When summarizing the intersection between NBA hoops and societal problems, there’s a go-to platitude.
“It’s bigger than basketball.”
The phrase manifested like never before on Aug. 26, when several NBA teams put down the basketball to focus on those “bigger” issues. A Black man had been shot seven times in the back by police. His name, Jacob Blake, became another hashtag. His kids, ages 3, 5 and 8, watched everything unfold. His injuries: paralyzed from the waist down.
The incident occurred in Kenosha, Wis., about 40 miles south of the Milwaukee Bucks’ home arena. It also took place just two weeks after the mother of Breonna Taylor spoke at a news conference and emphasized these four words:
“It’s bigger than Breonna.”
The shooting of Blake revealed as much. Taylor's mother expressed that African Americans have been victims of police violence at a disproportionate rate. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce is vocalizing the same message.
“It’s not just about Breonna Taylor, but it’s really about what she represents as a Black woman that was killed for no reason,” Pierce told NBA.com.
A dozen years before Pierce became the head coach in Atlanta, the city was shaken to its core by a tragedy similar to Taylor’s. Police executed a no-knock warrant for the home of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Black woman who lived by herself. When plainclothes officers broke down the front door of her home, Johnston discharged her personal firearm, unaware that the intruders were police. She shot once and missed. The officers shot 39 times and killed her.
Realizing their mistake, police handcuffed Johnston as she was dying and planted drugs inside her basement. Later investigations determined the no-knock warrant was falsified.
“(Police) have got a really tough job,” Pierce said. “But the price people have paid when they get it wrong, that’s what we’re most focused on because it’s been wrong too often. Similar to Kathryn Johnston. Similar to Breonna Taylor.”
The three officers involved in Johnston’s death were sentenced to prison. Many NBA players have been calling for the arrests of the officers who killed Taylor. The 26-year-old emergency medical technician was shot to death in March when three plainclothes officers from the Louisville Metro Police Department executed a no-knock warrant on her apartment.The shooting is currently being investigated by the FBI and Kentucky attorney general. (9/23 Update: This story was originally published on Sept. 2, three weeks before the Kentucky attorney general announced wanton endangerment charges for one police officer regarding his actions on the night Taylor was killed. Activists have demanded larger charges.)
Pierce believes holding law enforcement accountable is necessary. He also realizes that arresting three officers won’t stop another Breonna Taylor from happening in a different city.
Such was the case with Kathryn Johnston.
“I think we have to advance what we’re talking about to greater extremes,” Pierce said. “We need to be educated on the areas of reform that are in need, and then rally behind. We want to prevent (another) Breonna Taylor scenario.”
Pierce is a 44-year-old Black man. He’s drained, exhausted and “overwhelmed.” He was born around the same time America’s war against drugs began, which many have cited as a systemic cause to Taylor’s death since she was killed in a narcotics raid. No drugs were found in her apartment, according to multiple reports.
It's been well-documented that the drug war has targeted communities of color at a disproportionate rate. For example, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite the fact that Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, per the American Civil Liberties Union. A separate ACLU study found that minorities are targeted most in narcotics raids done by SWAT teams.
“We’re still fully in the midst of that same war on drugs that has been unequivocally prosecuted against the Black community,” said Dr. Peter Kraska, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University. “It’s of course not only prosecuted against Blacks. It’s just significantly disproportionate.”
Kraska is working as an expert witness in Taylor’s case. He’s studied and worked alongside police doing no-knock raids on Black homes.
“I think when these high-profile voices and athletes speak up, it's not that they are being critical of all police officers,” Kraska said. “It's being critical of what policing as an institution has turned into. I think it’s really important to make the distinction between the police institution needing major changes, as opposed to talking about good cops and bad cops.”
Pierce is currently leading a committee with the National Basketball Coaches Association that focuses on racial injustice and reform. Their goal is to pursue solutions in NBA cities “with local leaders, officials and law enforcement agencies to create positive change in our communities.”
“I think we have a great opportunity,” Pierce said, “to join in with people who have done the work and be educated more about how to propose and enact change.”
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Louisville councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith is doing the work Pierce alluded to. Now she wants the NBA -- from governors to players -- to help her do more.
Sexton Smith is the councilwoman who authored “Breonna’s Law.” The historic ordinance placed a total ban on no-knock warrants in Louisville.
“There will not be a no-knock warrant in our community,” she said. “But secondly, as part of Breonna’s Law, we have laid out very clearly how all search warrants will be conducted. Whether it’s for minor things or serious things.”
For example, Louisville police are no longer able to do investigatory search warrant raids on people’s private residences for contraband. If there’s an imminent threat inside a home (such as a hostage situation), a warrant is not necessary for entry. Under Breonna's Law, officers will be disciplined if body cameras aren’t worn during the execution of a search warrant. The city council is also working on implementing a civilian review board.
