Before she stepped onto the hardwood of Gill Coliseum to enter a late season matchup with No. 10 Oregon State, Jaelyn Brown had logged 479 total minutes in her inaugural season with the Cal women’s basketball team. Embedded within every single one of those minutes were opportunities. An opportunity to learn. An opportunity to grow. An opportunity to shine.
“I remember before I went out onto the court, I was thinking, ‘I’m just gonna play as hard as I can. I know it’s a tough team. I’m just gonna do what I can for the team,” Brown says.
To say Brown simply did what she could for her team would be selling her short. Brown began the night with a missed jumper, but the early misfire was far from indicative of the offensive magic she would conjure up.
The buckets began to come in bunches. A lay-up here, a jumper there and a couple of three-point bombs in the waning seconds of the second and third quarters for good measure. When the dust settled, Brown, in spite of setback after setback, stood taller than any other Beaver or Bear who stepped on the court that night.
Against an Oregon State squad which allowed the fewest points per game of any Pac-12 team that season, Brown dropped 21 points on the head of the Beavers. Having knocked down seven of nine shots from the field, three of which were from Downtown, and all four of her free throws, Brown was the closest thing to perfect a basketball player could get. As she stepped off the floor following a career night, Brown mustered three words.
“It’s about time.”
For Brown, now a sophomore, that night was the culmination of what seemed to be an endless amount of waiting. She may have played 25 minutes, but her moment was years in the making.
From the moment Brown entered this world, long before she could even come close to conceptualizing the game of basketball, she was forced to play the waiting game. Brown was born with clubfoot, a condition where an infant’s foot is irregularly shaped. It required her to wear casts and corrective shoes for the first six months of her life.
“She cried a lot,” recalls Jaelyn’s mother Leah Brown. “I cried a lot as well because she was in so much pain from bending her feet back.”
The irregularity may have defined Brown’s early infancy, but soon enough, the casts and corrective shoes did their jobs and within six months, her feet had improved. Brown didn’t seem to mind the late start: just two months later, at 10 months, she was walking. The walking turned to running. The hopping turned to jumping. In the blink of an eye, the child who couldn’t walk without external devices had begun her metamorphosis into one of the best young hoopers in the nation.
As a rising high school freshman, Brown began to fully grasp her prowess on the basketball court. She traveled across the country while playing travel ball for Cal Sparks and put on stellar performance after stellar performance.
In what was only her first year of travel ball, Brown helped Cal Sparks 15U reach the semifinals of the Fila Nationals in Atlanta. A day later, she suited up for the 17U team, which pit her against opponents three and four years older. As part of a team which compiled a 44-1 record and was ranked No. 2 in the nation, Brown garnered quite a bit of national attention, receiving recruiting letters before her first day of high school.
With such an extensive resume at such a young age, not to mention the sheer amount of talent she possessed, she leapfrogged Vista Murrieta High School’s Junior Varsity team and immediately jumped to varsity.
“I was kinda nervous. I didn’t know what to expect,” Brown said. “I was playing summer league games with the high school team and just trying to get the feel for a different game. It was a quick transition. I felt comfortable right away.”
The guard wasn’t carving up opposing defenses under a rock. As an über-athletic guard who could inhale boards like a big and gather plenty of cookies on the defensive end of the floor, Brown received attention from the nation’s best schools. Among the candidates? Louisville. South Carolina. UCLA. Kentucky. USC. Texas A&M. Notre Dame. Stanford. Connecticut. And, of course, Cal.
Brown wasn’t just on track to play college basketball like she had imagined as a wide-eyed 13-year-old looking to make a name for herself. She was on track to be a star.
While Brown didn’t seem to have a difficult time putting on dazzling displays of athleticism and grace, her battle with her body was a little more complex. A torn left meniscus and torn ligament in her ankle as a sophomore year kept Brown from a clean bill of health. But these were forks in the road more than major setbacks.
“I was able to bounce back like that. I was completely fine, it didn’t bother me. I was at the top of my game at that point in time,” Brown says.
Having fought through a few roadblocks — the clubfoot, the meniscus, the ankle — Brown was seldom fazed by the injury bug. That is, however, until one play permanently altered the arc of her career.
