Hundreds of players across the NBA have answered questions from reporters this week about their goals for the upcoming season, offensive schemes and offseason muscle gains. The discussions have been mostly basketball-oriented as an atypical season approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few months ago, though, players went on strike following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot seven times in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. They decided to resume the season after extracting commitments from the NBA related to social justice and racial equality.
New Sixers head coach Doc Rivers is closely involved with one of those initiatives. He was one of two coaches named last month to the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, along with Hawks head coach and former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce. Rivers, who spoke at a Philadelphia rally for President-elect Joe Biden two days before the election, is determined not to lose momentum.
“We’ve got to hold people accountable for some of the promises that were made,” he said earlier this week. “I think that’s No. 1. But I also think it’s really important that we stay engaged. It takes a village, right? Not just to raise a child, but to get things done. It takes a community to get things done. And so just because, in some cases, the election went our way, we can’t forget that 70 million voted (for) the other side, as well. We have a country that’s extremely divided and that’s not OK. We’ve got to try to unify this country and still get some of the social things done that are the most important things.
“And again, I don’t even use the word social justice — I use the word human rights. There are some things that just shouldn’t happen because of the color of your skin. That’s just a human rights issue. We have to keep our eye on the ball; we have to stay engaged. The players have to stay engaged. ... As I told a couple of our players, we can’t be Milli Vanilli. We can’t be one-hit wonders that aren’t true. We have to stay with it.”
Tobias Harris, who used time with reporters in the Orlando bubble to call for justice for Breonna Taylor, is on the NBA Foundation’s Board of Directors. The Foundation aims to economically empower Black communities through $30 million in annual contributions.
Matisse Thybulle wore “Vote” on the back of his jersey at Disney and continued to push for increased voter turnout leading into the November election. He was part of the Sixers’ “Vote 76” campaign and supported poll workers and voters in Philadelphia on Election Day. The 23-year-old now thinks differently about his position as an advocate for social change.
“I think it’s definitely changed just because of the platform I’ve been given,” he said. “It kind of feels more like an obligation. It’s something that obviously I care about and I’m passionate about, but I feel like being in the position I’m in and a lot of us are in as NBA players or role models or whatever you want to call us, it’s our duty to stand up for the things people struggle with, our country struggles with, and try to be a voice for those who don’t have one.”
If you follow the Sixers, you were likely aware that Thybulle is a person concerned with issues outside of himself and his career. Perhaps you’re less familiar with Dwight Howard’s non-basketball background.
Howard won his first NBA championship last season with the Lakers but seriously considered not traveling to Disney World. He committed to donating the rest of his 2019-20 salary to “Breathe Again,” an initiative associated with his D12 Foundation.
His focus heading into this season, he said, is positivity and unity.
“During the time in the bubble a lot of work was being done behind the scenes,” Howard said. “And now that I’m here in Philly a little bit closer to home (in Georgia), I have a chance to really just lock in and focus on all the things that we were doing during the bubble — bringing more awareness, more knowledge, more information to people in general. Just trying to give a positive outlook on life and the situation that’s going on right now with COVID. It’s been tough to battle with COVID and everything that’s been going on around the nation.
“But we found peace and unity amongst our brethren, and also my family. Just being here in Philly, it just gave me more new life. I’m just excited … I wish the stadiums were open so all the fans could come and we could really just be together during this time. I think unity brings change. We have an opportunity to do something here in Philly that could really help not just Pennsylvania, but hopefully a lot of basketball fans around the world.”