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‘I believe in us’ – On MLK Day, NBA players reflect on social justice and what comes next


Jrue Holiday was conflicted.

Then a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, he mulled for two weeks last summer whether to commit to the NBA’s restart in Orlando, Florida. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holiday’s wife, Lauren, was five months pregnant and could sense his discomfort over leaving the family.

So she challenged him: Play, and donate the remainder of his 2019-20 salary to Black-owned businesses, non-profit organizations and initiatives.

“I felt like I kind of needed a reason to go back and play — and my wife just said it. It kind of just hit her,” Holiday said. “There were other ideas we were thinking about. Obviously, I couldn’t go protest — my wife was pregnant and in L.A., the pandemic [made it] one of the hardest-hitting places …

“[Donating my salary] wasn’t even like a question. It was kind of like, ‘Man, that’s what I’m supposed to do.’ Right when she told me, it just felt like it was right.”

Holiday initially launched the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Justice Impact Fund in July while with the Pelicans, using game checks — worth up to $5.3 million — to aid communities in New Orleans, Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

After being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in November, he remained committed to the pledge and added Milwaukee to the list. It’s a three-year commitment that will soon take on new applications.

“[The Bucks have] been the No. 1 team in the East and all eyes have been on them. I feel like this is kind of the perfect opportunity to spread the message and to be able to share it with other people,” Holiday said.

The Holidays’ mission comes at a time of social unrest in the United States. The league and its players used the bubble as a vehicle to drive change, promoting the Black Lives Matter movement and driving awareness of social injustice. The Bucks themselves led a boycott of three playoff games in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

As the league celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ESPN.com interviewed Holiday and a group of NBA players for their reflections from the past year — and what should come next in the pursuit of social justice.

— Eric Woodyard

ESPN’s Nick Friedell, Dave McMenamin, Jorge Sedano, Eric Woodyard, Royce Young and Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story. Editor’s note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

With regard to social justice, what will you remember most from the past year?

Kent Bazemore, Warriors forward: How the tides turned in the world. And we’ve gotten some people in position now to really make some change. It was kind of cool to be a part of that whole thing down in Orlando in the bubble. So I think anyone that had a hand in that whole process should be feeling really proud of themselves right now.

Jae Crowder, Suns forward: Probably the conversations taking place throughout different households and throughout different Zoom calls for me. Just the uncomfortable conversations that we had to face as a nation. As people in the United States we had to face it, and address it and it was uncomfortable. It was tough for everyone, no matter your race.

Paul George, Clippers guard: There was a lot of stuff that went on around the world in terms of social justice, inequality. You know, there were a number of incidences and cases that went on — but it was highlighted. It was recorded. We saw it. We’ve seen it for years. And I think what made it so great, it started conversation.

“Why is it so hard for white people to talk about race? Just asking that question is going to trigger a lot of people, but also, hopefully, it has people looking in the mirror.”

Kevin Love

And I think we saw so many races, so many ethnicities stand up for what was right. I think that’s where I saw the beauty in it. So many people from different backgrounds stood up for what was right — regardless of what the color was, regardless of what the race was, regardless of what they believed in — they stood up for what was right.

I think that’s just where we have to start. And I think that was a great introduction to the conversations that we need and the acts that we have to do. But it can’t stop there. I think it’s a lot for us to take and run with, but the beauty in it was just to see everybody together in that fight of bringing equality and everyone just being counted and being as equal as the guy next to him.

Devonte’ Graham, Hornets guard: In 2020, we were still dealing with a lot of the things, as an African-American, as a Black male around the world, just the injustice. But I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes and it brought a lot of people together and I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction slowly, but it opened a lot of people’s eyes to start moving forward and [having] tough conversations.

Udonis Haslem, Heat forward: For me, obviously, stepping out of my comfort zone and using my platform and really educating myself — more on what’s going on, not thinking I know everything. I think for me, watching the world through the pandemic, through the social injustice, I just take away that we’re some survivors, man. And we can survive through anything, and I think moving forward we will survive and things are going to get better. I believe in us. I think we’re heading in the right direction — not just politically, but in a lot of ways.

Holiday: I’m going to remember everything. I’m going to remember my time with my family and being able to support them while I was in the bubble. I remember when my wife first told me that we were having a son, and I’m in tears because right before that, it was the George Floyd incident, and I’m like, “Man, I’m bringing another Black man into this world and I have to think about how I raise him around police officers.” Again, I have police officers among my family and friends, so I support them. But you just sometimes have those bad eggs.

But also I’ll remember that there is a lot of change coming. You can feel it. You know, different cultures kind of support each other with each place having like a Chinatown, Greek Town, Little Italy or something like that. And I feel like now, more and more Black people are supporting each other … So that’s probably the biggest thing, seeing how the support has shifted because of obviously a tragic incident, but with Black people really supporting each other now, that’s really cool.

