The Phoenix Suns will take the court this Friday for their first official game in over four months. While players and coaches are excited for play to finally return to the hardwood, they first wanted to ensure they weren’t creating a distraction for the larger issues occurring in society.
Head Coach Monty Williams has been outspoken about racial injustice over the last few months, starting with an open letter and leading through his teachings in Orlando. Despite the season restart just around the corner, Williams feels his forthright stance against social injustice is beginning to highlight a crucial moment in his career.
“I think it’s one of the most important things I’ve done in my coaching,” Williams said. “When I look at the history of our country, the history of my family, I look at where we are and where we need to go. The platform that we have to talk about the ills and wrongs of our society are the utmost importance.”
The Suns feature a diverse roster with players from different origins and backgrounds coming together to form one team. Williams has preached for his team to not only embrace who they are, but to learn about their ancestors as well as each other’s.
“To be able to watch movies and talk about not just African American history, but Croatian history, Serbian history, how the slaves got to the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean, all of that is important,” Williams said. “Knowledge, to me, in these situations, is key. As I’ve said to the guys, knowledge takes away assumptions. We just tried to use this time to educate ourselves and educated the players and have authentic conversations in a safe place. To me, this is one of the most important things that I’ve ever been a part of. As an African American Head Coach in the NBA, I’m thankful I’m a part of it all.”
The NBA saw the concerns that players had about the potential distraction that return to play could cause. So, working with the Players Association, the league announced that each player will have the option to rep a social justice message across their backs when return to play tips-off.
“The league and the players are uniquely positioned to have a direct impact on combating systemic racism in our country, and we are committed to collective action to build a more equal and just society,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “A shared goal of our season restart will be to use our platform in Orlando to bring attention to these important issues of social justice."
The 29 different statements are intended to help keep the focus on topics such as police brutality and systematic racism and provide an additional voice for each of the players.
“I think that was really good,” Devin Booker said about the opportunity to include messaging on his jersey. “The Players’ Association fought very hard for that. Being probably the most viewed sport coming up soon, I think it’s a perfect platform for all of us to take a stand and give our word. We’re all coming up with something to put on the back of our jersey, which is going to be great for the NBA and for this movement.”
The Suns are embracing this opportunity to speak out against the social injustice throughout society as the entire roster has elected to wear a powerful message on the back of their jersey.
Deandre Ayton: RESPECT US
Aron Baynes: EQUALITY
Devin Booker: EQUALITY
Mikal Bridges: RESPECT US
Jevon Carter: RESPECT US
Cheick Diallo: FREEDOM
Ty Jerome: ENOUGH
Cameron Johnson: EQUALITY
Frank Kaminsky III: EQUALITY
Jalen Lecque: PEACE
Elie Okobo: EQUALITY
Kelly Oubre Jr.: PEACE
Cameron Payne: EQUALITY
Ricky Rubio: JUSTICE
Dario Šarić: ANTIRACIST
Each player sought out a phrase that they felt impacted by and that most closely resembled the message they are looking to personally convey.
“I chose to wear ‘ENOUGH’ on the back of my jersey because systemic racism and systematic oppression have existed in this country for as long as it’s existed,” Ty Jerome said. “Some people may think, ‘Racism doesn’t exist in my world’ or ‘White privilege doesn’t exist anymore.’ They’re so wrong. We’re nowhere we need to be as a country. We’re not even close. I think it’s time for people to understand that. Everyone needs to come together and we have to make change.”
Even as just a rookie, Jerome is using this platform to take a stand against racial injustice and provide a voice for the voiceless, including those within his own family.
“The Black Lives Matter movement really hits home for me,” Jerome said. “I think about it all the time because many people may not know, but I’m Black. My dad’s side of the family is all Black. If I get pulled over by a cop, police brutality may not happen to me, but it’s happened to my dad. It’s happened to my uncle. It could happen to my cousins. It could happen to my grandma. It’s a powerful movement. Trying to make change. We all need to help anyway we can.”
Kelly Oubre Jr.’s status is still up in their air whether he’ll be physically cleared to play, but that’s not holding him back from using his platform to make his message heard. Whether it’s on the court or on the sidelines, Oubre is taking his message of ‘PEACE’ and making it seen worldwide.
“It’s what I stand for,” Oubre said. “I just have the simple message of ‘PEACE’ on the back of my jersey. It’s very simple and straight to the point. I definitely encourage everybody to seek peace and to have peace in their lives, so that we all can just help each other be better.”
