Malcolm Brogdon: ‘We’ve elected someone who allows hatred and racism to continue and, in some way, supports it’. Photograph: Adam Jason Cohen/The Guardian

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The guard has helped his team to the best record in the NBA. He talks to Donald McRae about race, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his drive to fight poverty

It’s still winter in America, with downtown Milwaukee lined by banks of dirty snow, but there is sunshine in this room. Donald Trump remains in office, as anger and disillusion festers, but Malcolm Brogdon defies these downbeat days. Fiery eloquence and hope pour out of the NBA’s 2017 Rookie of the Year who plays for the most exciting basketball team in America. The Milwaukee Bucks lead the Eastern Conference and have the best record in the league.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6ft 11in Greek immigrant of Nigerian descent, is the Bucks’ exhilarating star who now bears comparison with LeBron James and Steph Curry. But Brogdon is the steady heart of this young team. Antetokounmpo is called the Greek Freak while Brogdon’s stately nickname is The President. Having come late to the pro ranks after completing his post-graduate degree, the 26-year-old talks with the resolve of a man destined for more important matters than his current drive to help the Bucks become NBA champions for only the second time in their five-decade history – and the first since a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in their fold.

“It speaks to America as a whole,” Brogdon says as he considers the perennial question of race in a country where Trump sits in the White House. “We’ve elected someone who allows hatred and racism to continue and, in some way, supports it. It was shocking when we put him in office but having him there has allowed everyone to see what people in the country really feel. Now we can rebuild the country properly. It’s about electing someone that unites people and supports progressive ideas. We no longer need a president who tries to destroy people.”

Brogdon, a quietly impassioned orator, pauses. “It’s ironic because, while Trump tries to break people down and tear them apart, he’s brought so many of us together. This is especially true for the black community. One of our main problems is that, after the Civil Rights movement, black people did not look after each other. But having Trump in office has brought us together.”

An hour-long conversation with Brogdon is very different to a routine sports interview. I am struck by the cool intelligence and defiant optimism that surges through him and can understand why a superstar like Antetokounmpo has stressed his teammate’s nickname is not a joke – but echoes a belief among the Bucks that they could have a giant of a man in their midst.

Brogdon takes a difficult subject such as racism and turns it over to find something new to say. “It builds mental toughness. It builds character. It builds identity. From a young age you figure out I can be a smart, articulate, educated black man and still identify as an African American. I’m named after Malcolm X and Malcolm always said: ‘If you don’t have education then you have no future.’ My parents are huge Malcolm X fans and raised me according to his guidelines.

“But I went to a school [in Atlanta] where many racist situations occurred. The basketball was pretty racist; the classroom was very racist. The teachers were so blatant in their targeting based on colour. I went to a private school and I only had one or two black friends. We were always the ones in detention. My mom knew to get me out of there. But I’d go to basketball practice with my black friends, in my neighbourhood, and me and my brothers were called white because we went to private school and were articulate.”

His father, Mitchell, is a lawyer, while Brogdon’s mother, Jann Adams, is the former chair of the psychology department at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, among the most famous of America’s historically black colleges and universities. She is now the associate dean of the science and maths department. “I was lucky I had a mom who had seen it all. From seeing my grandfather march in the Civil Rights era, she understood the depth, character and stability you need to go through racism. She taught me not to accept it to but deal with it, and be better than it. My mom grew up in Waco, Texas, when the KKK was still prominent. She remembers them burning crosses in the front yard. The racism was palpable every day.”

Having Trump in office has allowed everyone to see what people in the country really feel
Brogdon tells me the remarkable story of how his parents made the decision, when he and his two brothers were still young, to move the family out of a middle-class neighbourhood. “We moved into inner-city Atlanta. It was a developing neighbourhood but it was lower income. It was one of the best moves my parents ever made. It was a conscious decision on their part to make sure we grew up with an understanding of what other people had to go through.”

His parents also took their boys to Africa, on a three-week trip to Ghana where, instead of a vacation, they worked in day-care and maternity centres. While playing soccer with barefoot local kids, Brogdon realised how fortunate his family were in comparison to most people. “I have great memories from childhood. Of course the divorce, when I was 11, was tough. But my mom, especially, did a great job in raising us. She rooted us in black environments while situating us in private school. We tasted both sides.”

