NEW YORK -- As he stood amid 70 or so media members inside a cramped Cavaliers locker room Monday night, LeBron James explained the significance of the powerful words that stretched across his torso during pregame warmups.
“If it feels important to me then I respond,” said James, who wore a black t-shirt with the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” prior to the start of his team’s game against the Nets at the Barclays Center. “If it doesn’t, I don’t. There are a lot of issues I have not talked about. For me, it is about knowledge and about a gut feeling that hits home for you. You feel it, and go about it.”
James and Cavaliers went about winning their seventh straight game Monday, a 110-88 victory that was tight until a monster third-quarter run by Cleveland broke open a game tied at 61. But the game was secondary in nearly every way. First, there was the presence of Britain's Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, who sat courtside for their first NBA game and gabbed with American royalty Jay-Z and Beyonce during breaks.
But the story of the night was the activism of a number of NBA players. Before the game, the Cavaliers' James, Kyrie Irving and the Nets' Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett among others all wore the same black t-shirts. They are the latest professional athletes to make a personal statement on the death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man who was killed on July 17 after he was wrestled to the ground and choked to death by police officers arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Last week a Staten Island grand jury decided not to bring charges in the police-involved death. That decision has prompted protests around the country, as protesters have mobilized around Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe." A video recording of the arrest has been viewed by millions.
Unbeknownst to the players, protesters swarmed Atlantic Avenue outside the Barclays Center during the game, holding a “die-in” to protest the Garner ruling. The hashtag #RoyalShutdown was used by activists on Twitter as a rallying point.
“It was a message to the family that I’m sorry for their loss and I’m sorry to [Garner’s] wife,” James said. “That’s what it is about. How much larger can it be than to pay respect to the family? It doesn’t get larger than that. Obviously our society needs to do better but like I said before, violence is not the answer and retaliation is not the solution. As a society we have to get better and it’s not going to get done in one day. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We all have to do better.”
Williams said he normally distanced himself from talking about social issues but the Garner story compelled him to take notice. “You see the video and you know what happened,” Williams said. “It’s not one of those things people are saying this, cops are saying that. It is there for you to see. So you feel bad that a man lost his life.”
Added Irving: "This is bigger than all of us. We have to take a stand together and it’s truly important that we do.”
Other athletes have echoed that sentiment. Last Saturday prior to his game against Golden State, Bulls guard Derrick Rose wore a t-shirt with “I CAN'T BREATHE" during pregame warmups. The NFL also saw athletes on Sunday pay tribute to Garner including Lions running back Reggie Bush, Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi and Rams offensive lineman Davin Joseph.
“What happened is a tragedy and I feel terrible about it,” Irving said. “That’s my emotion on this and I have condolences for the family. I just think it is really important to show our respect to the family. More importantly, we are in the city where the tragedy happened and it is important for us to stand up for this cause. This hits kind of close to home. It means a lot to me.”
Irving said he decided on Saturday that he would wear the shirt tonight. He said he was given a t-shirt by Nets guard Jarrett Jack. James said he had no idea Irving was planning to wear one on Monday and he only discovered it in the locker room before the game.
“We are our own men,” James said. “Inside my shoe it reads "Be yourself’ and that’s what it is about. We are grown men and we didn’t talk about it. When we saw each other wearing the shirts, we gave each other a nod.”
On a lighter note, James said he met with The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge after the game and gave them cupcakes and two jerseys as a present, including one for the upcoming Royal Child.
“For them to take time out of their busy lives to come and watch our sport and watch our team means a lot,” James said. “It is an honor that I’m the guy they wanted to watch.”
Williams said Jay-Z, a former part-owner of the Nets but still close to the team, provided the shirts for he and some of his teammates.
“Us being in Brooklyn, it would be big for us to wear them especially with all the publicity that would be at the game,” Williams said. “We had already [seen] Derrick Rose do it so it was in our mind before that. But Jay-Z is a smart guy and being from New York City and growing up, he has been around his fair share of things like this. I know it hits close to home for him being from a part of this city.”
Commenting on social issues is something James has not shied away from as he approaches 30. Last season, as a member of the Heat, he and his teammates wore their warmups inside-out to show solidarity with Clippers players protesting team owner Donald Sterling.
I think we will see more of it and I am in favor of that,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, someone unafraid to offer his opinion on tough issues. “I like when people say what they think and when they stand up for what they believe in. I do hope we see more of it in sports because sports has been a great place for social issues to be pushed forward. It may not be the proper place for some people but for others it is. So many people pay attention to it and it is a great place for that kind of conversation.”
Nets coach Lionel Hollins supported his players' decision to wear the t-shirts and make a statement.
"They should be political," said Hollins. "They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. If they don't think that there is justice or they feel like there is something that they protest, then they should. That is their right as citizens of America, and I have no problem with that all."