Wizards exec Sashi Brown on John Wall, HBCUs and the time Elizabeth Warren gave him a grade he didn’t like
The former executive vice president of the Browns also talks analytics
WASHINGTON — U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has a lot of enemies. From billionaires to Republicans to even members of her own party, Warren has ruffled a lot of feathers throughout her career as a public servant.
But what the senator from Massachusetts may not know is that there is an NBA executive who has a bone to pick with her as well.
When Sashi Brown, the chief planning and operations officer for Monumental Basketball, part of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics and Washington Capitals, was a first-year law student at Harvard University, Warren was his contract law professor. Brown, 43, said that while Warren promoted stimulating discussions in the classroom and was one of the top professors he had before graduating in 2002, there’s still one nagging thing that sticks out to him about the then-future presidential candidate.
“All I saw of her was giving me a grade that I didn’t want at the time,” Brown said with a slight grin. “Fortunately I got a grade that was decent.”
Brown was hired by Monumental Sports in July after spending 12 years in the NFL as both general counsel and a front-office executive for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns. In 2016, Brown took over player personnel decisions for the Browns as the team’s executive vice president of football operations, freeing up tens of millions of dollars in cap space and either making draft picks (pass rusher Myles Garrett) or stockpiling picks that eventually became centerpieces of the current roster (cornerback Denzel Ward, running back Nick Chubb and quarterback Baker Mayfield). But at the same time, Brown passed on drafting quarterbacks Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, and the team was a dreadful 1-27 during his two seasons at the helm.
The Hampton University alum recently sat down with The Undefeated at the Wizards’ practice facility in Washington to discuss his historically black college roots, the Wizards, and what the future holds for stars Bradley Beal and John Wall.
Growing up in Boston, what drew you to Hampton?
Family legacy. For my family, which comes from Kentucky and Ohio, there was a long legacy of success for folks going to HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. I think just the quality of [Hampton’s] program. They had a great broadcast journalism program and that’s what I thought I wanted to do, is be on air at ESPN. So I got to go down there and study and get a little bit out of the Northeast, which was a good thing, see a different part of the country.
As an 18-year-old, what did it mean to go to the HBCU?
I think there’s stigmas attached to HBCUs, but I think for a large swath of the community there’s a lot of pride in the institutions that have been built and really been the catalyst for a lot of success within the black community. I think people underestimate them still to this day. So pride drove some of it, pride and what those institutions represent, what Hampton represented.
There are financial hardships facing many HBCUs right now. As an alum of one, how does that precarious situation make you feel?
Some are in precarious situations. I think there’s a lot of pressure and a lot more competition across the industry in terms of the colleges and universities across the country. My mom’s college that she taught at for a long time, Wheelock College in Boston, just was acquired by [Boston University]. When you look at what the history of a lot of these schools have been, it’s a shame to see them wrap up.
But it’s also a call. I think it’s a call to the nation [and] in particular, alumni of those schools. I sit on the board of trustees at Hampton and we spend a lot of time focused on how we’re going to forge forward. There are some schools that are really in a great financial state. Hampton’s fortunate to be one of those. I do think there’s a consciousness that’s awakening, but there’s a lot more to be done.
What do these schools need to do to get more students to want to attend and make it more affordable for those who can’t afford to go?
First, one thing you will see is that HBCUs have had a greater consciousness about making sure that college remains affordable. And I think they’ve been a champion on that. This is obviously a big issue for the country, but a lot of colleges have priced the vast majority of students out. In particular, HBCUs had been … thoughtful about how they price themselves.
I think the other thing is continue — and I emphasize the word continue — providing high quality education. There is an assumption that the education is lesser, but if you really look at the leadership across this country coming out of the African American community, a significant, significant percentage of it is coming from HBCUs. And I think that there’s a lot of reasons for that. If you look at Xavier in New Orleans, for instance, where my sister went, on a per capita basis, there’s probably not a school in the country that’s more successful at preparing doctors, doesn’t matter the ethnicity, gender or what have you.
I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I have to ask: Which is the real HU?
You can look at the schools, the rankings, all the things you need to do. But I don’t need to bother with that. I’m always between Harvard and Hampton, I’m not quite sure, but it’s one of them, it’s one of them, for sure.
What was that like for you to go from an HBCU to Harvard, which is kind of the antithesis of HBCUs?
In some ways, right? Harvard has got a tremendous legacy. Part of the reason HBCUs proliferated in the South and you didn’t see so many North is because a lot of the schools up North had begun to open their doors to African Americans far earlier than what you saw in the South. My dad couldn’t go to the University of Kentucky, period. My grandfather was a coach at Kentucky State across town from Kentucky when [basketball coach] Adolph Rupp was championing that he would never have black players. I think when you put everything in context there’s great opportunity for these schools to bring people together and provide a great education.
Did you feel welcome at Harvard?
As far as my transition to Harvard, law school generally is pretty competitive and cutthroat. But I’ve always felt like, without being arrogant, that I was capable, and that if I put my work, in doing my best was enough, whether I was successful or not.
I found that law school first year is probably not that pleasant. My first-year contracts professor was Elizabeth Warren. So you can imagine we had some interesting classes and some interesting moments, but it was a great learning experience.