There was a basketball court just behind Brogdon’s backyard in Atlanta and his face lights up at a surreal memory. “We had crackheads, all types of users, coming by the court. We befriended all of them. They would come play with us. My mom saw no danger. She thought it was a great environment for us to learn how to be with different people. They knew our names, we knew their names. We had fun every day.

“I learnt that drug users could be good people too. They had just gone down a wrong path. It’s easy to dismiss people but my grandfather taught us to think differently. He marched with Dr Martin Luther King and to this day my grandmother is great friends with Andrew Young [a King confidant who became the US Ambassador to the United Nations]. It was a blessing and a privilege to have my grandfather – a giant among men.”

As a kid did Brogdon believe a career in the NBA was impossible? “My parents never planted the seed that anything was impossible. They planted the seed that things were doubly hard for a black man. My brothers and I made sure we outworked people and were better than everyone we were around.”

Brogdon smiles. “Anyway, I really wanted to play professional soccer. I loved Arsenal and Thierry Henry. Soccer is still my favourite sport. I was a striker – like Henry. But things changed when I got to the ninth grade. My brother was always playing basketball and I wanted to be more like him. I wanted to be around more black people.”

We discuss my interview last year with Jaylen Brown, of the Boston Celtics, another impressive young NBA player. It was rumoured that an unnamed executive said Brown was “too smart” – a euphemism for being too educated and political. “Absolutely. Me and Jaylen went through the same [2016] draft. I went into draft interviews and they would say: ‘You went to college for four years, and got your master’s in your fifth year. Are you sure you want to be an NBA player? Don’t you want to go into politics?’ It seems as if you’re black you can’t be both educated and a sportsman. I’d rather they said: ‘You showed so much dedication and perseverance in your studies we know you will show it on the court.’”

It does not sound like an isolated incident. “There were multiple teams. But it’s not disheartening. It’s empowering and a chance for me to break the mould for younger black athletes get their degree, their master’s, and come into the NBA and shock the world.”

Brogdon still believes that “the NBA is the most progressive league out there. I’ve been a bit surprised, and encouraged, by the NBA’s support for athletes that speak out. Compared to the NFL it’s night and day. Look at the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick [who was shut out of football after he refused to stand for the national anthem]. Kaepernick is a hero. When you talk about Malcolm X and Dr King the word that comes to mind is sacrifice. Colin Kaepernick is the epitome of that sacrifice in our generation. I love it that black athletes are now willing to speak out. It’s inspiring.”

The Bucks have been inspiring on court. At their new arena, the stunning Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, I saw them demolish the Dallas Mavericks. With Antetokounmpo and Brogdon in full flow, it’s easy to imagine the Bucks facing the Golden State Warriors, the imperious champions, in June’s NBA finals.

“Absolutely,” Brogdon says. “We have a phenomenal coach [Mike Budenholzer] and a phenomenal system. We have guys with little ego and a superstar, Giannis, who is top five in the league. We have great role players behind him. You can’t get a better recipe than that – unless you’re Golden State. But we’ve already beaten them this season [the Bucks won easily in Oakland, in November, with Brogdon scoring 20 points]. I’m living my dream and playing in the NBA. But the next level of the dream is to win a championship. It’s something very few NBA guys do – so it would be amazing.”

He laughs when asked what it’s like to play with Antetokounmpo. “Giannis does so many amazing things on the floor. A lot of time you just watch him play – like the fans. Sometimes you just have to get out of the way, and let him do his thing. For six or seven minutes, long stretches, he dominates. There are times when he needs support but Giannis attracts so much attention that often all you have to do is stand on the perimeter and shoot at the ring – or cut to the basket and score a lay off. He makes the game easy for us.”

Peter Feigin, the Bucks’ charismatic president, is a New Yorker who offended many locals in 2016 when he said Milwaukee is “the most segregated and racist place” he had known. Was Brogdon surprised? “Not at all. Before I came to Milwaukee I’d heard the city was the most segregated in the country. I’d heard it was racist. When I got here it was extremely segregated. I’ve never lived in a city this segregated. Milwaukee’s very behind in terms of being progressive. There are things that need to change rapidly.”