Brown was pushing the rock on a fast break after a defensive stop. With her blazing speed, an easy fastbreak bucket looked to be on the menu, but she would have company as she made her way to the hole.
A smaller defender tries to cut Brown off and strip the ball as she goes up for the layup. Brown skies up for the bucket. They make contact at an awkward angle. While in the air, her knee connects with the defender’s shoulder. Boom.
“I actually didn’t see the play, I guess through the grace of God. I looked up and she was on the ground and I could tell she was in a lot of pain. She actually has a high pain threshold so when she went down and kept saying ‘my knee, my knee’ I definitely knew something was wrong,” says Leah Brown.
What had happened on that play was an injury almost beyond comprehension. Upon landing, Brown tore her right ACL, MCL and meniscus in addition to compressed cartilage. Her summer season was over. The unholy trinity of injuries, each of which requires months and months of rehabilitation, had the potential to end her senior season before it began.
Brown was eager to begin the rehabilitation process at the first opportunity possible, but even that would have to wait for two months. As she begun the lengthy process of healing, Brown would discover how slowly time moves.
“It never held her back,” Leah Brown says. “It didn’t scare her. I don’t think she ever took basketball for granted, but at the same time, she didn’t want to lose basketball. It was her place of comfort. That was the place she could go when something was not right with her.”
As Brown moved toward recovery, schools began to move away. The NCAA allows five official visits to school. Brown only used three, choosing South Carolina, UCLA and Cal.
“I was thinking, ‘That’s actually a good sign for me because I don’t want to go there if they treat me differently if I get hurt.’ It was a curse and a blessing, I try to look at it that way,” Brown says.
In November 2015, Brown officially committed to Cal. Brown, who took the tour while still wearing a brace, would grow fond of the atmosphere and especially the coaching staff, but Cal wasn’t originally at the top of her list. Despite the injury, Cal’s interest remained and Brown’s interested peaked.
“I wasn’t considering Cal really. Of course, they were on my mind, but I wasn’t seriously considering them at all,” says Brown.
Once February 2016, her senior year, rolled around, Brown returned to the court. Brown deviated from the standard timetable for an injury of that magnitude. An ACL tear in and of itself takes six to nine months and the compounding injuries should have sidelined her for another three. She was back in seven.
“She was probably taking jumpers before she was supposed to be,” says Leah Brown with a chuckle.
With the injury still fresh, Brown jumped straight into the fire as the playoffs began. She didn’t have the luxury of an easy schedule, but Brown managed to average a respectable 13.1 points and 7.3 rebounds in eight postseason games for a team which made it to regionals. The success was nice, but there was still work to be done, especially with the memory of that injury never faded.
“There’s definately a difference. Even my mindset, I wanted to do certain things that I just can’t anymore,” Brown says.
As she transitioned to the college game, Brown embodied the typical freshman mentality of playing within and getting accustomed to the college pace. Once she grew more and more comfortable, she was ready to elevate her game, but her body simply wasn’t willing.
“I wanted to do more and I was coming up short towards the middle of the season and that’s when I was getting frustrated with myself. I was doubting myself. I was still having problems with my knee. I was thinking, ‘What if my injury never happened? How would I be?’ I was second guessing myself and everything.”
In the waning games of the regular season, Brown began to put the pieces together and her career night in Cal’s finale was Brown’s way of declaring the whole puzzle was finally coming together.
Located on Brown’s left wrist is a small, almost unnoticeable tattoo of just one word: “confidence.” In her battles on the court, both with her opponents and her own body, she’s needed plenty of it. This two-fold fight has intersected the mental and physical, but Brown’s confidence never wavered. Having gone through hell and back, Brown has come out tougher than ever.
One great performance doesn’t have the power to magically undo an injury which may linger for the entirety of Brown’s playing career. But for just a sliver of time, Brown could forget about the external forces which held her back and bask in the moment.
“That whole game, it was the old Jaelyn. She was dialed in, totally focused, and it was like she was playing the way Jaelyn plays,” says Leah Brown.
Brown has continued to overcome an injury which can and has ended careers. But day after day, Brown has kept pushing along. She doesn’t plan to stop at Cal, eyeing a professional career overseas following her tenure as a Bear. With three years of eligibility remaining and a successful freshman campaign under her belt, the best has yet to come for Brown.
Only time will tell where she goes from here.