Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich stands as other players and staff kneel. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
Across the NBA, players and coaches are taking a stand against racism by taking a knee; Gregg Popovich, however, took a stand by taking a stand.
The pivot from the Spurs coach spins us away from a conversation about gestures and symbols and toward a big-picture examination of racial equality. This ain’t about kneeling or standing; it’s about the reason they’re doing it.
“The core question,” said Linda Greene, constitutional and sports law professor at the University of Wisconsin and co-founder of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, “is whether powerful athletic figures support and work to ensure equal citizenship in the operation of their leagues and franchises, and in the communities where they sit. Kneeling or standing is optional; equal citizenship is both long overdue and necessary.”
Popovich bucked convention by standing during the national anthem before a game this month, becoming the most prominent dissenter among a small group of NBA players and coaches who value their autonomy to protest — or not — as they see fit.
It’s a progressive sign that no one inside the NBA’s Disney Bubble seems interested in cancelling them over it, especially Popovich.
“God, no,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We live in a country that allows you to make choices. That’s the beauty of our country.”
‘He forces me to think …’
The decision to stand or kneel during the national anthem — or walk off altogether, as WNBA players did recently — has been the most misunderstood and heavily debated topic at the intersection of sports, race and politics since Muhammad Ali refused to join the U.S. Army in protest of the Vietnam War.
As with Ali — who was first vilified, then celebrated — popular opinion has turned on the issue of kneeling demonstrations.
Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent, but the protest movement he started four years ago as a member of the San Francisco 49ers has gone mainstream. Players across sports have been freely taking a knee to draw attention to the problems of police brutality and systemic racism against African Americans.
It’s been particularly visible in the NBA, where warm-up shirts, game jerseys and courts all bear the message “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” and teams have been kneeling in unison.
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon stands beside players as they kneel before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo: Ashley Landis / AP)
But on Aug. 1, Popovich, his assistant Becky Hammon, Heat center Meyers Leonard and Orlando forward Jonathan Isaac all stood. Isaac, who unlike the others is African American, also declined to wear a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” shirt.
Popovich has been a vocal, early and frequent supporter of athletes having the freedom to express themselves, politically and socially. His record there is as established as his record as a five-time championship coach.
It might have seemed like a betrayal for him to stand, but that opinion hasn’t come from those close to him.
“One thing he taught me was to be myself and make choices that I believe in. I actually look up to him because of the choices he makes,” said Williams, who has known Popovich for 25 years and considers him a friend and mentor.
Williams has been kneeling alongside his players, but he was unwavering in his support for Popovich.
“He forces me to think, more than most people in my life,” Williams said. “I totally respect him and respect his choice. Again, that’s the beauty of our country.”
Here, people can agree to disagree, especially on matters of process while they keep larger goals in mind.
To think of it in basketball terms, is it best to shoot a jumper flatfooted? At the peak of a full leap? With the elbow tucked tight? Or slightly bowed out? If the goal is to make a three-pointer, and the shot drops consistently, then who cares about the minutiae of form?
‘Everybody has the freedom …’
Popovich declined to state his reason for standing.
“I prefer to keep that to myself,” he said. “Everybody has to make their personal decision, and the league’s been great about that. Everybody has the freedom to react any way they want.”
Instead, he chose to discuss the conditions that led to weeks of massive anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd.
“With the events we’ve all witnessed in this last year,” Popovich said, “it’s just logical and wise to try to keep that momentum going and try to keep this on the front burner, because it is a national embarrassment. It keeps us from being the country we should be, and the country that was promised to everyone.”
Hammon hasn’t addressed her decision.
Leonard, the Miami center, stood for his brother, a Marine, but said, “I absolutely believe Black lives matter.”
July 31: Magic forward Jonathan Isaac stands as others kneel during the national anthem before playing the Nets. (Photo: Ashley Landis, Pool photo via USA TODAY Sports)
Isaac also said “Black lives matter,” but added that he considers it his duty as a Christian to fight all injustice. “I think when you look around, racism isn’t the only thing that plagues our society, that plagues our nation, that plagues our world,” he said.
Popovich, Hammon, Leonard and Isaac all have received support from those within their organizations.
Those organizations also are showing support to the racial justice movement.
The NBA and its players’ association have pledged to donate $300 million over the next 10 years to boost economic advancement in the Black community.
Most players and coaches are taking a stand by taking a knee; Popovich and a few others, meanwhile, are taking a stand by taking a stand.
Together the actions give us a platform to discuss racial equality.
And ain’t that what this is about, anyway?
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