While some players such a Jerome are doing it for family and others like Oubre are keeping it simple, Suns center Deandre Ayton elected to go in a slightly different direction. Still keeping the strength of the message, Ayton chose a phrase that could interpreted in multiple ways.
“I’m planning on putting ‘RESPECT US,’” Ayton said. “It goes two ways. Respect what’s going on, everybody respecting each other, and the Phoenix Suns in the league. Us being respected. Us showing what we have and people respecting what we’ve worked for. It just goes a long way with the ‘RESPECT US’ phrase. It goes on and off the court. That’s why I chose that one. A lot of people chose ‘EQUALITY.’ I want that, but I wanted to go both ways, off the court, but on the court as well.”
Each player on the Suns roster took the time to thoroughly decipher through the options of approved statements and choose the one they felt most impacted by as the fight for justice continues outside of the Orlando bubble. Williams has seen the importance of continuing these tough conversations with his players through a hard-hitting movie night, personal reflections and consistent and open discussions.
“I’ve asked myself a lot of the questions internally and have had these discussions in my home for years, but it was just in my house,” Williams said. “I’ve always asked myself, ‘Why does the neighborhood I live in now differ from the neighborhood I grew up in as far as the quality of schools, the quality of the grocery store? Why are there so many police in my neighborhood as it relates to the war on drugs and then you look at college campuses where there are a ton of drugs and a ton of stuff going on and you don’t see police like that?’ Now, we are in this period in our country and all of those questions are being thrown out and are talked about in a way that’s totally different than I ever imagined.”
Williams never expected to be in a leadership role when it came to social injustice, but he’s willing to do what is necessary if it helps spark progress and generate a more equal society in the future.
“The reason why I want to do it is because I want to make the world a better place for my kids and my grandkids,” Williams said. “If I had to pinpoint one thing that needs to improve in our country, it’s that we have to educate everybody on everyone’s backgrounds and we have to be able to tell the truth, so we can have a form of reconciliation. If we don’t talk about the real truth of our country, it’s going to be hard for us to have the reconciliation that needs to take place. I think our kids growing up need to know the real truth about the history of our country as it relates to African Americans, Native Americans, the Irish, Asian Americans and white Americans. I think it’s important.”
Ricky Rubio has taken these words to heart and dedicated his time to educating himself and grasp a deeper understanding for all that is taking place. It’s due to this education that Rubio ultimately decided the message he’s repping on the back of his jersey.
“We have been having a lot of calls to educate ourselves, to really know what’s going on,” Rubio said. “I’m really thankful for that. I was on the call with Breonna Taylor’s attorney and her mom and a lot of other players. It’s really important for us to speak up. Sometimes we’ve been a little quiet just because sometimes it’s better to be quiet when you don’t have the full information, but the NBA has given us enough information to talk about it and talk about what you are thinking and bring your perspective. I put ‘JUSTICE’ because I feel like there has to be justice, especially for all of those who have been affected, Breonna Taylor for example. Hopefully, we see justice.”
Williams is proud of each and every one of his players for electing to choose a statement, take a stand and speak out for what they truly believe in.
“For our guys to make a statement with their expressions on their jerseys, we support them and I’m proud of them,” Williams said. “I think it represents who we are as a country. The ability to freely speak and express yourself, to peacefully protests, to defend those who can’t defend themselves, to continue the discussion of equality for everybody in our country. At the same time, bringing attention to Breonna Taylor and that situation. Making sure that that does not die. Everything that the players are doing allows for those conversations to continue in an organized, professional, precise manner. Hopefully it leads to progress for all people. I’m proud of them.”
Without an assist from the Suns seamstress, none of the players would be able to display these powerful messages on their jerseys. Patsy Elmer of Big Time Jerseys has been in charge of stitching names and numbers on Valley sports teams’ jerseys for over 25 years.
The Suns are sporting three different jerseys in Orlando, all of which contain the personalized messages that were precisely added by Elmer. However, this isn’t the only impact Elmer is having on Orlando. To help with COVID-19 precautions, Elmer cut up and spliced together former Suns warmups to transform them into customized masks for the players, coaches and staff to help protect themselves and others.
For a more in-depth visual inside the mask making as well as what life has been like inside the bubble, tune-in this Sunday on the Suns YouTube Channel at 1 p.m. PT as we take you behind-the-scenes in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.