USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the demand from NBA players after boycotting playoff games.
On the same day in May, two events crystallized racial injustice in America.
George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer when he held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes; and Amy Cooper, a white woman, called 911 after a Black man asked her to leash her pet.
The United States, already in the throes of the coronavirus health pandemic, was finally and jarringly awakened to a social justice pandemic that had roiled for hundreds of years
Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce decided to take action. He spoke with Black NBA assistant coaches who had “a lot of concerns about how everybody was feeling that week,” Pierce told USA TODAY Sports.
“It was an emotional exchange. I’ve spoken with David Vanterpool, Jamahl Mosley, J.B. Bickerstaff, David Fizdale, John Bryant. It’s a crew of us that speak to each other pretty regularly and what I gauged was that a lot of guys who wanted to say something and wanted to express some anger were frustrated and trapped in not knowing how to express it from an assistant coach’s position.”
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Out of that desire to make sure assistant coaches had their voices heard on race and racial injustice, something larger sprouted: Coaches for Racial Justice, an initiative that’s associated with the National Basketball Coaches Association.
Pierce moved quickly. He called Rick Carlisle, NBCA president, and David Fogel, the NBCA executive director. They were on board. Then, Pierce called Nate McMillan, Mike Brown, Fizdale, Bickerstaff – all Black coaches – and then Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr.
“I worked with both of those guys with Team USA,” Pierce said. “We’ve had some dialogue on this in the past. They’re two of three or four of the most outspoken in our group on this issue, racial justice. They were completely supportive.”
Soon, all 30 head coaches had been contacted. “The next day we had a meeting that was powerful,” Pierce said of coaches sharing experiences and ideas.
The initiative has taken off.
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“It was frustration, anger and motivation. That’s where we were,” Bickerstaff said. “There was a bunch of people who were frustrated that we were revisiting the same thing over and over and over again. There was frustration from people who felt we couldn’t do anything that sustained interest in the problem. Then there was motivation from the same people to get together and do something about it.
“Instead of just issuing a statement, what’s our action plan? That (was) what was most impressive – people were willing to act and build programs that are sustainable to address the issues we felt needed to be addressed.”
Pierce is the committee chairman, joined by Fizdale, Popovich, Kerr, Brett Brown, Quin Snyder and Stan Van Gundy. The group is “focusing on truth-telling and education, raising awareness of and teaching the history of racial injustice, impacting non-partisan policy reform, and working with local grassroots organizations to create change in every NBA market,” according to a mission statement.
Education and action
The coaches formed partnerships with high-profile organizations, created a PSA and will have a social media platform. They are wearing Coaches for Racial Justice pins on their shirts while working inside the NBA bubble. —
The Obama Foundation, Mothers Against Police Brutality and the Equal Justice Initiative founded by Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” the book that was turned into a recent movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, have pledged to partner with and assist Coaches for Racial Justice. The coaches also plan to work locally with police and community groups.
“I was very encouraged not only by the humility the coaches showed in wanting to learn but also their resolve,” Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, told USA TODAY Sports.
“I’m pushing people to really confront this history of racial injustice. I don’t think we’re free in America. I think we have inherited a serious problem that requires a very focused and serious response, and we’ve been advocating at EJI for an era of truth and justice. We’ve built this museum and built this memorial, and all the coaches, Lloyd in particular, have been incredibly responsive to that call.”
Pierce wanted and needed the other coaches to hear him.
“When I say me, I’m speaking on behalf of a lot of African-American men that all the coaches know, and I wanted to speak directly from that perspective and how I felt – the anger and emotion but also the vulnerability and to express this isn’t a new feeling,” Pierce said.
“As a Black man, you grow up knowing how to survive and how to live despite racism and despite the insecurity of when you see a police officer or when you see a person clutch their purse. You just know those things. I wanted to express why everyone is feeling that way now and wanting to share it now.”
Then, Pierce sought results, through education and action.
“We threw out many ideas of what we can do but it really comes back to what are we best at. We’re best at bringing people together and building trust mainly through sport … Let’s have a discussion with people who run our businesses that we interact with every day, people we knew in the white community and try and grow that knowledge and understanding of how a lot of African-Americans feel.”
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Pierce drove from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama, to meet with Stevenson, who has joined video conferences with the coaches. Stevenson has a connection with the NBA and has screened “Just Mercy” for several teams, including the Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers. He also hosted screenings for Kobe Bryant just a month before the former NBA star died in a helicopter crash in January.
