Pierce wanted the others to at least know that he, even as an NBA head coach, was still afraid of being profiled or mistreated by police. So he contacted the leaders of the NBA Coaches Association and organized a Zoom call, hoping to start a conversation about racism in America. Then, once all 30 men signed on, he emptied his heart.
“Just so you guys know, I’m not okay,” Pierce told the group. “I’m f---ed up right now.”
Two of Pierce’s White peers were already on the front lines for social justice: the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and the Warriors’ Steve Kerr, who both routinely transform pregame media sessions into passionate soliloquies on President Trump and equality.
But what Pierce needed now was the support of the others, many of whom had never uttered a forceful sentence publicly about racial, political or social matters. He asked for help — from all of them — pushing for meaningful and lasting change.
“It’s definitely different if you’re a White male,” Pierce said in an interview. “You’re hearing a lot of coaches say they were embarrassed, have been embarrassed or were disgusted, and [they] know that and understand that they need to and will do more.”
As the NBA returns more than four months after it was dramatically shut down by the novel coronavirus pandemic, its attention is firmly on racial inequality. The courts are painted with the message “Black Lives Matter.” Many players will wear social justice messages on the back of their jerseys. Miami Heat all-star Jimmy Butler said he doesn’t want his last name on his jersey, to show he is “no different than any person of color.”
Meanwhile, at Pierce’s urging, previously reluctant White coaches are considering how to pace the sidelines as allies. The NBA Coaches Association, led by Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle and executive director David Fogel, responded to Pierce’s call by partnering with the Obama Foundation and Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. The association also created a panel of members committed to police reform and voting rights. The group, called NBA Coaches for Racial Justice, has asked all 30 coaches to contact the mayors and police chiefs in their cities to help push 8 Can’t Wait reform policies.
“Basically we’re trying to do more than have statements,” Toronto Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said. “We’re really trying to come up with some plans of action and get out there and move, and I’ve been impressed as hell with these guys.”
Jazz Coach Quin Snyder volunteered for the committee before the first Zoom call wrapped up. Though Snyder knew Pierce was talking to everyone in that password-protected room, somehow, he said, he felt singled out.
Snyder, a Duke Law School graduate, describes himself as politically aware. But he has valued his privacy, he said, and the comfort in sticking to basketball. He hasn’t been known to speak out like Popovich or Kerr. But something shifted as he felt the weight of Pierce’s words.
“It wasn’t just what [Pierce] said. It was the way he did say it. And it felt like he was speaking to me,” Snyder said. “You could also feel his agony, and ... I don’t know if ‘awakening’ is the right word, but you could feel the urgency.”
Snyder and his family joined a Black Lives Matter march in Salt Lake City. And he hasn’t been alone in becoming more visible in his activism. Nurse, who hadn’t always participated in American politics while living overseas, was moved to persuade U.S. citizens in Canada to vote in November. Orlando Magic Coach Steve Clifford added “How To Be An Antiracist” to his library and got involved with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works to end the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions.
“It’s not a time to be neutral, to have feelings and not be involved in it,” he said. “That’s where I am at.”
Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said he is in the same place: pushing himself to speak out, even if it doesn’t come naturally.
“I’m not super comfortable talking about anything in front of the cameras. You know, whether it’s something as important as this, or the events of the game or practice,” Budenholzer said. “But it’s what people are saying: Silence is not an option. Being comfortable is probably not an option. I’ve got to be uncomfortable. I’ve got to speak, and I think you’re going to see that from all the NBA coaches.”
White men make up 70 percent of the head coaches in the NBA, while about 74 percent of the players identified as Black/African American at the start of the 2019-20 season, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Despite the disparity, the NBA, which in 2014 ousted then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist comments, has promoted itself as a league of White allies since before the term went mainstream.
But beyond Popovich, Kerr and former head coach Stan Van Gundy, few have consistently joined the conversation.
Kerr understands the hesitation. During the 2010 playoffs, when he was the Phoenix Suns general manager, the franchise received criticism for wearing “Los Suns” jerseys as a response to a controversial Arizona immigration law. Years later, when he deflected questions about the NBA’s relationship with China, Kerr landed in the crosshairs of conservative critics.
“The questions aren’t always easy,” Kerr said. But, he added: “The main thing is I want to be an ally to a people who I care about, and I want to make sure that I’m educating myself all the time. Some people are going to compliment, other people are going to criticize, and it’s all part of it.”
Now, though, with Black players seemingly unified in their commitment to the cause, there is more attention on coaches’ willingness to address social justice.
As they’ve arrived in the Disney World bubble, players have coordinated their media messages to keep the focus on Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by Louisville police serving a no-knock warrant March 13. Some reject the notion that a coach has no choice but to speak out forcefully on these matters. “I don’t think it should be a mandate,” Washington Wizards guard Ish Smith said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Even so, players are listening and watching.
“It’s like the light is on,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “You’re seeing the actions, and I think, at least in the NBA, it’s going to be hard for one of these coaches to hide racist feelings now. ... Now they’re just being put on the spot to say: ‘Okay, what are you doing? How do you really feel? Do you stand with us?’ If you do, you have to show it and prove it every day. And I think that’s what we’re getting to now.
“A lot of people don’t like to speak because they have to stand on that every single day and they don’t want that type of attention and I understand that,” VanVleet continued. “But I think that’s what makes it powerful when somebody does. They’re not afraid of the accountability and the backlash, or whatever the case may be, of alienating a fan base. I love it when they do that.”
On that first Zoom call, Pierce didn’t have to tell fellow coaches about the time he was pulled over in Philadelphia on his way to a game — how he had to stay 20 minutes on the side of the road because the officer didn’t believe his truck with Tennessee license plates belonged to him. He avoided sharing personal encounters, he said, because wouldn’t every Black man on that call have had a similar story to tell?
Instead, he spoke honestly about his state of mind and let the dialogue begin, curious about who would speak up and how. The casual red-state NBA fan might be able to tune out the liberal musings of Popovich and Kerr. What the league needed — what the nation needed, Pierce believed — was a broader group of White allies willing to educate themselves and find their voice.
“Black people fighting for Black people is great and has always been that, but that’s not how we’re going to get the change that we really need,” Pierce said. “It’s White people understanding what Black people are fighting for and joining in. And so I think without a doubt there need to be more White coaches, more White owners, more White executives, more White America joining in and knowing we haven’t done enough as a society.”