‘I believe in us’ – On MLK Day, NBA players reflect on social justice and what comes next

Jrue Holiday was conflicted.

A member of the New Orleans Pelicans, he spent two weeks in Orlando, Florida, last summer considering his resignation from the NBA. At the height of the COWID-19 pandemic, Holiday’s wife, Lauren, was five months pregnant and felt uncomfortable leaving her family.

So she challenged him: Play and donate the rest of your 2019-20 paycheck to black businesses, associations and initiatives.

I felt like I needed a reason to go back and play …. and my wife just said so. Holiday said it hit her a little hard. We had other ideas in mind. Of course I couldn’t protest – my wife was pregnant, and in Los Angeles the pandemic had become one of the hardest places to live….

Giving my salary wasn’t even a question. It was something like this: Dude, that’s what I gotta do. As she told me, it felt good.

Holiday first launched the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Justice Impact Fund in July and, along with the Pelicans, used gambling checks – up to $5.3 million – to help communities in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

After being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in November, he stayed true to his promise and added Milwaukee to his list. This is a three-year commitment that will soon include new applications.

The Bucks were the first team out of the East, and all eyes were on them. I think this is a great opportunity to get the message out and share it with others, Holiday said.

The holiday mission comes at a time of social unrest in the United States. The league and its players used the bubble as a vehicle to get things moving, promote the Black Lives Matter movement and educate about social injustice. The Bucks themselves led a three-game playoff boycott after the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

While the Martin Luther King Jr. league. To celebrate the day, ESPN.com asked Holiday and a group of NBA players to share their thoughts on the past year – and what should happen next in the pursuit of social justice.

-Eric Woodyard

Nick Friedell, Dave McMenamin, Jorge Sedano, Eric Woodyard, Royce Young and ESPN’s Om Youngmisuk contributed to this story. Editor’s comment : These answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Landis/Photo Pole/Sports Monday

What do you remember most about the past year in terms of social justice?

Kent Bazemore, Warriors Ahead: How the world’s tides have changed. And now we have people who can really make a difference. It was cool to be a part of the Orlando bubble. So I think everyone who has been involved in this process should be very proud at this point.

Jae Crowder, Sunshine Forward: I think the conversations that take place in different families and areas appeal to me. These are just uncomfortable conversations we have as a nation. We as people in the United States had to face the situation and deal with it, and it was uncomfortable. It was hard on everyone, regardless of race.

Paul George, save it for the Clippers: It was a lot about social justice, inequality. You know, there have been a few instances and there have been a few instances that have occurred, but this has been highlighted. It was recorded. We’ve seen it. We’ve been seeing this for years. And I think what made him so great was that he started a conversation.

Why is it so hard for white people to talk about race? Just asking this question will provoke many people, but hopefully it will also make them look in the mirror.

Kevin Love

And I think we’ve seen so many races, so many nationalities fighting for what’s right. I think that’s when I saw the beauty. So many people from all walks of life fought for what was right – no matter the color of their skin, no matter their race, no matter their religion – they stood up for what was right.

I think that’s a good place to start. And I think it was an excellent introduction to the conversations we need to have and the actions we need to take. But he can’t help it. I think that’s a lot to take in, but the beauty of it is seeing everyone fighting together for equality and seeing everyone count and be as equal as their neighbor.

Devonte Graham, Hornets security: In 2020, as an African-American, as a black person around the world, we still faced a lot of things, just injustice. But I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes and brought a lot of people together, and I feel like we’re slowly moving in the right direction, but it opened a lot of people’s eyes to move forward and have [difficult] conversations.

Udonis Haslem, Heath Forward: For me, it’s clear that I’m getting out of my comfort zone and using my platform to really educate myself – learning more about what’s going on without thinking I know everything. I think when I look at the world going through a pandemic, a social injustice, I think we are survivors. And we can survive anything, and I think we will survive the future and things will get better. I believe in us. I think we are on the right track – not just politically, but in many ways.

Holidays: I’ll remember everything. I will remember the time I spent with my family and how I was able to support them while I was in the bubble. I remember the first time my wife told me we were going to have a son and I was in tears because right before that there was an incident with George Floyd and I thought Man, I’m bringing another black man into the world and I need to think about how I’m going to raise him in the police department. Again: I have police officers in my family and circle of friends, so I support them. But sometimes you get such bad eggs.

But I will also keep in mind that there are big changes coming. You can feel it. You know, different cultures support each other when every place has something like Chinatown or Greek Town or Little Italy or something. And I feel like more and more black people are supporting each other now…. That’s probably the most important thing, to see how the support has changed because of the tragic incident, but for black people to really support each other now is really great.