While these measures have been applauded, Louisville is just one city. Oregon and Florida are the only states that bar no-knock warrants. As studies show, Taylor's death wasn’t an isolated incident. This form of tragedy has happened across the nation for years, disproportionately affecting African Americans.
It happened in Georgia to Johnston. It happened in Michigan to 7-year-old Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley-Jones, who was killed when police were executing a no-knock warrant in 2010. It happened in Ohio to Tarika Wilson; she was shot to death while holding her 14-month-old son during a raid 12 years ago.
Even police officers are in peril, considering many Americans have firearms. Between 2010 and 2016 alone, 13 law enforcement officers died in door-busting drug raids, according to a 2017 study from The New York Times. More than six times as many civilians (81) were killed during the period of the study, with many more injured.
“It doesn’t even make any sense for the police themselves,” Kraska said, referring to no-knock raids. “The gain that they’re getting versus the risk they’re taking with their own lives just doesn’t make any sense.”
Kraska stressed significant reform as a solution. The NBA and NBPA established a social justice coalition that includes “advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.” Asked how this could be done, Sexton Smith referred back to the beginning of this summer. She thought about the national attention that helped get Breonna's Law passed in Louisville through a unanimous vote by the city council.
“In the 30 cities where there is an NBA team,” Sexton Smith said. “I would like to see those owners and those players say to their respective city council, you must pass Breonna’s Law as step one. Then we’re going to go right down the line with all of the legislation that you can do on a city council level to address systemic racism. Every NBA team has that type of power and influence in their city. Then I want them to put it on their state legislatures, and then collectively on Washington, D.C.”
Pierce doesn't think that's too much to ask. The Hawks head coach wants the league to back legislation proactively, not just in response to social media clips of police violence. There’s an old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, it's better to stop something from happening in the first place than to keep repairing the damage after it's done.
“We should be proactively trying to find ways to address these situations from a legal, legislative stand because of the resources that we have, because of the access that we have, because of the platform that we have,” Pierce told NBA TV. “We should be doing these things proactively because we are a part of 30 different communities throughout the country ... and that means we have to include our ownership. We have to include our management. We have to include the league front office with the concerns that the players are speaking of.”
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For Pierce, no athlete has ever inspired him more than Muhammad Ali.
Pierce is smitten by Ali’s unprecedented speed and skills in the boxing ring but driven by the unmatched “bravery and courage” he exhibited when the gloves were off.
Now more than ever, athletes in every sport find themselves inspired by Ali’s sacrifice and commitment to speak out against racism and inequality. “I think today’s generation of athletes are really following in Ali’s footsteps in a way that we haven’t seen before,” Pierce said.
The admiration for “The Greatest” resonates even deeper in Louisville.
Particularly, for Sexton Smith.
Ali was her friend.
The world heavyweight champ and shrewd city councilwoman were born in Louisville, a city deeply rooted in racial segregation. Located in Sexton Smith’s district is the high school Ali attended, as well as the Muhammad Ali Museum and Education Center. The museum explores Ali’s six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
Sexton Smith and Ali met for the first time at a 2004 ceremony, which celebrated the museum's development. Ali “did a lot of boxing poses and moved throughout the crowd bringing fun, laughter and peace to all,” she remembered.
Sexton Smith served on the museum's Board of Trustees for six years. When Ali died in 2016, she helped plan his funeral alongside his wife.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the time: “While we are deeply saddened by his loss, Muhammad Ali’s legacy lives on in every athlete who takes a stand for what he or she believes.”
NBA and WNBA players did so last week with their protests against police violence.
“I think Muhammad Ali would have smiled,” Sexton Smith said. “Players took a stance because they believed it was the right thing to do at the right time.”
Ali used his high profile as an outspoken critic to social injustices. He convened with athletes from other sports, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, to share his convictions. He advocated for new laws. He traveled around the country to empower young Black students at HBCUs. One of those students was “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman, who died on Friday after a private battle with colon cancer. Boseman once said that as a student at Howard University, seeing Ali on campus made him “ready to take on the world.”
That is the type of power athletes carry. While it's on them to exercise it, the NBA at large can amplify it.
“When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we’ even illness becomes wellness” - Malcolm X.
The social justice coalition is composed of players, coaches and governors. As they seek to ameliorate the system and dismantle structural racism, multiple barriers will be targeted. Police reform and voting is at the top of the list.
Furthermore, the recently announced NBA Foundation is intended to create greater economic empowerment in the Black community, including specific partnerships with HBCUs.
“We should start with police reform,” Sexton Smith said. “But I’m hoping America will not take their eyes off the fact that it’s also bigger than police reform. It’s voting, housing, education, healthcare, employment, the environment. It’s so much more.
“If we get officers arrested, charged, indicted and convicted, is that going to do anything to change the wealth gap in America? It would be a victory, but will that do anything to change the percentage of Black-owned businesses? How many Black lives will be changed for the better? Where does that take institutional oppression? Will that stop all the harmful drug raids? Remember, it’s bigger than Breonna.”
Likewise, for basketball.
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