For Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, a Rookie of the Year candidate who will be competing in the playoffs, it took only one rule and a trip to Ghana during his adolescence to figure out his life’s purpose beyond basketball: utilizing his education in public policy by assisting countries most in need.
While he didn’t know it then, his quest for figuring out what he wanted to do started around the dinner table as a young boy. Sitting alongside his two older brothers, Gino and John, the family held conversations about school, work and sports, while the three of them received words of wisdom from their parents, Jann and Mitchell. During one dinner, Brogdon tried to get out of his seat early, but was quickly told to sit back down. But there was a big message behind it.
“My dad had this [rule] where you sat at the table until you finished all of your food,” he recalled with the NBPA. “Regardless if it was vegetables you didn’t like, no matter what it was, we had to sit there until we ate it. My brothers and I never understood. We hated the rule and thought that he was exaggerating.”
But Brogdon soon realized that while he may not understand the rule at first, he’ll learn to appreciate it in the long run for the guiding principle that was drawn from it: live your life with thankfulness and an awareness that there are people who have less than you.
“He would always say that there are people who are starving [who would like] just to have a piece of what we had,” Brogdon said about his father. “I never understood until [my family and I] went to Africa and saw what he was talking about.”
Watching locals appear through the heavy red clouds of dirt as kids called out for each other, the sounds of hands slapping against passing vehicles—all of these sights and sounds were woven into the fabric of Brogdon’s trip to Ghana more than a decade ago. Around 10 years old, he and his family traveled to the African country on a three-week trip that would forever change his worldview and attitude towards his father’s dinner table rule. Brogdon’s parents knew a few professors and psychologists who led service and educational excursions annually to the region.
While there, he toured various villages throughout Accra, the capital of Ghana, and immediately saw striking contrasts in the economy, including the desperation for food and clean water.
“The main thing that struck me there was the poverty, and the difference in money that people had there versus [the U.S.],” Brogdon said. “What we call being poor over here is a different level over there.”
Suddenly his dad’s words didn’t seem so exaggerated. That sentiment was reinforced one afternoon as they sat on a bus awaiting transport to their quarters after a day in the village.
“[The trip organizers] were giving out boxed lunches [of chicken and rice] to all the people that were on the bus,” Brogdon said. “The people outside the bus could either smell the food or see us being handed food, and they started banging on the windows of the bus—just trying to see if we would give them our food.”
That’s when everyone on the bus agreed to do just that.
“I was a child and I was hungry, [but] until that time I didn’t realize that my hunger was nothing like what those people were experiencing,” he said. “So now when I eat food, I only order what I can eat. And if I can’t finish it then, I’m going to save it and I’m going to eat it the next day. I just don’t believe in throwing food away because there are people who really do need this.”
From his family dinners to his time in Ghana, the two experiences inspired Brogdon’s life decisions: his commitment to education, the focus of his studies, his dedication to basketball and the sacrifices he’s made for the community.
Another principle Brogdon learned from his father’s rule was finishing a task. That carried over to his education, as he wanted to prioritize his studies and finish with a college degree. The dedication to his schoolwork and 30 hours per week honing his basketball skills in high school paved the way for him to receive offers at prestigious schools, including Harvard.
That came as no surprise, as expectations were high in the household. Brogdon comes from a lineage of Masters’ degrees and law degrees, as well as Divinity and educational work. So from an early age it was required that “you always need to have A’s and B’s.”
“And if you wanted to go out, whether it’s basketball, soccer, football practice, after school, you always had to have B’s at the lowest,” he added. “My grandparents believed everything in life can come through having a good education. That traveled down to my mom. She always put the thought in mind for [my brothers and I] that, ‘You’re going to need an education after you play basketball. Education is what will take you to your next life. It’s something that is going to be timeless for you.'”
