Bitter swallowed sweet whole.
At least that’s how LaMarcus Aldridge sees it now, having played in six All-Star games since the first one unwittingly, tragically and jarringly carved the shape of today’s NBA.
On a crisp, grey night in February, as Aldridge beamed inside thinking this 2012 NBA All-Star Game might finally stamp accreditation to a life spent grinding to get there, approximately 20 miles Northeast up Interstate 4 in Sanford, Fla., the story unfolding wasn’t so hopeful.
“I had mixed emotions,” Aldridge told NBA.com. “I feel like I should’ve made it a couple of years before that. But I was excited to play with the best in the league, to be on that stage to be in that moment.”
As the world’s best prepped to tip off the game, 17-year old high school junior Trayvon Martin pulled on a hoodie for a quick walk to 7-Eleven to grab snacks. Toting an iced tea and a bag of Skittles on the way back, Martin would exhale his last breath after a fatal encounter with George Zimmerman left him dying minutes later of a gunshot wound.
A paramedic arriving on the scene in Sanford pronounced Martin dead just as the 2012 All-Star Game commenced.
“I was sick,” Aldridge recalled. “It was like, ‘Man, this has to stop.’ It hit home with the things I’ve seen growing up. We can’t keep letting people get away with saying just because someone is African American and has a hood on, he looks like he’s going to rob someone. It just made more frustration come out. I felt like this injustice just can’t keep happening.”
For the first time since that night, the NBA at large has convened in Orlando for the 2019-20 NBA Season Restart. This time, the stakes are immeasurably higher at Walt Disney World with much more on the line than the Larry O’Brien Trophy, in part due to Martin’s death serving as a tipping point for an NBA now determined more than ever to help combat systemic racism, social injustice and inequality.
We all know the Trayvon Martin story painfully well.
Just before approximately 7 million viewers tuned in to watch Kevin Durant and LeBron James stage an epic duel, where the superstars -- who would later meet in the NBA Finals that summer -- scored 36 points apiece, Martin, a Black teenager, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, attempted to walk home from a convenience store, only to be stopped, questioned, attacked and eventually shot to death by a white volunteer of the local neighborhood watch committee. As the incident started to unfold, Zimmerman called local police. A dispatcher ordered Zimmerman to not approach Martin.
He did it, anyway, and a scuffle ensued, leading to the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
Suddenly, neither the All-Star Game or the 84th Academy Awards -- which also aired that night -- seemed relevant on the cold, rainy streets of Central Florida.
The tragedy in The Retreat at Twin Lakes dwarfed the thrills generated at the Amway Center.
A young boy was helplessly killed. His parents lost a child too soon.
Seemingly simultaneously, Trayvon Martin’s death woke up the nation and spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. At a time when social media was starting to soar, the movement -- its name now etched onto the courts at Disney -- started with a simple hashtag. At one point, Martin’s death garnered more coverage than the 2012 presidential race. Twitter users tweeted Martin’s name more than two million times in the 30 days after the shooting; his death sparking the biggest petition in Change.org history.
Nationwide headlines about the incident would surface weeks later and travel across the country from Florida to Oregon, where Aldridge was playing as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I just remember it exploded overnight,” Aldridge said. “It went viral. Everyone was talking about it. It just stunned everyone to have that happen, and to hear what happened just riled everyone up to wake up to what had been going on for years and years. It was in recent times one of the bigger wake-up calls. It happens more often than we hear, but we all heard about that one."
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Meanwhile in the NBA and WNBA, the Martin tragedy ushered in a new era in which players started to audaciously use their platforms to speak out against racism and inequality.
As we’ve seen living through the COVID-19 pandemic, sports aren’t shielded from what takes place in the world. The majority of professional basketball players are Black. So, naturally, Martin’s death resonated deeper as players longed to serve as a voice for the voiceless and raise awareness while showing the world where they stood in the fight for equality.
The sartorial protests started in 2012 with members of the Miami Heat, led by James and Dwyane Wade, donning hoodies in tribute to Martin with the hashtag #WeAreTrayvonMartin.
The next month, audio was released from former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks. In silent protests, the Clippers tossed their warm-up jackets on the floor at center court before Game 4 of their opening round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors and wore their pregame shirts inside out. The NBA banned Sterling for life two days later.
By July of 2013, Black Lives Matter officially became a movement with chapters forming around the country after Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Martin. Understandably, James took issue last week with use of the word “movement” to describe Black Lives Matter.
