NBC Sports

JTA's social justice mission is to 'impact people's lives'

NBC Sports
Juan Toscano-Anderson

Wearing a white T-shirt, blue gym shorts and sneakers, Juan Toscano-Anderson wanders about Gilman Playground signing autographs, posing for photos and embracing the opportunity to connect with folks from the most marginalized community in San Francisco.

It’s Juneteenth weekend and it’s also Father’s Day. But rather than relax behind comfortable walls, the Warriors forward is in his element. Toscano-Anderson goes about life – and basketball – as if service to others is his purpose.

Which explains why, as a rookie last season, he overachieved.

Promoted from the uncertainty of two-way status to standard NBA contract, from G-League part-timer to rotation fixture, JTA made the biggest leap of any Golden State player. Nice work on the court.

He flew even higher off the court, getting a whiff of air so rarefied he thought he’d never breathe it. As one of five finalists for the inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award – the winner will be announced on Tuesday – JTA is among NBA aristocracy.

“It’s pretty dope to be in that company,” he says.

"That company” is NBA champion and ex-Warrior Harrison Barnes, now with the Kings. It’s Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, an All-Star and core member of a team up 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris, another All-Star. And the fifth finalist is Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, No. 10 on the NBA all-time scoring list and a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

 

“There are some friends I went to (Oakland’s) Montclair Elementary with and I had a LeBron jersey and a Carmelo jersey,” Toscano-Anderson recalls. “And they reminded me that they remember me wearing that Carmelo jersey faithfully, every week.

“It’s just cool to be in that company. Obviously, the other players are great company, too, but just to be in the same conversation with Carmelo Anthony ... he’s like a god to me. He’s one of my idols.

“Then, for it to be topped off by the chance to win the actual award and what it signifies and who is being nominated ... that’s big, just being in my community.”

Though the NBA is thick with players doing good deeds on and off the court, the league had to be fair. If there is to be one award for the player that best exemplifies the spirit of a Hall of Famer who often lent his voice and presence to social-justice causes, every team should have a nominee. Thirty in all.

As the seven-person selection committee – which included Abdul Jabbar and Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport – waded through the candidates, they surely discovered the peaceful march through Oakland that JTA organized in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy. Toscano-Anderson pulled teammates, including Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, along for the walk.

They undoubtedly learned of JTA’s childhood in East Oakland, his biracial identity and his commitment to a better Oakland.

Just as Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff learned they couldn’t take Toscano-Anderson off the floor in the fourth quarter of close games, the committee couldn’t trim him from the list – even if his NBA résumé doesn’t stack up to the other finalists.

Toscano-Anderson, 28, feels fortunate to be around long enough to be considered for such an honor.

“I don’t necessarily believe in luck, but in regards to dodging some circumstances and instances that could have either put me in a different predicament or even ended my life, I know what that’s like,” he says. “I know resources these kids are lacking. Sometimes it’s just a presence. Some of these kids don’t have big brothers, some don’t have moms and some don’t have dads. And in some cases, (mom or dad) might be there physically, but they’re not emotionally and spiritually. Maybe it’s drugs. I’ve had friends whose parents were on drugs. They would literally come and go from home as they felt.

“I just want to connect the dots. East Oakland is a tough neighborhood. Not a lot of resources. Not many places to buy groceries. Where can you buy good food? That’s a problem. I’m not saying we have to have a Whole Foods, but, damn, put in a Safeway or something. Those little things are difference-makers.”

 

Toscano-Anderson’s salary, roughly $1.7 million, is not enough to fund the refacing of a neighborhood. That level of financial clout is restricted to his competitors. Anthony’s career earning amount to roughly $260 million, Holiday’s to about $125 million. Harris and Barnes each have earned more than $100 million.

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For Toscano-Anderson, who someday may command an eight-figure annual salary, the priority is availability and the opening of doors youngsters might not otherwise see.

“There’s going to be so many basketball players that come and go,” he says. “They remember you, but they’re prisoners of the moment as well. There’s going to be another hometown kid that comes along, maybe half-Mexican, half-Black. There’s going to be another one. So, I want to leave an imprint on things beyond basketball.

“That’s just my ideology. I’m very aware that basketball is going to end one day, so what else am I on this earth to do? It’s not just to play basketball. It’s to impact people’s lives, to give them hope, give them whatever they see in me.”

No matter who wins the award and the $100,000 donation to an organization of their choice, Toscano-Anderson, who as a finalist receives $25,000 to donate, believes being on the list is enough to assure at least one victory.

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