TORONTO — Fred VanVleet has a few important phone calls to make.
Currently in Naples, Fla., with the rest of the Toronto Raptors preparing to enter the NBA campus in Walt Disney World and the resumption of the 2019-20 season, VanVleet has a lot on his mind.
First and foremost, his two young children.
“I’ve been gone a week and I miss my kids already,” the Raptors guard said on a conference call Monday.
But being with his children won’t be the only thing VanVleet will be missing out on and thinking about every day since he made the decision to enter the NBA bubble and play.
Another important matter he won’t be able to be part of as much as he’d like is the ongoing fight for racial justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
VanVleet understands full well the importance and significance of this time in history, but still weighed the pros and cons of the situation and ultimately decided playing was the right choice, no matter how heavily that decision weighed on his conscious.
“It sucks. It sucks, man. It’s terrible timing. But that’s been 2020 for us. We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand,” VanVleet said. “Morally, yes, that makes sense, but life goes on. We’re all young, Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways.
“This is not going to end this summer, regardless, or over the next couple of months. This issue, racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality, all these things are not ending any time soon. Our fight was long-term. That was part of my decision. But if the league or more of my guys would have come together and said we didn’t want to play, I would have sat out as well. I wouldn’t have even fought it. I think most of us decided to play. It’s something we’ll have to live with. I trust that my heart’s in the right place and I’m doing enough to make change.”
An honest answer from VanVleet on the to-play-or-not-to-play debate surrounding the ongoing conversation about racial equality, and one that certainly shows he has his heart in the right place in regards to this matter.
At the very least, he’s been trusted by many of his NBA player peers regarding his opinion on what they should do during these times.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri also took part in Monday’s conference call and spoke about what the Raptors were planning to do in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for social justice, specifically naming his team’s starting backcourt as leaders among the Players’ Association and the team on the matter.
“First of all, this is a really interesting time and Black lives do matter and we’re really going to use this platform, I think,” said Ujiri. “I think we’re concentrating on a few things. What does the NBA do long-term, in terms of, what resources are they going to put into this? I think there’s the discussion of Black executives and Black positions in the NBA. And then there’s a discussion of how you use the campus at Orlando. To really show the world that we can be a voice. So that’s on the NBA level, and I try to be as involved in that as much as we can.
“Our players have been involved with that — Kyle [Lowry], Fred. These guys have very much been involved with that with the Players’ Association. Then on a team level, we’ve had our discussions, whether it’s us as the front office. We’ve had our discussions. [Raptors head coach] Nick [Nurse] has done an incredible job, honestly with this and he’s relating to the coaches and the Coaches’ Association and giving us as much information as we can. Then our players — I think they put it well when they said we were going to do this in a couple of ways.”
One way the players involved in the bubble are planning to get their message across will reportedly be with statements on social justice on the back of their jerseys instead of their names.
Ujiri said he doesn’t know yet what messages the Raptors players will come up with, but is confident his guys will each figure out something meaningful and impactful.
“Our guys will have great ideas and we’ll come up with something,” said Ujiri. “There’s a time to shine, there’s time to show the world that Black lives do matter [and] there are tough conversations to be had. I know they’ll be engaged in some of these conversations while on the campus. We’re excited. We’ll see what they come up with.”
And this is part of why VanVleet has some important phone calls to make. There’s so much he could potentially point to, but figuring out what, specifically, is most important to him will require some expert advice.
“I’ve thought about it. I think it’s cool, I think it’s something else,” VanVleet said in regards to the message on the back of his jersey. “Something that we’ve talked about in some of our meetings is how do we get some of our ‘propaganda’ — so to call it — to pop out because the only way this is being consumed is on TV. So I think that’s going to go a long way and it’s something that will last for years to come. People will always look back on these games and the first thing they’ll see is whether there’s a fist on the court or a name and they’ll have to look and say, ‘What is that?’ or ‘Who is Breonna Taylor?’ or ‘Who is George Floyd?’ if that’s what guys choose.
“Me personally, I haven’t picked what I’ve wanted to put on the back yet. There are a couple of important people that I need to call to do some research because I wish I could put everybody’s name ever on the jersey, but there’s not enough room, unfortunately. So I’m gonna have to do some research and call a couple people who I respect and try to come up with something that’s meaningful and that lasts.”
Specifically, VanVleet said he’ll be looking to consult his financial advisor, his step-dad and his high school coach, Bryan Ott, who VanVleet said has a Masters in African-American studies and is someone whose perspective VanVleet respects and values as “an older white guy” with that kind of educational background to his name.
The simple fact VanVleet is looking for outside counsel on what is a small, but still very important decision is solid evidence of just how serious he’s taking his role as someone with an elevated platform to help better champion the cause.
It’s also probably why his voice has carried weight as a leader.
“I can’t tell you exactly what [the message] is, but the sentiment for us is to organize what we have here, as a team, as a unit, as brothers that come together,” VanVleet said. “If we’re going to be put on display as a unit, we’re gonna have to organize and come up with some key points and calls to action of what we believe in. Overall, it’s just making sure it’s not forgotten. It’s not swept under the rug. We know basketball is a distraction, naturally. That’s just what it is. Going forward, how do we make sure we’re still being responsible and taking care of our responsibilities?
“Long story short, it’s just pushing the organization to do more, pushing ourselves to do more, pushing our communities to do more. We all have a lot of resources. We all have huge platforms. Just coming together and figuring out how we can put those things together.
“…It’s on our mind every day. We’re doing work behind the scenes, not just for now because it’s cool on social media to post ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but something that’s gonna last for years and years to come, for something that’s gonna make real change.”
Regardless what side you fell on in the debate over whether NBA players should return to play during this time, the fact is they are playing, and guys like VanVleet have accepted this and will now do all they can to help the cause, even while inside a bubble.
They’re going to do everything they can to make sure that just because they’re dribbling again, they won’t be shut up, either.