When you were hired over the summer by Monumental Sports, the press release said that you will “manage efforts relating to technology, finance, communications, security, research and player engagement.” What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
The first thing we’re trying to do here is build a platform for our basketball properties and our basketball teams. Whether it’s our 2K eSports or the Wizards or our world champion Mystics or the [G League affiliate] Go-Go. The first thing we need to look at is what that platform looks like, how it operates. Restructuring is the primary focus right now and making sure that we’re supporting our teams the best way we can. That can look like a lot of different things. We revamped our food and nutrition program. We’re looking at finalizing the design of our space and the branding of our space, how we interface with business, how we get into the community, engage here in Ward 8 and across D.C.
We very much have what we call a “double bottom line” here, which is, yes, we’re a for-profit entity and we certainly want to generate proceeds to support our franchises and the investment that we’ve made in the franchises. But we also want to make sure that we’re having an impact in our community here, around our training facility and across the region.
From your time as the executive vice president of football operations with the Cleveland Browns, you were known as one of the more analytically minded people in football. How are you applying that mindset to your basketball role?
I think that’s probably a little bit of an overstatement. I’m going to talk at the [MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference] in a couple of months, but I’d say more than being an analytics guy, I’m just really open to ideas and the best information. From what you understand about what I would call a more data-driven discipline in terms of how you evaluate and look at the game, whatever the game is, I certainly am open to any information that has real veracity. And I think certainly we found some things in Cleveland that helped us. And I think if you look at our track record and the players that we drafted and the players we brought in as free agents, that bears out regardless of what the record was on the field.
In terms of how I’m viewed in the NBA, I don’t know. I know that comes along with whatever my brand is — it sounds crazy to say — but I think as you understand that part of it, stay true to yourself and good decision-making and processes. And I think continual learning. That’s something I’ve learned from so many people I’ve spent time with, even when I was in the NFL I spent time with [San Antonio Spurs CEO] R.C. Buford and others around the NBA, [New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations] David Griffin and others.
ESPN commentator Jalen Rose spoke with The New Yorker about how more analytics in basketball can keep African Americans out of front office positions and can treat the majority of African American players as commodities rather than people. What are your thoughts?
A huge part of what I’ve been about and what we will be about here is engaging our athletes on a very human level. I don’t think it’s an either/or. I do think Jalen’s right. I think a lot of organizations fall into the trap of either/or, and you have to fight that organizationally. I do think the organizations that do this the best find the right balance, because there’s a very human element to everything that we do in life, whether it’s all in this corridor or not.
Some of my strongest relationships are with players that I cut … But you have relationships with them that transcend sport, because you understand who they are and you just have a respect and a graciousness towards them as people first. If you do that, over time like anything you should do in life, not because you want something from them, just because there’s a person there too. It’s not just a jersey. And we very much believe in that across the organization.
Despite the slow start for the Wizards, what positives have you taken from this young season?
We’re developing a lot of young players. You’ve seen Brad [Beal] continue to blossom. We’re seeing John [Wall] make some real progress, off the court. We understand that we’re wounded and we’re not firing on all cylinders right now, but as we look at what we’re trying to do, which is to build a championship core, we’re finding some guys that are really contributing. Rui [Hachimura]’s been fantastic, working really hard and you’re able to see a sophistication to his game that exceeds his rookie status.
The brightest spot has been just seeing the young guys come together and play hard and compete and establish the type of effort that we want to see on a championship team. As we fix and our defense improves — we can score the ball with just about anybody in the league — we’ve got to work on the other end of the court, and as guys come together and we get healthier, there’s going to be something special here for us to be able to showcase.
You brought up Beal. What have you seen in him that you like the most?
The versatility. I think people think of Brad as a shooter, but he made a defensive play at the end of the game that very, very few players in the league could make. He’s shown the league that he’s ready. He’s an All-NBA-caliber player and we’re fortunate to have him. His commitment back to Washington has been tremendous.
The thing I’m most proud of about Brad, honestly, is that he won the community service player of the year award [at the 2019 ESPYS]. That’s hugely important to us. He sets so many great examples for our organization, and he inspires our community and people to engage but to also just excel at everything they do. He’s been impressive to be around.
The size of Wall’s contract has been heavily criticized by both fans and people in the media. What have you seen from Wall to help mitigate those concerns that he can’t get back to his All-Star level?
Whenever a guy gets paid a ton of money like that there’s going to be superhigh expectations, not only on him but for the team’s performance. John realizes that. He’s mature about it. He’s been thoughtful about it, we’ve spoken about it. And he’s committed to doing everything he can to come back. He’s put in the work with our training staff, and he’s on track to come and have an opportunity to regain a lot, if not all, of his former self on the court. So I’m excited to see him.
With a lot of money tied up in him and Beal, how do you build around these two for the next four or five seasons?
We’re always going to have to have this sustainable success that we want to have here. We’re always going to have to draft well, and [general manager] Tommy [Sheppard]’s shown here early on that he can find young players around the league and then also look at the free-agency market to supplement, by bringing in Davis [Bertans] and some of the other players. We know we, certainly by our record, aren’t where we want to be, but we’re committed to getting there as quickly as possible.