Enes Kanter, Trail Blazers center: The thing that strikes me is how I saw our society radically evolve within the course of a year. Most of us drastically changed our daily routines to comply with the safety protocols of the pandemic. Our eyes opened to these risks, and we changed our lifestyles accordingly. Of course the Black Lives Matter movement was a social justice awakening for all of us. The tragedies that we saw with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake and others really opened our eyes to the changes we need to make as a society. I hope that we will continue to evolve. I was personally very proud of my fellow NBA players for boycotting in the midst of this social justice movement, really using our platforms to raise awareness for what matters most.

Kevin Love, Cavaliers forward: Much of what the ’60s taught us still holds true today. [Author] James Baldwin, I feel like said it best: “To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are truly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame and so ugly.”

It’s so profound what he said — and he was saying that in the early ’60s. This was before Malcolm X died in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. You even had a president in [John F. Kennedy] and his brother that both got assassinated who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. And then you had Vietnam. You just had so much that you can learn from that era, yet we’re still fighting a lot of these battles.

I think people’s views are perpetually shaped by the media — for better or for worse, really. And whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a lot of misinformation out there and maybe this year will be a tipping point where we’re better at seeking the truth. And I do hope that this year we have a major breakthrough.

Garrett Temple, Bulls guard: I will remember that people in the social justice fight have gained a few more allies. Some people of the same race and some people of different races, but I think more people have joined in — actually doing things and wanting to be out front about social justice and not just talking about it.

What do you hope changes about the NBA’s approach to systemic racism going forward?

Bazemore: I think things take time. Obviously, once you identify a problem it doesn’t mean everything’s going to change right away, because now when the rules change and the world changes, you’ll start to see who’s going to stick out, who isn’t going to conform to the new way. And over time it will just weed itself out. It’s not [a time] to start pointing fingers, because just like the world can change, people can change.

Crowder: [The NBA] started the conversation and that’s a beginning step to change, just addressing what needed to be addressed. We got to continue to stay on that, obviously. It’s easy to go back to feeling like things are normal. A lot of people look up to our sport and our league, so just continue to represent and spread positivity and unity throughout every game.

Graham: It’s bigger than just the NBA. I wasn’t part of the bubble but the things that they did like putting Black Lives Matter on the court and guys in the interviews speaking out and just using our platform that we have, obviously a lot of people watch us. I think letting guys change the name on the back of their jerseys and just doing those little things, it brings attention to the cause. I think the NBA is doing a great job — definitely proud to be a part of it during these times.

Haslem: I think every owner should use their platform, not just the players, but every owner — don’t just be quiet and let your players use their voices. Obviously, people do listen to the players because a kid at home wants to be a certain player, he’s in the yard trying to be that player, practicing to be that player. He might not be practicing to be that particular owner, but the owners have the ears, and the owners have the trust of a lot of people that can make a lot of the changes we’re hoping to have made. I think a lot of owners say, “We back our players, we support our players,” but then go silent. If you really back your players and support your players, you gotta speak up as well on these things that are going on. And be specific, don’t be general.

Holiday: I think one thing that they’ve done so far — especially like in the bubble — is supporting us and being there, even having Black Lives Matter on the floor. When we knelt for the anthem or even when we knelt for the Jacob Blake [court decision] when we played against Detroit [on Jan. 6], I feel like I just love the support that they give where you see other leagues kind of lash back at the athletes. This league is very progressive. And as much as they listen to us, I just pray that they continue to do that since 90% of the league is Black.

Kanter: The attention that we saw to racial injustice this year and broader society, and within the NBA was unprecedented. We need to maintain that, we need to keep a spotlight on issues of social injustice so that we ensure positive change. I want to see more of that involvement from the entire league going forward.

Love: I think just continuing to gain a better understanding of what adds value to Black communities, and empowering those communities.

So a lot like with mental health disorders, I always say it robs people of their human potential. I think it’s very similar in that way. And that means better health care, economic opportunities and education. And you see it right up the street here — secondary education for college, obviously with what LeBron is doing in Akron.

And ask the questions: What jobs are available in those neighborhoods? What are we really teaching our kids about the history of America? I mean, we spend however long on so many different topics, and then we just kind of skim over slavery. And I know that’s also multifaceted and layered too — I don’t know if it’s who you’re buying the books from, or what is determining the curriculum. It’s almost like at this point, the library is better than the school, because you can go and find out what you really need to know at the library. They’re going to put exactly what they want in textbooks.

It’s having the necessary dialogue and self-reflection that can actually lead to change.

I learned this when I was 15 or 16. I was in Hampton, Virginia, with my traveling basketball team and we were at the Boo Williams Tournament for high school. And you cross a certain line in that part of Virginia and it’s very white, very privileged and very racist.

We went to a diner as a team and they had trouble seating us. They weren’t going to seat our team. And that caused us to really have a conversation. Multiple traveling programs were subject to blatant discrimination. It was the first time I had witnessed racism at that level. A lot of kids, even at that age, they understood — whether it be dealing with the police or dealing with teachers or anything in the medical world, there’s that distrust. It actually led to a really amazing conversation. That was something that I had never seen before and it actually was something that was a life-changing kind of moment — my team wouldn’t be served and this was in the early 2000s.

