Timberwolves Executive John Thomas on How the George Floyd Protests Have Impacted Him

Numerous players, coaches and executives from around the NBA have been speaking out against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd. Timberwolves VP of basketball development John Thomas opens up about the racism he has faced and how the NBA has responded.
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George Floyd was killed on 38th and Chicago. I grew up a few blocks away. That Cup Foods, where this whole thing started? That used to be the convenience store where I got my school supplies in elementary school. I would ride the bus past it in high school. When this happened, I couldn’t believe this was happening in a place where I grew up.

I’ve had run-ins with the police. When I was 12, I got pulled over … while I was on my bike. The cop said I didn’t stop at a stop sign. I didn’t even know I had to stop at a stop sign. I’m just a kid, I didn’t know any better. But he put me in the back of the car. When I was at Minnesota, I had police detain me at a bus stop. I didn’t have a license back then. They said I fit the description of someone they were looking for. Like how many 6’9” black men in a Gophers sweatshirt who happen to the be the center for the basketball team fit a description?

What happened was horrifying. But I’m proud of the way the NBA has responded. Players have been courageous. They are utilizing their platforms and taking a stand. It’s hard to do that in a world where you are constantly questioned, where you are put under a microscope and judged. Unless you are inside your homes, these athletes live in a world that’s always on. But these guys have been putting themselves out there. Look at Karl-Anthony Towns. He lost his mother to COVID-19 in April. I know what he has been dealing with. For him to show up at that press conference, that was powerful. He didn’t say a word, but it was powerful. Josh Okogie is using social media, speaking up on important issues. It’s happening across the country, and it’s beautiful.

I know not everyone gets it. When Drew Brees took a shot at guys kneeling, saying he would never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag, my first reaction was, Come on, man. But Kyle Rudolph said something to me that stuck. We were outside Cup Foods, the two of us, Ryan Saunders, P.J. Fleck, Josh, handing out supplies to people who needed them. He said it was important to remember how good a person Brees is. To remember all the good things he has done for the people of New Orleans. He just didn’t know. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. It’s important to not condemn him and others who think like that, but educate them.

A bigger issue is how the media covered it. I saw Laura Ingraham, the same person who told LeBron James to shut up and dribble after LeBron criticized the president, go on TV and say Brees is allowed to have an opinion on kneeling. Basically applauding him. I mean, really? For maybe the first time in history, people are listening. It’s incumbent upon media outlets to deliver information in the best way possible and not try to divide.

White people will never understand what it’s like to have color on your skin. And that’s okay. But it starts with vulnerability. It’s okay to not know what to say. But not saying anything doesn’t solve the problem. We need to come to some common ground. We need to find solutions that help our community. There are a bunch of different questions or biases about black culture. Ask them. The more we can humanize the approach, the more we can show empathy, the more we can have the right conversations, the better.

We need to build sustainable programs within various sectors, whether they involve social responsibility or community engagement. What gets me most excited is that right now people are talking about difficult issues across racial lines. The hashtags on social media are great, so are the shows of solidarity, but the only thing that will create necessary change is when we take that attitude into our daily lives. We can’t forget what’s happened when we go back to our normal state of busy. We need to use our platform for change.

I’m proud to work for a progressive organization that made Election Day, November 3 a company holiday. We have to exercise our power and be part of the voting process. This is a political issue. Policies need to change. You’re starting to see it, with legislation out there to criminalize chokeholds by police. There are a lot of people in the black community who have lost faith in our political system. This isn’t the first time an unarmed black man has been killed. And yet, nothing changed. We need to apply a healthy dose of positive pressure to get people out to vote. We cannot stop. Our resolve cannot change. The sting of what happened, although it will fade, needs to stay with us.

A few days after George was killed, I took my family down to the scene. It gave me a chance to take them to where I grew up. There were so many people there, we ended up parking in front of my old house. As we walked, I told my family some of the stories of my experiences. My wife is white. She usually doesn’t like to talk about atrocities like this when they happen. She prefers to turn a blind eye to it. But with this happening in our own backyard, she couldn’t. It started a powerful conversation. It sparker her desire to take action. My 11-year old son is the strongest activist in our family. My two daughters are six and four, and to them this had been entirely an unknown. Taking them down to that neighborhood, it takes something on TV and makes it real.

We need to keep talking. Because the little things can affect change. I think about what would have happened when that officer pulled me over at 12-years old. I think about what would have happened if instead of throwing me in the back of the car, he educated me on what I had done wrong. I would have taken that message, that experience back to my community instead of the one I had. Change can happen slowly. But this country is experiencing a moment. Now is the time it needs to happen.