“When you’re Black, it’s not a movement,” James said recently after a team scrimmage. “It’s a lifestyle. We sit here and say it’s a movement. This is a walk of life. When you wake up and you’re Black, that is what it is. This is who we are. We understand that, and we know that for one step that someone else might have to take or for one yard someone else may have to take, we know we’ve got to take five more steps. We know we’ve got to take 10 more yards to get to the end zone."
Recent history indicates as much.
In July and August of 2014, Eric Garner and Michael Brown Jr. suffered deaths at the hands of police in separate incidents in Staten Island, N.Y. and Ferguson, Mo.
Derrick Rose hit the court that December wearing a black shirt emblazoned with Garner’s last words before his death: “I Can’t Breathe.” A week before that, a grand jury had declined to levy charges against the officer who placed Garner in the chokehold that ultimately killed him.
The New York Times researched and found at least 70 people died in custody of law enforcement after saying the words: “I can’t breathe.” More than half of them were Black, with most being stopped or detained over nonviolent infractions, concerns about their mental health, or 911 calls about suspicious behavior.
Philando Castile, a Black cafeteria supervisor at a local school was shot and killed in July of 2016 by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., during an incident caught on video just a day before Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man in Baton Rouge, La., died after being shot in custody of police with bystanders recording on video. In response, the Minnesota Lynx wore black t-shirts before a game against the Dallas Wings that said: “Change Starts with Us -- Justice & Accountability” on the front, followed by the names of Castile and Sterling on the back, as well as the Dallas police shield in honor of the victims of the July 7, 2016 attack on Dallas police with “Black Lives Matter” written underneath.
Less than a week later, James, Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony opened the 2016 ESPYS with a stirring speech about the state of affairs in this country.
“We cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” Anthony said then. “The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that plagues so many of us. The system is broken. The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new."
Players openly admit that playing in the NBA eases some of the burden that comes with the color of their skin, largely because of their popularity and instant climb into wealth.
As Draymond Green said on “The Arena” last week, “you can lose touch with where you come from and the rest of the Black community because you’re living in this surreal world everyone else isn’t living in. That’s what I’ve found as a challenge, and I’ve tried to make sure I stay true to that and stay connected with my people because you can tend to get lost.”
Still, the higher tax bracket doesn’t shield NBA players from the hardships endured by African Americans.
Thabo Sefolosha experienced a wrongful arrest, suffering a fractured fibula and ligament damage at the hands of arresting officers, which forced him to miss the playoffs that season. As Marcus Smart headed home from a game at TD Garden, a woman in a Celtics jersey yelled a racial slur to him at a red light. James saw the same slur spray painted on the gate of his property, except this time, it was plural, meaning it took aim at his wife and children, too. Sterling Brown suffered through the horror of a parking violation escalating into an officer kneeling on his neck and tasing him, with the policeman later posting derogatory sentiments about the incident on social media.
“Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the Black community,” Brown said after the 2018 incident.
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In 2020, the cries for justice intensified around the world and in sports following the fatalities of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
- The league didn’t just call it a day after painting “Black Lives Matter” on the court and inscribing social justice messages on jerseys. It’s also working on the first-ever NBA foundation focused on supporting economic empowerment in the Black community.
- Maya Moore helped overturn the conviction of a Black man who spent 23 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. An all-white jury found Johnathan Irons guilty in 1997 for burglary and assault, despite a substantial lack of evidence. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Other WNBA players have followed in Moore’s footsteps by deciding to sit out the upcoming season to fight for social reform. NBA star Kyrie Irving pledged a $1.5 million donation to cover their salaries.
- LeBron James formed the nonprofit More Than a Vote in concert with other notable athletes to address voter suppression, while encouraging African Americans to register and vote. For the first time, NBA arenas in Atlanta, Milwaukee and Detroit will also serve a role in the process by transforming into voting epicenters. Players from both the NBA and WNBA also continue to engage in discussions with Michelle Obama on voting initiatives, per Paul, the National Basketball Players Association's president.
- Led by Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce, the National Basketball Coaches Association established a committee on racial injustice and reform with the goal of pursuing change in NBA cities by working alongside local leaders, officials and law enforcement agencies.
- Two committee members, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, provided signatures in support of a bill sent to Congress to discontinue qualified immunity. The current legal doctrine increases the difficulty for suing police officers for brutality. For example, last year a Georgia sheriff shot a 10-year-old boy who was lying face down on the ground when aiming for the family dog. The officer was entitled to qualified immunity, so a federal appeals court dismissed the $2 million lawsuit.