But Brogdon wasn’t so sure Harvard was for him. What the dinner rule also taught him was the need to figure out what’s right for you—whether it’s deciding how much food you can actually eat without wasting it, or what school best fits your interests and the plans you have for yourself. That being said, he accepted an offer from the University of Virginia.
“Being in the ACC and having that exposure mixed with the academics at UVA was huge for me and was the balance I needed,” he said.
Prior to enrolling, he had returned to Africa on a mission trip with his grandparents to Malawi. That further motivated his degree of choice.
“Seeing that poverty was the same type of poverty, it sort of reinforced everything since I was in Ghana,” he said. “So that from a young age was really what sparked that fire for me and made me want to get into public policy.”
While maintaining a busy lifestyle as a student-athlete, Brogdon successfully worked towards completing a master’s degree in the Accelerated Bachelor/MPP Program in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Spending five years on campus, his seriousness in both the classroom and on basketball court earned him the nickname “The President”—another reason because people thought he looked like Barack Obama.
“I had another chance to leave for the NBA a year early before my last year at UVA, and I decided not to in order to pursue my master’s degree,” he said. “That was important for me to do, and for me to pursue my dream at the end of the day, which is to help people in other countries to help alleviate poverty in those areas. So having a master’s degree was crucial.”
By the time Brogdon declared for last year’s NBA draft he felt he was seasoned and had matured in his game. Nonetheless, he was picked No. 36 in the second round by the Bucks. But hard work and consistency has defined his progress from overlooked prospect to Rookie of the Year candidate.
“I think my stats speak for themselves,” he said. “But I think more so, I’ve been able to be a big contributor on a playoff team.”
This season, Brogdon averaged 10.2 points, 4.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Arguably his best performance this season was on Dec. 31., when he made history by recording a 15-point, 12-assist and 10-rebound triple-double in a win over Chicago. He became just the third player in NBA history selected in the second round to have a triple-double during his rookie season. And he was the only rookie to do so this season, and after starting briefly through late January, he secured a full-time spot in the first unit in early March.
He’s been such a contributor to the Bucks this season that he was also the only second-round pick to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, where he represented the U.S. team. The game, which features first- and second-year players, gave him a chance to see what it may be like to one day be an All-Star. But the 24-year-old has bigger things on his mind besides earning that recognition.
“I think it’s a huge accomplishment, but I know how good I am,” he said. “I don’t need to go to the All-Star Game to solidify that in my head.”
As the postseason continues, Brogdon may have more accolades coming his way, including being named the top rookie. Even in his recognition as a candidate, he wanted to give back. Last week, he asked the Bucks to not campaign on his behalf, but rather put the money that would have been used towards a charity. That unprecedented move is what makes him such a unique player on and off the court.
He described what distinguishes himself from other players.
“Being able to finish college and do a full five years has allowed me to come into the NBA a man rather than a boy,” he said. “I know who I am. I know what I stand for. When I face adversity, I know how to respond and I’m not as shook as other guys may be because they’re younger and haven’t gone through the things I’ve gone through, and learned the things I’ve learned. I come in with a stronger foundation, character, resilience and confidence. Me knowing who I am simply gives me more confidence to be who I am and stay strong in any scenario that this life throws at me.”
Overall, Brogdon, a man of talent, confidence, faith and service, is defying second-round pick expectations. And as he stays focused on his goals, he constantly falls back on principles he learned from those early days at the dinner table. With those values, he remains humble and believes anything is possible.
“I’m never going to feel like I made it. Once you start feeling like you made it, you take your foot off the gas and you relax,” he said. “It would be a huge accomplishment to get a second contract. This is what I’ve been working for, for an entire lifetime.”
Brogdon also hopes to keep this momentum up so he can use his time in the NBA to build connections and obtain resources to eventually start a non-profit organization that reduces poverty in Third World countries.
“I will do a lot of research and look into where they need the most help in Africa,” he said. “If I was president for a day, I would put more money into the non-profit area and international fund area.”