Enes Kanter, Trail Blazers Center: I am amazed at how radically our society has changed in a year. Most of us have radically changed our habits to comply with pandemic safety protocols. We have opened our eyes to these risks and adjusted our lifestyle accordingly. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement has been an awakening for social justice for all of us. The tragedies we have experienced with the deaths of George Floyd, Brenna Taylor, the murder of Jacob Blake and others have opened our eyes to the changes we need to make as a society. I hope we will continue to grow. Personally, I was very proud of my NBA colleagues for boycotting in the middle of this social justice movement and really using our platforms to bring attention to what matters most.

Kevin Love, Riders First: Much of what we learned in the 1960s still applies today. James Baldwin, I think I said it best: If you watch the television screen for a while, you’ll learn some really scary things about the meaning of American reality. We are really caught between what we would like to be and what we really are. And we can’t become what we want to become until we ask ourselves why the lives we lead on this continent are, for the most part, so empty, so tame, and so ugly.

It’s so deep that he said… and he said it in the early ’60s. This was before the deaths of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. You even had a president who was the head of the civil rights movement in [John F. Kennedy] and his brother, both of whom were assassinated. And then there was Vietnam. There was a lot to learn from those days, but we still fight a lot of those battles.

I think people’s opinions are constantly shaped by the media – for better or worse, in fact. And whether we want to admit it or not, there is a lot of misinformation out there and maybe this year will be a turning point where we can find the truth better. And I hope we make a big breakthrough this year.

Garrett Temple, bullshitter: I will remember that people have gained more allies in the struggle for social justice. Some people of the same race and some people of a different race, but I think more people have bought in – by actually doing things and looking for social justice instead of just talking about it.

Udonis Haslem, a 17-year veteran of the Heat, believes that every owner should use their platform for social change. If you really support and back your players, you have to speak up. Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

What do you hope to change in the future in the NBA’s approach to systemic racism?

Bazemore: I think it takes time. Of course, once you’ve identified the problem, it doesn’t mean that everything changes immediately, because now that the rules have changed and the world has changed, you’ll see who stands out and who doesn’t adapt to the new way of doing things. And in time, she’ll figure it out on her own. This is not the time to point fingers, because just as the world can change, so can people.

Crowder: The NBA has started the conversation, and this is the first step to change, just to address what is needed. Obviously, we need to keep this up. It’s easy to feel like everything is okay again. Many people admire our sport and our league, so continue to present and spread positivity and unity at every game.

Graham: It’s not just about the NBA. I wasn’t part of the bubble, but what they did, like put Black Lives Matter on the platform and the guys talking in the interviews and just using our platform that we have, obviously a lot of people are watching us. I think if the guys have their name changed on the back of the shirts and just do these little things, it will draw attention to them. I think the NBA is doing a great job – I’m really proud to be a part of it now.

Haslem: I think every owner should use their platform, not just the players, but all owners – don’t be silent and don’t let your players use their voices. Of course, people listen to the players because the kid at home wants to be a certain player, he’s on the field trying to be that player, training to be that player. He may not be used to being exactly that kind of owner, but owners have ears and owners have the confidence of many people to make many of the changes we hope to see. I think a lot of homeowners are saying it: We support our players, we support our players, but then we remain silent. If you really support and encourage your players, you have to talk about the things that happen. And be specific, not generic.

Holidays: I think one thing they’ve done so far – especially as a bubble – is to support us and be there, even with Black Lives Matter on the ground. If we kneel for the national anthem or even Jacob Blake [judicial decision] when we played Detroit [6th round pick]. Janvier] played, I think the support they provide is just great, whereas in other leagues you see them hitting back at the athletes. This league is very progressive. And even if they listen to us, I pray they continue to do so, because 90% of the league is black.

At full gallop: The attention we have received this year on racial injustice in society in general and in the NBA in particular is unprecedented. We need to hold on to this, we need to continue to focus on social injustice to ensure positive change. I would like to see more involvement in this process.

Love: I think I’m starting to better understand the benefits of black communities and how they can be strengthened.

As with mental illness, I always say it robs people of their human potential. I think it’s very similar. And that means better health care, economic opportunity and better education. And you can see it right away – high school before college, of course, with what LeBron is doing in Akron.

The NBA is back! See all the action from the 2020-21 season on ESPN, ABC and the ESPN application.

Friday, Jan. 22.
– Celtics at the Sixers, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
– Nuggets in the Sun, 10 p.m. on ESPN.

All Eastern times

And ask questions: What are the jobs in these regions? What are we really teaching our children about American history? I mean, we spend so much time on so many different topics and we just move on. I also know that there are many facets and levels – I don’t know who you buy books from or what drives the curriculum. Almost like right now the library is better than school because you can learn what you really need to know. They write exactly what they want in the textbooks.

It is the necessary dialogue and self-reflection that can really lead to change.

I learned that when I was 15 or 16. I was in Hampton, Virginia with my traveling basketball team and we were at the Boo Williams High School Tournament. And if you cross a certain line in this part of Virginia, it’s very white, very privileged and very racist.

