Sandra Brunson.
In a Zoom interview conducted by the Dallas-based non-profit company Trey Athletes, Jalen said one of the reasons he was able to graduate from Villanova in just three years was because his mom drilled into him the importance of academics.
As a nod to his mom on Mother’s Day for instilling in him the value of education, Jalen said: “I want to thank my mom, because my dad didn’t give me my smarts. My mom definitely did.
“School came very easy to me because of her. She always made sure I did my homework, she always made sure I did that, so I got A’s.”
Jalen describes his mom as his best friend. And when Jalen was in the ninth grade and was gradually becoming a rising star on the basketball court, his mom started challenging him and his younger sister, Erica.
“My husband (former NBA player Rick Brunson), he traveled a lot, he worked, and he even, at one time, left and coached in another state,” Sandra said. “And I tried to get the kids to take the focus off of him and put it on themselves.
“For (Jalen), I challenged him, whether it was in school, and even also on the court. But it was more of a mental thing.”
Those challenges by Sandra served as sources of motivation for Jalen.
“One example is I would put notes on the mirror, I would put notes on the fridge and in the bathroom,” Sandra said. “If a big game was coming up I would put something that I knew that he was concerned about.
“Even his dad would tell me, ‘Did you put that note. . .? Put it in his pocket.’ ”
The messages were just little reminders for Jalen as his games grew closer to the actual tipoff.
“I would send him a text about three hours before every game,” Sandra said. “Sometimes he would say, ‘You didn’t send me my text.’ I’m like, ‘I’m working, I’m driving.’
“I’m preparing for the game as a parent just like he might be, and I would send him a text giving him some things to think about.’ And I think that helped him. I did it all the way through college. We’re talking about every game.”
Are those texts still coming on game day now that Jalen is in his second NBA season? Sandra said: “When he made it to the pros he was like, ‘Look mom, there’s 82 games. You can just say, ‘I love you’ now.
“That worked for me, because it also gave him a balance that I was still mom, but yet I’m going to try and push you in the way that I know will nurture you and also get that result.”
So what was the premise of Sandra’s messages to Jalen when he was in high school and college?
“One of my messages to him was to have faith, family, love and basketball,” she said. “That was always the preface of the notes that I would send him, but I always challenged him to use his strengths.
“Some of the things I would say is, ‘You’re a leader on the floor, your strengths are you control the pace of the game.’ I wasn’t out there wishing he would score 100 points or anything like that. It was to do the tangibles. He worked so hard on X, work with this. Do what you do and don’t let anyone change your focus. Those were the basics of my quotes or inspirational texts to him.”
As a senior in suburban Chicago, Jalen led Stevenson High School to the state title. And in his three years at Villanova, he led the Wildcats to a pair of NCAA championships.
Along the way, Jalen won numerous prestigious awards. In 2015 Jalen was named Illinois Mr. Basketball. That same year he was chosen as the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year.
In 2018 Jalen was college basketball’s consensus National College Player of the Year, a consensus first-team All-American, and a second-team Academic All-American. And on Dec. 17, 2019, he was named by Sporting News as College Basketball Player of the Decade.
Those accolades certainly made his parents proud.
“My high school career was definitely memorable,” Jalen said. “I want to say that it was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had because you’re with a group of people that you kind of grew up with. So going to a public school with about 4500 kids – it was a huge school – but to have those moments with those probably 25 total teammates that I’ve had throughout my career, those were the best moments ever just because those were my best friends.
“We grew up and there were so many things that we did together, so those moments are great. But the on-the-court stuff, it was very, very difficult because of how much I expected out of myself and how hard my dad pushed me and how hard school was because school, at the time, (Stevenson) was the No. 2 public school academically in the country, so it was hard for me. But I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences for the world because they made me who I am today.”
So did that unbreakable bond between Jalen and his mom. He knows the sacrifices his mom made to get him where he is.
Sandra discussed the difficulties she faced when Jalen graduated from high school and went off to Villanova.
“As a parent, the best advice that I can give in that transition is to be there for your child as a person first,” Sandra said. “Give them the support they need as an individual.
“It’s just very important that they have the stability in knowing that you are there to support them regardless of what they do on the court. I think that was the best thing that I could have done for him is just be mom.”