Is this an opportunity to change Milwaukee? “Absolutely. Leadership and change starts from the top down – with our owners being progressive. They encourage players that also want to be forward thinking. For them to support Peter Feigin is a big sign and encourages us to do the same. To speak out for what is good and right.”

Is Milwaukee, agog with the brilliance of the Greek Freak and teammates like Brogdon, already changing? “It’s amazing how sports is a way to control the masses. But it also unites people. When you have a team on the rise, with a player like Giannis, it brings the city together. The owners, and Peter Feigin, have trademarked the team as something the city can really get behind as a progressive unit.”

Before he won Rookie of the Year, Brogdon persuaded the Bucks to divert all the money they had earmarked for his campaign to charity. “I thought my play would speak for itself and all the money put into that should go to something more important. The award is superficial. It’s more important to give back when you can.”

Brodgon’s master’s thesis was on the necessity for clean water in rural South Africa. “When I first went to Africa, aged 11, it was the trip of a lifetime. It ignited a fire in me. I saw people less privileged than me. But they were still happy – even if they didn’t have clean water. They didn’t have food to eat. They were starving to death. From then on I wanted to make a change.

“I went on a mission trip with my grandparents – to Malawi – when I was 14. Malawi was far worse off than Ghana. It was mind-boggling that people don’t have clean water. And then an opportunity arose. During my thesis I was looking for an organisation I could work with. And there happened to be one based in Charlottesville. I worked with them on my thesis, went out [to South Africa] for nine days and it was the best trip I’ve ever taken.”

Brogdon is the founder of Hoop2o which, last October, he and four other NBA players launched to help people benefit from clean water in Tanzania. By late January they had raised $125,000 and built two wells which now provide water to 11,000 people. Brogdon also works with the NFL player Chris Long, who started Waterboys – an initiative that funds 55 wells and provides clean water to 210,000 people in Africa. Their aim is for their wells to reach a million people – as a child in Africa dies every 90 seconds from a water-related disease.

“Clean water allows little girls traveling miles to school to get an education,” he adds. “It allows them not to be eaten by animals when they’re trying to get water.”

Did he know Long, one of the most politically conscious white sportsmen in America, when they both went to the University of Virginia? “I didn’t as he’s about [seven] years older than me. I just heard great things about him. Chris is totally aware of what’s happening in America and the world and he’s amazing.”

Brogdon and Long went to college in Charlottesville where, in August 2017, members of the far-right marched with burning torches and chanted “You will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil”. A car ploughed into a crowd of counter-protestors and a woman was killed.

“That’s not my experience of Charlottesville,” Brogdon says, “but it was a powerful reminder of racism and prejudice. I see the news, I read, and there’s so much hatred and violence.”

Trump initially refused to comment on Charlottesville – and when he did speak the President praised the “many fine people on both sides”. Despite the constant accusations swirling around Trump, many Americans believe he will be re-elected. “It’s very realistic,” Brogdon says of that bleak possibility. “It’s very discouraging. But the focus has to be on getting the minorities, especially African Americans, voting. We have a history of not voting. But people died for our right to vote. We must get out and vote and change the outcome of these future elections.”

What will Brodgon be doing in 10 years? “I’ll be finding something that will impact people’s lives. I’d like to stay in the non-profit sector whether it’s clean water or fighting poverty. I have a passion for Africa and I would love to continue to use my resources to help others.”

Is politics too dirty a business? “No, it’s not too dirty. There are good people in politics that are doing great work. But is a business where there is dirt. If I want to get into that I have to be ready to take on every aspect – including politicking. It’s similar to the NBA. You have to fight for what you want. I need to decide if I want another career like that because, by that time, I’ll have kids. But it’s possible.”

How did his presidential nickname arise? “That came up when President Obama was in office. People said I spoke like him and looked like him. I was articulate and had my master’s degree. People started to call me The President.”

Brogdon, who will surely do even more in life than chase down an NBA championship in Milwaukee, smiles when asked if he likes his nickname. “I love it – as long as you know the context. We need context for everything.”

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