For more than 20 years I’ve gone to work with some of the most talented people on the planet.
I cover the NBA, a league where roughly 75 per cent of the players are African American. It is the most exclusive club in sports. Only 450 players are allowed a full roster spot at any given time. In my experiences, the players and coaches and executives I’ve met have been extraordinary. I learn from them and their stories and their examples all the time. I tell my kids about them.
I’m well beyond hero worship, but I know a good person when I meet one. Standing in the middle of the Toronto Raptors‘ circular dressing room — back when you could — I could turn in any direction and see a person worthy of admiration. The adaptability of Serge Ibaka, making his way from the streets of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo to the peak of his sport; the sageness of Fred VanVleet, wise beyond his 26 years; Pascal Siakam’s deep well of self-belief and Norman Powell’s tireless commitment to the long arc of improvement; Kyle Lowry‘s all-knowingness and almost unrivalled IQ — both on the floor and off.
The league, in turn, is covered by some of the most passionate and gifted journalists in any field, many of whom are African American or African Canadian or generally from backgrounds and genders other than mine: first-generation Canadian, Irish and pasty.
I watch them work, read what they write, listen to what they say and feel intimidated at times — the standard is that high. But I always feel honoured to count myself among their peers, a colleague and in many cases, a friend.
The entire experience has been and continues to be a privilege.
But watching how various players and journalists I’ve dealt with have responded to the recent developments in Minneapolis and other examples where unarmed black men — and in some cases women — have been killed for the crime of bad luck, for being the object of the wrong kind of attention from police or others who seem to see skin colour as a threat?
That’s been an education.
Not to sell myself short. It would be difficult — if not impossible — to work where I work and try to tell the stories I try to tell without having at least a passing understanding of the historical dynamics of race in the United States and North America as a whole. I’m a citizen. I read and I care.
But I’ve always liked to believe things will get better, that actions speak louder than words, and maybe I have comforted myself by believing the bubble I’ve been so lucky to live and work in — where merit matters most and where people from all backgrounds function and thrive working together — is more than simply an oasis in a sea of sludge that is resistant to being cleaned up.
Maybe I’m wrong though. Or — at the very least — I should make clear where I stand and who I stand with.
Because every once in a while, there are moments where I am starkly reminded that my experiences aren’t the same as those of my peers and my colleagues and my friends who aren’t like me, and life outside the bubble can be a terrifying mess.
Watching an eight-minute video of George Floyd die on the street in Minneapolis while lying on his stomach, handcuffed with the weight of a police officer’s knee pressing down on his neck, ignoring his cries for breath and for his mother is one of them. Watching protesters fight for justice is another. And listening to VanVleet, whose father died to drug-related violence and whose stepfather was a police detective, advocate for them is one more.
Social media posts is cool to voice your opinion but the real work is still and always will be in the streets! Stand on it
— Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) May 28, 2020
It’s a reminder to speak up about what’s right, because apparently it’s not obvious enough to everyone, though former Raptor-turned ESPN personality Jalen Rose put it much better than I ever could:
“This is not going to change from just us,” Rose said during an appearance on Get Up, as he pointed out that being a fan of the NBA or a beneficiary of Black culture should come with some responsibilities. “We need people who aren’t black, who aren’t brown — when you know these things are happening in our society [we need you to have a voice], a legitimate one. Lock and step with us. Protest with us. Post with us. Not just when it is convenient [but] when it can be uncomfortable.”
In October of 2016, when then NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was making news by taking a knee during the US anthem to protest police brutality, various Raptors players were asked about it.
It was eye-opening, if not completely shocking, and a reminder — the NBA is a small sliver of the Black experience in North America.
“I had a close friend of mine a couple of weeks ago who was murdered by the police, shot 17 times,” then Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said.
Lowry said: “Me having two younger Black kids, making sure people are aware that me growing up, definitely getting pulled over was a scary thing, and definitely was a nervous thing.”
It was also a reminder that I’ve never had a moment to be nervous about the police. That I’ve never sent my teenaged son into the world and worried that he could be a victim of a tragic misunderstanding, or worse. I’ve never had to wonder if my skin colour or ethnicity or gender was an obstacle to me reaching my potential.
No one should have those fears or concerns. Not today, not ever. I believe we should all act, think, and vote in ways that reflect those fundamental values. I’ve never felt the need to write that before because it’s always seemed so self-evident. So clear.
It’s not. I’ve known Marc Spears – the big man who writes with the vision of a point guard for ESPN’s The Undefeated – for nearly two decades. We’ve talked about all kinds of things, but today our conversation was different.
He has a Master’s degree from Louisiana State University. But the reason he has an LSU alumni license plate cover — in part — is in hope that in those nervous moments when a police cruiser is behind him, they’ll give him an extra bit of consideration. He’s never been arrested, but just the simple act of getting in his car and driving makes him anxious.
“The conversations people are having today about police brutality and racial injustice, Black people have every day,” he said. “ …for my people it’s been part of our reality for us as long as we and our ancestors can remember.”
The trick for me and many like me will be to remember these moments after this storm passes and not forget that steps need to be taken to solve the problems that give rise to them.
And in the circles where I work and move, the justification for it (apart from the big one, the ‘We’re all created equal’ one) is that it would be criminal not to. That the world is so much better if we do. That there are so many people with so much to offer from so many different backgrounds that any outlook, or system, or structure that actively or passively holds any of them back robs us all.
Those are the things that are at stake. #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd is a hashtag for everyone.