George Floyd’s murder last month at the hand of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin appears to have jolted much of America’s collective conscience from an apathetic slumber.
People of all ages, races and backgrounds have taken up their First Amendment rights of assembly to redress grievances—namely the extra-judicial killing of unarmed Black men by America’s oft-militarized police force.
This issue hits too close to home for many NBA and WNBA players and coaches, as they grew up, live and have family and friends from inner-city neighborhoods and black communities.
Both leagues actively joined the conversation and have begun positing solutions for change while continuing the fight for equality (that has been championed for over a century) to end systemic racism in America.
the 1960s ‘Civil Rights Era’
NBA greats Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (among many others) actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.
Russell, arguably tied with Wilt Chamberlain as the top star in the early 1960s, joined the fight for equal rights when NAACP civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered by Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith at the former’s Mississippi home June 12, 1963. His brother, Charles, answered Russell’s call when the star asked how he could help.
Charles told Russell to come to Mississippi to host the first integrated basketball camp in the state. Russell did just that, despite the KKK and De La Beckwith hounding him (Charles stood guard at Russell’s motel door with a rifle).
Two months later, Russel traveled to join Dr. Martin Luther King’s March On Washington. Dr. King wanted Russell to stand by him during his speech, but Russell wanted the spotlight to be on King’s altruistic message of equality and racial harmony, not on his celebrity.
”He invited me to be up here, and I respectfully declined because the organizers had worked for years to get this together, and I hadn’t done anything,” Russell said.
Russell became the first Black head coach in NBA history and of the four major American sports leagues (MLB, NFL and NHL), winning two titles as a player-coach from 1967-69.
Despite his success, many Boston fans conspicuously worshipped Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams and his one pennant, pushing Russell and his 11 championships to the background. Russell waited until 2013 for a statue, nine years after Williams was honored.
Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, was friends with famed boxer and fervent civil rights advocate Muhammad Ali. The 7’2” UCLA standout center decided to join the civil rights cause by boycotting the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Abdul-Jabbar’s boycott stemmed from King’s assassination, studying Malcolm X’s autobiography and remembering how he felt when his high school coach Jack Donahue called him the n-word. He also didn’t like how the International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage prevented two Jewish runners from competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to preserve Adolf Hitler’s Aryan Superiority myth.
Abdul-Jabbar mentioned how Brundage’s construction firm bid for German contracts:
“America was angry at me for not showing gratitude to the country that had given me so many opportunities,” he told NBCSports.com.
“I was grateful, but I also thought it disingenuous to show appreciation unless all people had the same opportunities. Just because I had made it to a lifeboat didn’t mean I could forget those who hadn’t. Or not try to keep the next ship from sinking.”
Land of Equal Opportunity?
A pair of 1990s NBA players stood up for their beliefs, even when it effectively cost them their careers and millions of dollars to do so.
Craig Hodges was a three-time NBA three-point champion who played for the dynastic Chicago Bulls during the first two seasons of their first three-peat.
The shooting guard visited George H.W. Bush’s White House in 1992 and gave his press secretary a letter asking the president to do a better job in helping the Black community with social and economic opportunities, pointing to how the country needed to do better following the Los Angeles Riots that spring.
Hodges wasn’t re-signed by the Bulls and never played on the NBA hardwood again because of his advocacy.
Fellow 90s guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was an up-and-coming player with the Denver Nuggets. A devout Muslim, he didn’t stand for the National Anthem during the 1995-96 season.
“You can’t be for God and oppression, “he told The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game, and he reached a compromise where he would stand and cover his face in prayer during the anthem. When his contract expired in 1998, he wasn’t signed for two years and only played in a limited role for the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000-01.
His Mississippi home was burned down while it was vacant and on sale in 2001.
NBA Players weren’t as publicly involved (in using their NBA platform) for social issues again until 2012, but seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman quickly changed that.
Zimmerman pursued the 17-year-old student who was unarmed and walking home. Zimmerman shot Martin, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute because he looked suspicious wearing a hoodie.
The Miami Heat as a team decided to pose in hoodies with their heads down.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 23, 2012
In 2014, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist remarks about Black people to his girlfriend who caught that on tape.
The Clippers wore their warm-ups inside out during practice to obscure the team’s logo, and the Golden State Warriors almost forfeited a playoff game against the Clippers in protest. Other playoff teams like the Heat, Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets wore black socks and left their warm-up suits at center court in solidarity.
Both James and the late Kobe Bryant commented on Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson, with Bryant pointing to legislative change in a Los Angeles Daily News interview.