Stevenson’s book about his life and his legal defense of those caught in an unequal justice system was published in 2014. He founded the EJI “to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S., challenge racial and economic injustice and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in America.”
He made a lasting impression with the coaches quickly.
“The struggles that he’s gone through to get Supreme Court decisions overturned, get people off death row, amazing stuff that takes so much patience, so much wherewithal and so much inner fortitude,” Carlisle said.
Each day while on the NBA campus near Orlando, Florida, Carlisle opens his news conference by reading an entry from the EJI calendar.
“On July 16th, 1944, a woman named Irene Morgan, a Black woman, is arrested in Virginia for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on an interstate Greyhound bus,” Carlisle said. “Now, this is was almost 12 years before Rosa Parks. This did go to the courts, I believe it went to the Supreme Court. They ruled it was unconstitutional but the law enforcement people in the South just refused to uphold the ruling of the Supreme Court. Another blatant example.”
It is a way not only to remember what happened but force people to think about despicable acts and push for change.
Stevenson helped write the script for the TV spot and will assist with messaging. His effort with the coaches begins with two facets: learning and talking.
“We all have to educate ourselves about this history so we can understand the nature of the problem,” Stevenson said. “With COVID, we have our best scientists and epidemiologists and researchers trying to understand the nature of this illness so we can come up with an effective treatment and cure. We’ve never really investigated the harm and character of racial oppression, inequality and hierarchy, and that has to be addressed.”
More than just a moment
Coaches have embraced learning and getting the message out in different ways.
“The education that I’ve been able to receive on a number of issues is humbling in many ways,” said Snyder, the head coach of the Jazz who took his children to a Juneteenth event. “It’s also inspiring. … There is a real point of emphasis to gather information and be thoughtful. So when we do decide there are things we want to be able to impact and act on, there is clarity on what those things are.”
Popovich, who coaches the Spurs, and Clippers coach Doc Rivers have encouraged voting with Popovich wearing a T-shirt that reads “Vote Your Life Depends on It” and Rivers wearing a hat that reads “Vote.” Houston’s Mike D’Antoni wore a “Vote by Mail” T-shirt to a news conference, and Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins wore an “End Mass Incarceration” T-shirt.
Though Golden State isn’t in the bubble, Kerr is vocal, and Van Gundy, Brett Brown and McMillan, who aren’t coaching in the NBA right now, all have demanded change.
“I appreciate the buy-in of people who don’t look like me and their commitment to do whatever it takes to help resolve these issues,” Bickerstaff said. “Before this happened, we’ve had plenty of coaches who have been vocal about what’s right.”
While some coaches have been more vocal, more and more are speaking out now because they want to and have to, and Stevenson said their platform can spread the word.
“That encourages me because that tells me they’re going to have to push this conversation,” Stevenson said. “People in America are not comfortable having conversations about race. We’ve tried to hide from it. We’ve practiced silence for a long time. Now, we have to learn to practice truth telling.”
It’s the early days of the initiative but the group wants to focus now on education, voting and police reform. They use Zoom to talk and generate ideas.
“We’ve heard emotional stories and have seen the pain in other coaches’ faces,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s powerful to get 30 of the greatest leaders in sports on one call with the energy focused on one goal, the ideas that you hear, the creativity, the intelligence, the passion.”
Bickerstaff didn’t want this to be just another moment in a news cycle that drifted to the next thing.
“I’ve been encouraged and inspired that there’s more people that this matters to now that there has been in the past,” he said. “In the past, it was easy to be neutral. Now, you can’t be neutral. You’re either racist or anti-racist. There is no neutral anymore, and more people are picking the side of right. I believe the majority of people believe in the right thing.”
Each coach is working with a group in his community.
Carlisle, who coaches the Mavericks, learned about Mothers Against Police Brutality from Van Gundy. It’s a Dallas-based organization founded by Collette Flanagan, whose unarmed son, Clinton Allen, was shot to death by a Dallas police officer in 2013. Carlisle is working with MAPB to make change locally and has met with the mayor, city council members and the chief of police. Carlisle and MAPB are working with 8 Can’t Wait, a group that urges police reform through eight restrictive use of force policies.
“The work goes on,” Carlisle said. “I don’t see when it’s ever going to stop.”