The boiling point for Lloyd Pierce came last Sunday. The day before a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd -- and just over three months after two white men in Georgia gunned down Ahmaud Arbery -- a white woman named Amy Cooper called New York police claiming that Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, was harassing her in Central Park. In fact, he had merely asked her to keep her dog on a leash, in accordance with park policy. But Amy Cooper felt threatened and, just as notably, emboldened to take action.
“I’m calling the cops,” she declared as Christian Cooper calmly recorded her meltdown. “I’m gonna tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
The situation didn’t escalate to violence and the woman eventually lost her job (and her dog). But her message to Christian Cooper -- and to all black Americans -- rang loud and clear.
“She knew that she had the power to put that man in a position that she wanted. What could have happened -- what did happen -- is what we saw on Monday,” Pierce said. “She didn't like being called out, but she wasn’t in any harm. For her, it was her ability to activate her privilege. For him it was a matter of life and death, and that’s what the consequence was the next day.”
On Monday, footage surfaced of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, killing Floyd and sparking a national outcry against police brutality and institutionalized racism. The last week has seen protests and riots across America as social justice and racial equality have risen to the forefront of the culture and the conversation.
In addition to local civic leaders, activists, and organizers, the NBA has helped lead that charge. The league has earned a reputation for being progressive on social issues under Adam Silver’s leadership, encouraging players and coaches to speak out as other leagues have punished taking a stand. Last week, Celtics wing Jaylen Brown and Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon led a march in Atlanta, Hawks point guard Trae Young spoke at a protest in Oklahoma, and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich vehemently criticized Donald Trump’s leadership in the face of a crisis. Pierce, one of the NBA’s eight black head coaches, is outraged, but unsurprised.
“I think you’re emotional, you’re vulnerable,” Pierce said. “But for me, this isn’t new. I’ve been black for 44 years. So this feeling of outrage, it isn’t new.”
What is new -- or at least what feels that way -- is the spotlight on the problem. For all their many warts, social media and smartphones have illuminated just how much violence and injustice occurs in America on a daily basis. They have kept people stirred in the days since Floyd’s death. Protests and anger have yet to quell; police are attacking civilians with tear gas and rubber bullets; and the president of the United States even threatened the use of military force against protesters. The situation doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
In addition to taking to the streets and social media, the NBA has been mobilizing behind the scenes as well. All 30 head coaches -- plus Stan Van Gundy, David Fizdale, Kenny Atkinson, and Mike Brown -- have formed a subcommittee to help formulate actionable steps the league can take toward substantively addressing racial justice. The committee’s purpose is to gather and centralize ideas that can help create positive, lasting change for racial justice.
“We’ve tossed out a ton of ideas. I don't know what is gonna be attainable, I don't know what’s gonna be practical,” Pierce said. “Whether it’s the NAACP, or getting the [Georgia] Innocence Project involved, or getting some politicians that have been working on policy change. The word ‘sustainable’ is so important for us, because it isn't just a conversation we need to keep having, we do need to get into action.”
NBA head coaches tend to be reserved people -- basketball junkies who would rather pore over game film than put themselves at the center of the public eye; Pierce says he’s had more conversations with some coaches in the last week than he previously had in over a decade working in the NBA. But in a time of crisis, all of them have stepped forward without hesitation, and Pierce has been moved by the sincerity and commitment NBA coaches have shown toward the cause.
“It’s powerful to see the vulnerability, to see the efforts that we’ve initially started, with regards to proposing some action. Now, the action is the challenging part,” Pierce said. “What’s going to be sustainable, what’s going to have a lasting impact?
“It’s gonna require appropriate education, it’s gonna require more work than we’re seeing with the protesting by the individuals. I think the emotional side is now. I think the effort and the work ethic and everything that’s required to actually impact and create change is what’s going to happen when the protests go away.”
Within their own organization, the Hawks have been direct in addressing racial injustice, in part because it’s an issue that has directly affected them in the past. In April of 2015 -- as the 60-win Hawks were gearing up for a playoff run -- Thabo Sefolosha was arrested and had his leg broken by NYPD officers outside a nightclub for “obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.” The forward was later acquitted.
“It has been part of our franchise and it is something that we won’t forget,” said Hawks CEO Steve Koonin.
Last week, the organization sent out a memo that strongly condemned “recent and recurring examples of weaponized racism, police brutality and race-based preferential treatment across the nation.” On Friday, the Hawks will hold a virtual conversation over Zoom about race designed to give everyone in the organization an opportunity to speak, or simply listen. The team has also begun partnering with civic leaders in Atlanta to learn how the Hawks can use their platform to help amplify the city’s message.
“We have been in communication with our city leaders and we are very, very, very supportive of what they have done, the words they have said, the actions they’ve taken, because this is part of our DNA,” Koonin said. “We are all citizens of this city, and the Hawks, we want to be a big piece and a big part of the solution.”
The team has encouraged its players to be vocal during this time, to use their platforms to encourage change and amplify the messages of the oppressed. Last Sunday, at the team’s weekly meeting, rather than discussing at-home workouts or return-to-play scenarios, Pierce gave everyone a chance to voice their thoughts on the week’s events. And everyone did, from players, to coaches, to video coordinators, all sorting through the torrent of emotions undoubtedly weighing on a young, predominantly black group of men.
“I think we have a young group that’s experiencing something that’s a historical problem, and for the first time it’s affecting them. So the ability to communicate, the willingness to communicate, is that first step,” Pierce said. “And if you don’t understand that feeling or if you’re numb to that feeling, have that conversation: what’s really going on?”
Not long after the NBA coaches formed their committee, Atkinson sent Pierce an email offering his support in any way it could be helpful. But he also expressed regret and embarrassment for not extending it sooner. Atkinson, who was an assistant coach for the Hawks when Sefolosha was assaulted, had failed to speak up about the injustice of the situation, and admitted he still carries that guilt with him today. “It’s important to use our voice now instead of having to carry that burden that he talked about,” Pierce said.
After the incidents in Central Park and Minneapolis, Chris Jent, a white assistant coach for the Hawks, told Pierce he was “embarrassed and disgusted” for having not done more to combat racism before it spiraled to where it is now. For the first time, Jent had the conversation with his teenage daughter about racial profiling and white privilege so that she wouldn’t become the next Amy Cooper, or any of the countless other white “victims” of black existence.
Addressing police brutality, income inequality, mass incarceration, and so many other forms of systemic racism will require widespread change brought about by people of all races fighting toward a common goal. If now is the time for black people to show outrage, it’s time for white people to show empathy. And it’s past time for both groups to pull in the same direction.
“We all have a part to do,” Pierce said. “It’s a problem that all of us need to admit. Black lives do matter. More people need to speak up, black and white. To have that conversation -- to actually say it -- is hard for a lot of people and hasn’t been said by a lot of people.
“I don’t want you to experience or think or have the fears that I have. I want you to understand that I have them, and I want you to appropriately respond in the way you think you can impact change.”