“You can sit here and argue about it until we’re blue in the face and protest about it,” Bryant told LADN’s Mark Medina. “Until the legal system, we have a serious legal system conversation, it’s going to keep on happening.”
Eric Garner’s death at the hands New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo again mobilized NBA players following Pantaleo’s acquittal.
Stars such as Bryant, James and Derrick Rose, along with numerous NBA players, wore black “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warm-ups, echoing the disturbing words Garner desperately gasped while in a strangling chokehold.
“It’s become a thing where people standing up for their rights, they’re really questioning the justice system, they’re questioning the process of the legal system and those who have authority and whether or not they’re abusing authority, and what’s the threshold to use that force, and so forth and so on,” Bryant told ESPN’s J.J. Adande.
“But that’s what our nation was founded on. We have the ability to question these things and in a peaceful fashion. And that’s what makes us a great country.”
Carmelo Anthony marched in his hometown of Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death, and Dwight Howard visited families of the historical Charleston, South Carolina African-American Church where white supremacist Dylan Roof gunned down nine members in cold blood.
WNBA Takes a Stand
WNBA players have actively supported social justice, even if when means risking a potential loss of earnings.
Because WNBA players earn significantly less money, endorsements and media attention than their NBA counterparts, political stands are proportionately riskier from an economic standpoint.
The WNBA fined The Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury franchises each and their players for wearing black warm-up shirts in response to 2016 shootings by and against police officers (Philando Castile and Charles Kinsey, along with the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings).
By contrast, NBA players weren’t fined for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts 18 months earlier.
“What’s most upsetting is the way it was handled,” Indiana Fever player rep Briann January told ESPN.com. “You have a league that is 90—if not above 90—percent African-American and you have an issue that is directly affecting them and the people they know, and you have a league that isn’t willing to side with them.
“It’s not a race issue, not an anti-police issue, not a black or white issue. It’s a right or wrong issue.”
WNBA legend Maya Moore walked away during the prime of her career last year to focus on family, ministry and advocating for criminal justice reform. The four-time champion and multiple award-winner helped overturn Missouri resident Jonathan Irons’ wrongful conviction and will miss the 2020 season as well.
— Amanpour and Company (@AmanpourCoPBS) October 25, 2019
Moore’s activism, coupled with George Floyd’s murder, inspired the Atlanta Dream’s Renee Montgomery to follow in her footsteps by sitting out this next season to help build communities.
“All it takes is a single moment, a single choice to create momentum,” Montgomery told The Players’ Tribune.
“All you need is a second to change everything. And suddenly, I just find myself standing in this moment…
My heart is just telling me that I have a different mission right now that I have to see through, wherever that leads me.”
George Floyd’s murder continues to spur a fiery passion for justice that both current and former NBA and WNBA players, along with coaches and front office personnel, continue to champion.
Players are actively going out in their communities peacefully protesting the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others at the hand of overaggressive policing and/or white supremacists.
The WNBA plans on organizing additional means between the league, teams and players to protest police brutality and racial inequality this upcoming season.
“We are leading and they are following based on how we want the season to be in terms of how we express ourselves with Black Lives Matter and social injustice,” WNBA Players Union President Nneka Ogwumike told USA Today’s Mark Medina.
Retired NBA player Stephen Jackson is a childhood friend of Floyd’s. He and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl Anthony-Towns protested on May 29 in Minneapolis.
“I’m here because they’re not gonna demean the character of George Floyd.”
Powerful words from Stephen Jackson
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 29, 2020
Young players such as Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown joined tens of thousands of protesters in the Atlanta streets on May 31 to make his voice heard.
“Being a celebrity, being an NBA player, don’t exclude me from no conversations at all,” Brown told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman.
“First and foremost, I’m a Black man and I’m a member of this community. … We’re raising awareness for some of the injustices that we’ve been seeing. It’s not OK.”
Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon spoke at that same protest about how he feels an obligation to be as active as his grandfather, who marched with Dr. King in the 1960s.
Shortly after the Atlanta protest, an unarmed Rayshard Brooks was gunned down by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe on June 12.
Clearly, the need for demanding societal, governmental and systemic change must continue all the more. NBA and WNBA players, coaches and front offices must continue to join speaking out against police brutality in order to create a more equitable and just society.
They are already pledging time and money to various causes that directly help local communities through education and improving police/community relations. Players also are pushing for fans to register to vote in the upcoming election, supporting candidates who will enact police reform at local, state and federal levels.
America is a work in progress and much progress must be made right now. Teamwork is needed to effectively address these ills and build a place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are legitimately, not just theoretically, available to all.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.