The night before the Virginia men’s basketball team began practice for the 2016-17 season, several players posted a photo of the team kneeling as a sign of unity against social injustice. The photo, which featured Virginia players dressed in all black with their arms interlocked over the “V” at midcourt on the floor of John Paul Jones Arena, was posted to several players’ individual social-media accounts on Sept. 29, hours before the first practice of the season.
The photo was coordinated and put online without Coach Tony Bennett’s knowledge. Since then, the picture has sparked dialogue between players and coaches and led to a planned meeting between the team and members of the Charlottesville Police Department.
Bennett said Monday that to him, the photo has become a symbol of peace and positivity rather than a protest against police, the military or the American flag.
“I really wasn’t aware that they were going to take that picture; that’s something they wanted to do,” Bennett said in a telephone interview about the upcoming season. “The thing that was real unique about it was after that picture was taken, we sat down and we’ve had some good dialogue. I made them talk to me. I said, ‘You guys made a statement of unity; what was the picture trying to represent?’ . . . The thing that came out that was their desire — and that’s why I support what they did — it was their desire, really, to promote awareness of the things going on.”
The photo followed peaceful protests from athletes across the country, themselves following the lead of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who chooses to sit, take a knee or raise a fist during the national anthem.
Senior point guard London Perrantes’s tweet of the picture read, “Kneel for Injustice. Kneel for Equality. Using our platform to help [create] change. TOGETHER!”
Bennett usually is cautious about the role social media plays in his players’ lives, but after speaking with his team about the image, he was supportive. His main concern was negative reaction that assumed the Virginia players were taking a stance against police.
“In no way were they trying to disrespect the police, the military or the flag. That was not the intent at all. There’s a lot of social injustice going on, and of course I’m going to support their desire to raise awareness,” Bennett said.
“They want to promote peace, and they were very clear about that. . . . It was, ‘Okay, we’re raising awareness. Now we want to do something constructive,’ and I really liked that. I think that’s the way things are going to change. There are so many good things they do that we talk about [that] don’t need to be publicized . . . but they’re serious about trying to do something and become more educated. They did it on their own, which is obviously their right, and we talked about it after.”
Beyond discussing his team’s message of social justice, Bennett addressed expectations for Virginia basketball this season after losing one of the most accomplished classes in program history.
Malcolm Brogdon and Mike Tobey are on NBA rosters in Milwaukee and Charlotte, respectively. Anthony Gill is playing professionally in Turkey. Tasked with continuing their success is Perrantes; a group of other players with solid experience including Darius Thompson, Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall; plus six newcomers, four of whom are freshmen.
Virginia has had six practices so far this fall. The Cavaliers are focused partially on building good habits and on bringing the new players up to speed.
Bennett is forthcoming — and unconcerned, this early on — with this group’s lack of experience relative to teams of the past.
“There’s that kind of new part of resetting, or I guess rebuilding,” Bennett said. “There are some guys who’ve been in the program, but there are six new guys — boom — that’s a lot of new guys. We’re probably not where we were in the last couple of years at this point in the season. But there’s definitely ability and talent that can hopefully mesh together.”
Bennett is optimistic about the Cavaliers’ depth. A pair of 6-foot-9 forwards, redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite and junior transfer Austin Nichols, round out the new class and add much-needed size to Virginia’s front court.
At the same time, that depth has opened up competition for a starting spot the likes of which Bennett hasn’t had to deal with in years.
“The guys are all fighting; no one’s guaranteed anything with this group,” Bennett said. “The last few years it was kind of like, ‘Okay, I think you could pencil in our top four guys, you know they’re going to be on the floor, you just know it’s going to happen.’ Well this year, obviously there’s London and a couple other guys, but it’s pretty good competition for playing time, and that could fluctuate.”