LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dallas’ Rick Carlisle now starts every interview session by reading from a calendar that highlights something that happened on that day in the country’s racial history. Toronto’s Nick Nurse is often wearing shirts to practice proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Orlando’s Steve Clifford, in lieu of pre-practice film, showed his team a documentary on the life of John Lewis.
While NBA players are using the season restart to demand change, coaches in the league are not making them walk down that path alone.
Coaches around the NBA — where most players are Black and most coaches are white — have been active participants in the demand societal change around the league. The demands became a flashpoint when George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died when a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
“I think it’s just understanding the moment and the movement that is taking place,” Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce said. “That’s what all our coaches are doing, and as white coaches, they’re no fools. I think the beauty of our game is, we coach African American men, myself and the white coaches. We’re around it. We know our league is predominantly African American. So why not? If we’re going to ask for others to be empathetic, I think we all have to be empathetic.”
Pierce isn’t at the NBA restart at Walt Disney World — the Hawks aren’t among the 22 teams still playing this season — but he’s been active on regular leaguewide coaches Zoom calls and leads a committee of coaches tasked with how those in the NBA can best aid the societal-change movement.
He also helped get someone to coach the coaches.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an NBA community partner, and is someone who has spent 30 years pushing for social justice. He was scheduled to meet with the NBA’s coaches over a Zoom call for a half-hour a few weeks ago. The call went more than three times that long, and from there a running dialogue was born.
“It was mesmerizing,” Carlisle said of that initial call. “It was an education in itself.”
It’s the calendar created by Stevenson’s organization that Carlisle reads from each day. The impact by whatever Stevenson said to coaches that first night has continued resonating.
“You have to believe things you haven’t seen,” Stevenson said. “You have to have hope that we can turn this moment into something more than a moment. I mean, hopelessness is the enemy of justice and injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. And if NBA coaches believe that and if NBA players believe that, then fans can believe it too.”
He’s convinced the coaches believe.
Stevenson has been lauded publicly by virtually all the league’s coaches in recent weeks for helping educate them on things that they never knew. In a league where a handful of coaches — Golden State’s Steve Kerr and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, most notably — are not shy about sharing political views publicly, this moment has driven other coaches to use their voices as well.
The NBA got permission to make the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” documentary available to all head and assistant coaches this week and several teams — including the Magic, at Clifford’s request — screened the film. It was also available as a featured movie on the curated channel within the hotels.
“I’m inspired by how this movement still has great stamina, and I think our ability to go there and still keep the conversation alive with our platforms is important,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The next step that everybody wants to see is action and lasting, sustainable change in areas of systemic racism and social inequalities.”
Players are at Disney to compete for a championship, though the broader societal issues have not diminished since they arrived. Denver’s Jerami Grant took five questions in an interview last week and all his answers, no matter the topic, revolved around a demand for arrests in the killing of Breonna Taylor. Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris took a similar tactic a few days later. Houston’s Russell Westbrook has a clothing line that will display social-justice messaging and most players will wear jerseys with similar thoughts printed on the back as well.
If the players take an action on the court during games, such as kneeling, a person with knowledge of the situation said coaches have agreed to do the same. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no plans have been announced.
“It’s a seminal moment, in the sense that we have an opportunity to do something transformative if we have the courage,” Popovich said. “And as with many things in today’s world, interest wanes pretty quickly no matter what the topic. … So, the league, the players, the coaches, staff, everybody is very committed to keeping it up-front in everybody’s consciousness, even though everybody’s excited to go play. This is a great opportunity.”
At Disney the NBA will have the phrase “Black Lives Matter” painted on the courts for games. Stevenson believes coaches can have that same impact.
The way NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sees it, fans will take their cues from watching their various favorite teams — players and coaches alike. If the NBA is speaking change into existence and acting accordingly, he believes fans will apply that same passion to whatever role they can play into the movement.
“We can use that same desire and hope for racial equality and an end to police violence and justice for communities that have been undermined by unhealthy unsafe practices and policies,” Stevenson said. “That’s a really powerful thing to imagine. And so, if we can achieve that, yes, I absolutely believe that can be a transformative moment.”