As the son of an NBA player who survived for nine seasons in the league mostly on grit and hard work, Jalen Brunson knew his journey to the NBA would not be easy.
His father, Rick Brunson, made sure of it.
The elder Brunson earned his way to eight NBA contracts – all of them non-guaranteed. Yet he persevered and stayed in the league for nine seasons. That same drive would be instilled in Rick’s son – sometimes in harsh ways. But more about that in a moment.
Jalen made it to the NBA, just like his dad. And it’s an interesting story about when the acorn and the tree knew Brunson’s arrival in the NBA was official. It wasn’t so much on draft night in 2018, although that was an emotional, joyful evening for the family.
The real-life evidence came during his rookie season. And, perhaps fittingly, it involved Mavericks’ legend Dirk Nowitzki, whose 21-year NBA career started when Jalen was 3 and his father Rick was carving out his place in the league.
“The moment I realized – wow, I’m in the NBA – was at a home game, when my dad was in town,” Brunson says. “He would sit right across from the bench (in warmups). And Dirk would get the ball and have his back to me and look toward my dad and say: ‘this is the same stuff I used to do to you when you were in the league.’
“And my dad would start laughing. It was a great moment. I was like, wow, my dad did this and now I’m doing this. This is special.”
That’s the kind of journey the Brunson family has been on over the past several years, a trip that brought Jalen back to Lincolnshire, Ill., recently. That small suburb north of Chicago is where Brunson went to Adlai Stevenson High School. That school, combined with relentless and rigid teachings from his dad, shaped Brunson into the no-nonsense kind of pro that he is now as he goes into his second season with the Mavericks after being the 33rd overall draft pick in 2018.
Rick Brunson forged a place for himself in the NBA. He had some big moments, like the night in his rookie season when he busted the Houston Rockets with 16 points, eight assists, five rebounds and three steals in a 24-point Portland win.
That was about the time Jalen was coming out of diapers. The tutorial was only beginning.
From then on, the challenge was always set in front of Brunson. And while it was never easy, he knew it wasn’t supposed to be.
His father’s experience was a great educational tool for Jalen. And he soaked up everything.
“Growing up with those expectations, you’d think it would be hard for me to grow and try to get better, but it made it easier,” Jalen says. “From a young age, I saw him working tremendously hard just to make a roster. He was on eight unguaranteed contracts. To see how hard he had to work, I knew I had to work even harder to stick with one team for multiple years. Honestly, it made it easier for me because (that work ethic) was instilled in me and I knew what I needed to do.
“It showed me that nothing’s ever given to you. No matter what, you got to work for it. From a young age, my parents taught me how to work hard in everything I do. They pushed me to be the best person I could be, the best student I could be.”
That upbringing was the driving force for Brunson to return to the high school he attended from 2011-15. He hosted a basketball camp and he tried to convey the same thoughts to the kids who were hanging on his every word that his father and mother passed along to him.
But this was more about life skills, not hoop skills.
While it was hard to accept at times for Jalen growing up, he wouldn’t change things for the world now. The point he wanted to get across to kids attending his basketball camp was simple, direct and delivered somewhat less harshly than his dad’s directive years ago. Those times, Rick would challenge Jalen and on occasion, leave him at the gym with no ride home if dad didn’t feel like his son wasn’t putting out supreme effort.
Those lessons ended up being, as they say, priceless.
“I think the main focus at this camp is for kids to understand that they do not have to be the 6-8, freakishly athletic guy that can jump out of the gym or the girl who’s really tall and has the most talent in the world,” Jalen said. “They don’t have to be that. I wasn’t that.
“Every level I’ve been at, I’ve been doubted. Or there was a ceiling put on me. I never listened to it. I was going to make strides to get better every time I stepped on the court. For these kids, they can do whatever they want to do as long as they believe in themselves. It may not be X’s and O’s. I really want them to understand that as long as you believe in and consistently work hard in whatever you do, you’ll be successful. As long as you’re kind to people … that’s what I want kids to take from here. Just be yourself and work hard. And believe. You got to believe.”
Brunson likes to recall a story about his high school years that reinforced the idea that there are no shortcuts in life. You only get what you earn.
There’s no magic potion. And that point was made clear in his household growing up.
“My freshman year, the middle of the year, out of nowhere, my parents started putting these sheets of paper all over the house,” Brunson said. “It would say: the magic’s in the work.
“They’d put it on the bathroom mirror, on the garage door before I left for school, on the refrigerator. They put it everywhere they knew I’d look. They’d send me a picture of it. They wanted me to understand as long as you work hard, eventually things are going to go well. And you’ll get the result you want. It was a running theme. And they kept doing it and kept doing it.”
From there, Brunson started putting goals on his bedroom wall. And he put in the work, because the No. 1 goal on that list was to be an NBA player.
There were some intermediate stops, of course. He won a state championship as a senior at Stevenson after losing in the previous two seasons to teams that were led by players like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, both NBA players now.
Then Brunson became one of the most highly recruited players in the country and chose Villanova, breaking the hearts of just about every other high-profile program in the country.
Brunson would win two NCAA titles with the Wildcats before declaring for the NBA draft after his junior season.
And then came draft night, which was like a culmination of all the efforts he and his dad put in.
“Being drafted into the NBA is probably one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever had,” he said. “It kind of reminded me of when I won the national championship or the state championship. There’s like a burden lifted off you that you finally did something you’ve been dreaming of. I just thought about all the hard work I put in.
“One thing I’ll say, though, is that, once that night happened, the next day was like, all right, I’m at the bottom again. I got to work my way back up and keep getting better. It’s great getting drafted, but then you got to go back to work.”
So it wasn’t a culmination.
Just another milepost on a journey of persistence, grit and love of the game.
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