The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., had prompted the Milwaukee Bucks to sit out in protest, and the rest of the league’s players joined them in solidarity. On the other end of the phone was a Turner Sports executive asking Webber to quickly come to the arena to share his thoughts on the first postseason shutdown in NBA history, a political strike that redefined the limits of modern athlete activism.
Webber hurriedly got dressed, sprinted from his hotel room and through the Disney campus where the NBA was quarantined, sat down in his plexiglass booth and spoke from the heart, sweat dripping at his brow.
“If not now, when?” Webber asked, repeatedly pausing to hold back tears during a nearly two-minute call to action.
The words reflected Webber’s frustration but also his deep understanding of the historical context of what was playing out in the NBA’s bubble and across the country. He referenced slain civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers and found an audience that was both receptive and eager to share his message.
“It was what a lot of us were feeling for a long time — that it’s okay to speak up for others,” Webber said in a telephone interview this week. “I just wanted to make sure I was on the side of the people.”
That viral speech wasn’t the first time Webber, a five-time NBA all-star and member of Michigan’s famed Fab Five, spoke out forcefully about an issue important to him. And it won’t be the last; Webber is extending his post-playing career into teaching as the instructor of Morehouse College and Coursera’s new online class on activism in sports and culture.
Partnering with universities and corporations, Coursera offers thousands of online classes to millions of users, who can audit them free or pay to receive a certificate. (Webber’s course costs $49.) Coursera chief content officer Betty Vandenbosch said the partnership with Morehouse aligns with the company’s commitment to addressing systemic racism by providing more access to higher education.
“Nelson Mandela said sports have the power to change the world. This man was locked away for 27 years in prison and says it’s more powerful than government in causing political change. And he’s right because it’s really the voice of the people,” Webber said. “I get to honor those that make sacrifices for humanity. I get to honor them, make sure they stay relevant, hopefully introduce them to a whole new community of people and have it be inclusive — have it galvanize people and not be polarizing.”
Webber said he originally developed the course for another historically black college, which he declined to name. But conversations with associates at Morehouse led him to bring his work to the men’s HBCU that produced King, director Spike Lee, actor Samuel L. Jackson and Georgia’s first Black senator, Raphael G. Warnock.
“Sports has often been among the earliest and most visible arenas in which to raise awareness about racial challenges,” Morehouse President David A. Thomas said in a statement. “This moment calls for us to hear each other, learn from each other, and uncover the truths which will allow for us to move forward as an informed society.” He called the subject matter Webber will teach “one of the most consequential conversations of our time.”
Webber is the son of a teacher who raised him to be curious about his surroundings, to seek an education that extended beyond what he learned in the classroom. The walls of his room had a felt easel with images of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman or surgeon Charles Drew, whose research on blood transfusions paved the way for blood banks. “History, respect of taking people’s stories and using them as inspiration, has always been something that my mother encouraged,” Webber said.
Webber has long admired sports’ most prominent activists, among them Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Webber calls a mentor. Now he finds himself marveling at the current generation, including LeBron James, who has empowered the ambitions of those around him while using his platform to initiate change.
For his class, Webber has spoken with John Carlos, who used the Olympic Games to protest inequality with a raised fist and lowered head at the medal podium in 1968. He also plans to explore the antitrust lawsuit that took Spencer Haywood to the Supreme Court and paved the way for Webber to leave Michigan after his sophomore year and go No. 1 in the 1993 NBA draft.
“Just think of what’s going on now in the head of a little girl, with Kamala Harris as vice president. There is a change happening,” Webber said. “In sports, that change had to happen on different levels to inspire the LeBrons and the others. These guys have access to President Obama’s number. They have access to other people and community leaders to see how to do it the right way. Not to grandstand but to do what’s right.”
On the court, Webber mixed guard-like skills with traditional low-post play. He’s as versatile off it. His love of history and culture led to a distinguished collection of African American art and artifacts, including an original book of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and a handwritten letter from Malcolm X to the co-writer for his biography, Alex Haley. He has produced tracks for Nas, too. And Webber already has some experience as a professor, having taught a graduate course on sports, race and society nearly five years ago at Wake Forest University.
“I try to live my life without fear. All of those opportunities, fear was involved. But you can’t practice courage unless it’s there,” Webber said. “I have things I would like to do, and until I do them, I won’t rest.”
Webber said he has leaned on mentors such as sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards for support and wisdom.
“My mother’s a teacher, but if Dr. J would have come to my house and told me to do my homework, I would’ve done my homework,” Webber said. “Just because you read a book does not mean you understand. Hopefully, I can be a bridge. Hopefully, the personal testimonies and what I bring out is something those with PhDs can’t do. It’s a great responsibility, but I’m very prepared for it.”
Though he never finished his degree, Webber scoffs at anyone who questions his place in academia. “Okay, I’m going to shut up and dribble,” he joked. “But I’ve got to do this first.”