- Players remain committed to educating society on important history and significant matters in the Black community. Russell Westbrook will serve as executive producer for a documentary series covering the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Paul is producing a docuseries that takes a close look at the challenges HBCU basketball programs endure. Irving recently produced a PlayersTV special on Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police serving a no-knock warrant.
Russell Westbrook: “I can reach that demographic of people and kids and let them know it's okay to stand up...It's going to be a struggle. It's not just -snap of a finger- going to change tomorrow. Just take it step by step. Whether it's protests, finding ways to bring light...” pic.twitter.com/UnZ23DKtEO— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) June 21, 2020
- Taylor also continues to receive support from athletes inside the NBA bubble. Several often circumvent basketball-related questions during media interviews by opting instead to reiterate unyielding intent to see justice served for the former Black EMT worker.
- Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle starts off his media availability by reading a passage from the Equal Justice Initiative calendar, which lists racial issues and historic events occurring on a given day in America. For example, the calendar says on July 30 -- the day of the NBA restart -- a white mob in 1866 attacked Black voters and killed 40 in New Orleans.
- Social justice foundations continue to sprout among the players, including a joint venture between Paul, Anthony and Wade. “Our mission is to address socio-economic injustice issues facing Black and Brown communities by making meaningful change,” Paul said. Malcolm Brogdon launched the Brogdon Family Foundation to focus on advocacy through social justice, empowered education and the clean water infrastructure.
- Jrue Holiday, Patty Mills and Dwight Howard all pledged donations to social justice initiatives with the remainder of their 2019-20 salaries, which could raise approximately $7 million.
- NBA players and teams led and joined marches all across the country in protests against racial injustices. Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to his hometown of Atlanta to lead a peaceful march with Brogdon, another Atlanta native.
- Westbrook continues the fight sartorially, collaborating with the NBPA to make shirts that “allow us players to shed light on social justice, and honor the victims of families of those who continue to inspire.”
These efforts towards economic and financial empowerment, police reform, voter suppression, legislation, education and incarceration by no means cover the entirety of the work taking place across the league, but rather a dozen instances reflective of an increased desire to fight for lasting change.
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When the San Antonio Spurs first emerged from quarantine July 11 at Walt Disney World, instead of rushing to the court to conduct a practice, the team spent the first hour of the scheduled workout discussing race relations, inequality and social justice. Popovich has worked diligently for more than two decades with his team conducting such difficult conversations.
Popovich anticipated the hourlong talk to be “just a continuation” of how he’s always conducted business.
“But probably with much more feeling, more factual knowledge, more empathy for how much hurt, how much fear, how much inequity has really been imposed upon the Black community over the years,” Popovich said. “As much as we’ve talked about it, as many people as we’ve had come and talk to our team, or books passed out, even for people like myself, who sort of think we had a good feel for injustice and inequality, we didn’t know crap.
"And it’s mostly an educational thing. We talk about the police, and we know there are movements like voter suppression. [There] are still calls [that] Black people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, people who still don’t understand that the wealth difference has nothing to do with marriage, education or anything else. It has to do with the labor that has never been paid for, all this time. So, what I hope for is that educationally, empathetically, our society changes, mostly because the impetus of this virus has made it so obvious to everybody that this wealth gap is the biggest problem we have. We have to make sure we aim high, I think.”
“We’ve got to keep pushing,” he said. “We can’t be satisfied with a little bit of change. That’s what they want. They want you to get a little change, feel good about it, and then be quiet about it when it all of a sudden goes back to where it was. We’ve got to keep pushing for change, keep pushing to be treated equal, keep pushing for the next generation.”
Having undergone shoulder surgery in June, Aldridge can’t help San Antonio in its bid to break an NBA record by advancing to the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season.
The truth is that for the Spurs, and likely most other teams, the postseason pales in comparison to the responsibility the league will be shouldering once the season resumes. So, like any other teammate unable to contribute in the flesh, Aldridge will root from afar at home in Dallas.
When this season finally ends with a 2020 champion crowned, perhaps he’ll experience those “mixed emotions” again from that first All-Star experience in Orlando when pondering the progress made towards social justice and equality.
He laughed joking that “I should’ve been there a long time ago.”
But for the entire world, “a long time ago” can’t come soon enough.
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