Toronto – If sports is supposed to be respite for a world seemingly getting weirder and more disconcerting by the day, it will have to happen another day. Another week maybe.
Or possibly not at all.
Canada has its issues – regardless of how tempting it is to feel that smug sense of superiority whenever U.S. President Donald Trump starts tweeting or gets all revved up speaking to a base of supporters deep in Alabama.
As Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said on the most unusual season-opening media day in the franchise’s 22-year history, “I think Canada is a blessing … A blessing.”
“We’ve always said, there’s something about this place,” he said. “There’s something about this country that’s special.”
But the world doesn’t stop at the border.
The Raptors are a team staffed primarily by African-Americans who spent the weekend, like so many others from all walks of life, trying absorb what the U.S. president truly meant when he referred to NFL players protesting racism and police violence by dropping to one knee during the US national anthem as “sons of bitches” and encouraging NFL owners to have them to be fired or suspended; or rescinding the offer to the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House.
And doing most of it on Twitter.
The working class was getting too uppity, seemed to be at the the president’s logic, although he wrapped it in concerns about respecting the flag – the refined sugar version of patriotism.
The Raptors, even a border removed, saw right through it after a weekend of activism and protest unlike the NFL has ever seen, an urge that seems to be spreading to other sports.
“He’s got to look in the mirror after making all these statement, saying all these crazy things about guys who are trying to do the right things, stand up for what’s right,” said DeMar DeRozan. “I feel no player is trying to disrespect nobody, no flag or anything like that, but we seem to be the ones who get the disrespect from our so-called leader, and it sucks when we see that. Especially when you’ve got kids that you want to raise in a country that’s supposed to be the greatest country in the world. But you’ve got your president on Twitter more than a 12-year-old saying the most outrageous things for people who are trying to do something right. And it’s crazy.”
It is crazy.
So crazy a day typically devoted exclusively to questions about who might take over the not-so-dearly departed DeMarre Carroll’s minutes at small forward (the Norm Powell vs. C.J. Miles debate) or how much of a culture reset a team that is returning all-stars Kyle Lowry and DeRozan for their sixth season can really have or whether the Raptors 905 gang is ready for prime minutes with the big club’s second unit took on an entire different hue.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey found himself reliving memories of growing up in heavily segregated Morganfield, Ky., where there were different water fountains for blacks and where his family could only be served out of the backdoor of restaurants. He remembered being bussed from the “black school” – Morganfield Dunbar — to the newly integrated Morganfield Elementary for fourth grade.
It did not all go smoothly.
“There were parents out front shouting, ‘We don’t want you here.’ There were fights. But that calmed down after a few days after they saw we were human.
“[But] there were fist fights. There were words that were called.”
Casey believes in sports as a force that brings people together. He’s lived it. The little boys who fought him and called him names became teammates and eventually friends, and remain so today.
Trump using sports as a wedge issue? That seemed to bother Casey more than anything. The idea of civilized society giving back the gains of the past 40 or 50 years is abhorrent.
Not that you had to grow up in rural Kentucky to feel what the sting of racial inequality. DeRozan had occasion to relive having a police officer draw guns on him and his friends at age 12 while growing up in Compton, Calif. For Lowry, growing up in North Philadelphia, it was age 13.
And now here they are, fathers, fabulously wealthy and among the best on earth at their chosen trade and yet the experience of being followed by a police cruiser still gets their pulse racing.
“When cops get behind you, you know they’re running your tag,” said Lowry. “They may not be — I may be being paranoid — but I think they’re running my tag and I slow down. That’s how I’ve been programmed.
“It’s happened to me before [getting pulled over]. ‘Who’s car is this?’ I’ve been asked that enough … ‘Who’s car is this?’ It’s mine, knowing that what you really want to say is ‘FU. This is my s—. I’ve paid for it. I’ve earned this.’ But you can’t because it might not me the right thing to say. You don’t know how that cop’s day is going.
“There are not all bad cops out there, but you have to be careful.”
“Here [in Toronto]? It’s a little bit different being pulled over here. Here it’s, ‘Hey Kyle.’”
But even though the Raptors are a country removed from the madness, able to tune it out if they ever wanted to, it was clear on Monday as the team met the media at BioSteel Centre before their training camp begins in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, that they don’t want to tune it out.
Who knows what Trump was trying to do or gain by poking at the NFL and the small subset of players who have followed now (seemingly) exiled former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lead in kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner. But there’s no doubt he’s lit a fire.
The language – being called SOBs in front of a largely white crowd in the deep south – hurt them. That their president was threatening their constitutional rights bewildered them and his decision to take the fight to the NBA by calling out the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry emboldened them.
Shut up and play? Not likely.
“We all are on the same page,” said Lowry. “We all want social injustice to be corrected. We want everyone to understand that. We aren’t just athletes. I’m a man at the end of the day. I did go to college. I did do this. I read. I can read, write. I think everyone in this league, in both leagues, and as athletes can do that.
“People say, ‘Stay in your lane,’ but our lane as human beings is to be human beings, is to be citizens of this great earth, the great United States. Personally, I know we’re in Canada, but I think as athletes, we are citizens first. We are human beings first. We are fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, we are everything and I think that’s our right to show that we are who we are. “
What form that may take has yet to be determined. The opening of the NBA season is still a month away, but there seems to be momentum building towards doing something that matters. The Raptors who spoke on the issue collectively gave the impression that they feel like a gauntlet has been thrown, their president has challenged their right to be heard and they will respond by exercising their right.
They’ll be supported.
“I’m 110 per cent behind our players,” said Ujiri. “I can guarantee one thing: Nobody’s getting fired here. They have a platform. There’s nobody getting fired here. You can quote me. You can write that one. My views are my views and I support all the players and what they said.
“We have players that are Americans and we have to support them 100 percent.”
So no White House visit for the Raptors?
“When we win a championship we’ll deal with that issue, you know?” said Ujiri. “We’ll deal with that issue. We’ll talk to, I think we’d get to go to two White Houses, right?
“If we win a championship, hopefully, one day. I think we’ll be fine with [visiting Justin] Trudeau.”