Temple: I hope that the league will do more in terms of tangible things that can affect the foundation of systemic racism. Like education, the prison system, whether that be putting more money in the public education system, put money into public education in NBA cities or not allowing governors who invest in private prisons to be governors of the league, to try to buy teams, things of that nature — things that either hinder or deter people from pushing systemic racism.

What more can white players, coaches and front-office members do for social justice?

Bazemore: Just continue to lead by example. I’ve been teammates with Kyle Korver, who’s been very instrumental in a lot of things that the players’ union has done. He was over talking to the Pope. Just here recently, Kyle Guy, up in Sacramento, he was really vocal in Sacramento during all this — so there are players around the league that are standing with us. And as the world sees them, the people that look like them see them with us.

Crowder: I don’t know what more they can do. [Having] the uncomfortable conversations, I think that alone has definitely helped open eyes. I’m not here to say what they can and can’t do or what more needs to be done, I just feel like we’re doing a good job of [keeping] the conversation alive and fighting for change, not only for ourselves but for our kids and for future generations. So I think just having the conversation and continuing to talk it out and treating people the right way.

Graham: Just stand with us. Personally speaking, from the organization that I’m with, I feel like from my teammates, my coaching staff and my front office, we’ve had conversations about it. As a team, we had times where we actually wanted to go and march, and coaches and everybody went and marched with us. You feel like, as a Black athlete, when your teammates and your front office, and everybody is standing with you and fighting for something you’re fighting for, it makes that bond stronger. So I feel like them speaking up about it and them being able to have conversations with us about it — it helps. Obviously because they don’t have to deal with it being white, but just knowing that they’re standing with us [is important].

Haslem: Listen to us with an open mind and true compassion. Understand what we’re saying and how we’re feeling. Understand that it’s not a target on them, that none of us think that all white people — or any kind of people — are bad. We’re just speaking from our experiences and the things that have happened to us.

“You feel like, as a Black athlete, when your teammates and your front office, and everybody is standing with you and fighting for something you’re fighting for, it makes that bond stronger.”

Devonte’ Graham

Whether you want to call it PTSD, whether you want to call it how we look at the world now, or whether you want to call it during any of these different situations, it’s real for us. If what has happened recently doesn’t show you the differences in the treatment, then you probably just don’t want to help.

If you truly want to help — with a bird’s-eye view, hearing everything and processing it with an open mind — help make things better for everybody, not just for us. Once you make it better for us, it’s better for everybody. We need true unity. That’s for Black, that’s for Latino, that’s for a lot different races and colors.

Holiday: They can listen. Listen to us and listen to stories that we’ve had and our experiences. And also speak. Be able to talk through things with other people that might not understand our position or understand the situations that we’ve been in. My wife is white. So when situations that we’ve had, it’s kind of like she talks to her family about stuff that we’ve been through, like me and her. She’s actually seen it with me and then she talks to her family and her friends about it. I feel like that’s how you spread it, where you can find this common ground between people, and then they can understand the situation better because of that.

Kanter: I think all of us need to do a better job of listening. We need to listen to those who have been victims of social injustice, and listen to those who are oppressed. We need to really understand the struggles they are facing so that we can be supportive and help come up with solutions. We should help amplify Black voices and show solidarity in every way we can.

Love: Why is it so hard for white people to talk about race? Just asking that question is going to trigger a lot of people, but also, hopefully, it has people looking in the mirror, showing accountability and a willingness to ask the right questions.

The beauty of the NBA is how diverse our league is. Diversity is a great teacher. And the NBA is standing in large part on the shoulders of Black superstars and Black culture. We have to learn the cross-racial skills and understanding.

It’s funny, it even took me to this summer and this time to reflect and I had always thought about things in terms of intent. Like, “Well, the intention was there,” or, “At least it came from a good place …” But I had to take a step back and ask myself, what will the impact be as the result of my intent? As a result of my decisions? Because the intent can be there but what’s on the other side of that?

For example, we live with the assumption that the treatment of Black people in relation to police officers must have been deserved. Yet if you reverse that sentiment, that pendulum swings far in the other direction. What happened at the Capitol is a perfect example of that.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary and a symbol of hope who transcended every walk of life. How do we bottle that energy? How do we spread that energy? That’s a great sentiment to have, but that’s where that accountability comes in.

I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t pretend to know or be part of that woke culture. If you want to see the woke people, find the wisdom of the people who lived through the ’60s. That’s a time that, even now, we can learn from and let’s hope that we don’t look back and say, “Oh, man, look at how far we’ve come … but not really.”

Temple: First and foremost, get educated. Get educated and learn what white privilege is. Then admit that there is white privilege. And not only have tough conversations with their Black counterparts which will hopefully help educate them, but also take those conversations and bring them to their white friends and family — especially their children. Because at the end of the day, the ones that will honestly create this change are the kids that are 4 or 5 or 6 years old right now. So make sure that they translate those conversations that they’ve had with their Black friends to their white friends and family, and hopefully we can get it done from there.

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