We came in as a team and they had a hard time giving us a place. They didn’t want our team to leave. And that really got us talking. Many travel programs are blatantly discriminatory. This is the first time I have ever witnessed racism on this level. Many children even at this age understand – whether it’s working with the police, teachers or anything to do with the medical field, there is this distrust. This led to a truly amazing conversation. It was something I had never seen before, and it was actually something that changed my life – my team was not being served, and that was in the early 2000s.

Temple: I hope the union will do more in terms of concrete things that can affect the foundations of systemic racism. Like education, like the prison system, whether it’s more money in public education, money in public education in NBA cities, or turning away governors who invest in private prisons to become league governors who try to buy teams, these kinds of things are things that prevent or continue to encourage systemic racism.

Cavalry attacker Kevin Love believes the country can learn a lot from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but hopes we don’t look back and say: Oh, my God, look how far we’ve come… but not quite. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

What else can white players, coaches and front office members do for social justice?

Bazemore: Keep setting a good example. I was a teammate of Kyle Korver, who helped me a lot with a lot of things that the players’ union did. He ended his conversation with the Pope. Just recently, here in Sacramento, Kyle Guy has been vocal in this whole thing – so we have players from the league supporting us. And as the world sees them, people like to see them with us.

Crowder: I don’t know what else they can do. Through uncomfortable conversations, I think one thing has definitely opened my eyes. I’m not here to tell them what they can and can’t do, or what needs to be done next. I just feel like we are doing a good job of keeping the conversation going and fighting for change, not only for ourselves, but for our children and future generations. So I think you just have to have the conversation and talk about it further and treat people well.

Graham: Be with us. Personally, I feel the same way about my teammates, the coaching staff and the front office. As a team we had moments where we really wanted to run, and the coaches and everyone else went with us. When you are a black athlete and you feel like your teammates, your agency and everyone else is behind you and fighting for what you are fighting for, that bond gets stronger. So I feel like they can talk about it and tell us – it helps. Of course, because they don’t have to worry about being white, but just knowing that they’re with us [is important].

Haslem: Listen to us with an open mind and genuine compassion. Understand what we say and feel. Understand that it is not meant for them, that none of us think that all white people or people of any kind are bad. All we do is talk about our experiences and what happened to us.

When you are a black athlete and you feel like your teammates, your agency and everyone else is behind you and fighting for what you are fighting for, that bond gets stronger.

Devonte Graham.

Whether you want to call it PTSD, whether you want to call it the way we see the world now, or whether you want to call it during any of these different situations, it’s real to us. If what has happened lately shows you no difference in treatment, then you probably don’t want to help.

If you really want to help – by seeing the big picture, hearing everything, and dealing with it with an open mind – you help make things better for everyone, not just us. If you make it better for us, it’s better for everyone. We need real unity. It’s for blacks, for Hispanics, for many different races and colors.

Holidays: You can listen. Listen to us and let us tell you about our experiences. And talk too. Being able to talk to others who may not understand our position or the situations we are in. My wife is white. So when we had situations, she would talk to her family about what we were going through, like she and I. In fact, she watched it with me and then talked about it with her family and friends. I think that way you can find a common ground between people and that way they can understand the situation better.

At full gallop: I think we all need to listen better. We must listen to those who are victims of social injustice and listen to those who are oppressed. We really need to understand the challenges they face so that we can support them and help them find solutions. We need to help amplify black voices and show solidarity in every way we can.

Love: Why is it so hard for white people to talk about race? Just asking the question will challenge many people, but hopefully people will look in the mirror and show that they are responsible and willing to ask the right questions.

The beauty of the NBA is the diversity of our league. Diversity is an excellent teacher. And the NBA largely rests on the shoulders of black superstars and black culture. We need to master the skills of interracial communication and understanding.

It’s funny, I even came here this summer and this time to think, and I’ve always thought about things in terms of intentions. Like it was meant to be, or at least came from a good place…. But I had to take a step back and ask myself what the impact of my intention would be. As a result of my decisions? Because the intention may be there, but what about the other side?

For example, we live with the assumption that the treatment of blacks toward police officers must be deserved. But when you turn that feeling around, the pendulum swings the other way. What happened on Capitol Hill is a perfect example.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a visionary and a symbol of hope that transcended all horizons. How are we going to bottle this energy? How can we spread this energy? It’s a great feeling, but it’s also where the responsibility lies.

I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t claim to know or be part of this awakened culture. If you want people to wake up, seek the wisdom of people who lived in the 1960s. This is a time we can learn from, even now, and hopefully not look back and say: Oh, man, look how far we’ve come… but not quite.

Temple: First of all, you need to get an education. Learn more and find out what white privilege is. Then recognize that there is white privilege. And not just to have difficult conversations with their black interlocutors who will hopefully help them with their education, but also to have those conversations with their white friends and family – especially their children. Because ultimately it’s the kids who are going to make the difference who are now 4, 5 or 6 years old. So make sure they take those conversations they’ve had with their black friends to their white friends and family, and hopefully we can adopt it.

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