Last Tuesday, as the Wizards were finishing up their first practice in weeks due to the hectic schedule of the condensed 2020-21 NBA season, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan entered the gym at their practice facility in Southeast Washington. He's a towering figure, both literally and figuratively, as a former professional basketball player himself and a former cabinet member in President Barack Obama's administration.
Duncan was invited by John Thompson III, the vice president of player engagement for Monumental Sports, to speak with the team about education policy. Once practice was done, every player on the team spread out on the court along with members of the coaching staff and front office. Duncan and Thompson stood on the baseline as Duncan detailed his recent efforts trying to curb gun violence in Chicago where he is from.
He spoke to the organization about education and gun violence, which veered the conversation into social justice. It was at yet another inflection point in America with the Derek Chauvin trial ongoing at the time and more fatal shootings by police officers coming to the forefront like in the case of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was killed in Chicago right next to Farragut High School where Wizards assistant coach Tony Brown attended.
As these difficult subjects came up, the conversation became increasingly emotional. Most players on the Wizards are Black and some have come from the same environments Duncan's organization 'Chicago Create Real Economic Destiny (CRED)' tries to help.
"It was really powerful. It was moving, it was inspiring," Duncan told NBC Sports Washington. "I told them I’m all in. I’ll come back any time to continue these conversations."
Duncan spoke about the conversation in an interview for Wizards Pregame Live which will air Monday night at 6 p.m. before the Wizards take on the San Antonio Spurs. He explained how players like Westbrook, Beal and others have platforms that can continue to help enact change and sensed a genuine commitment from Wizards players to continue to make a difference in their communities, both back home and in Washington, D.C.
Duncan mentioning the tone in the room in his interview with NBC Sports Washington led to a follow-up from NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller, about whether he was surprised by any of the questions he was asked.
"What I was pleased with, not even surprised, was not the questions, honestly, it was the emotion in their voice, the passion in their voice," Duncan said.
"It’s one thing to talk and ask a question. I listen closely to questions, but I really sort of watch what are you feeling, what are you telling me? What I felt, what I know is this extraordinarily deep passion."
The original idea was for Duncan to interact with the team over Zoom. The Wizards had Georgia politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speak to players via Zoom in August ahead of the 2020 presidential election. They also had Dr. Uché Blackstock educate the players on the safety of Covid-19 vaccinations.
Duncan, though, went through NBA protocols to show up to the Wizards practice facility.
"He wanted to come into our practice facility to look the guys in the eyes and have the conversation in person," Thompson III told NBC Sports Washington.
Duncan and Thompson III both remarked how everyone lost track of time during the discussion. Usually, speakers address the team for about 30 minutes, but this one went well over an hour. It ended with Duncan telling the players he would return if they wanted him to and have one-on-one talks with anyone who was interested in detail how they can help create meaningful change.
"We would have been going for three hours," Thompson III said.
"This was really a conversation from the heart. That was very, very encouraging to me. Very encouraging to me," Duncan said.
"None of this is easy and none of us are going to solve these problems by ourselves, but if we can all do our little bit and if would all push ourselves to do a little more. Russ talked about how hard this is and how much time this takes and I’m like ‘yes, it does.’ Lots of days I’ll tell you here I’m working as hard as I can and I feel like I’m taking two steps backwards. But you’ve gotta get up the next day and work a little harder and just know how committed [you are]."
What also stood out to Duncan was how the players made time for him after one of their few practices this season. Off-days and downtime are precious resources this year with games every other day and often three in a four-day stretch. This season has been taxing physically, but also mentally and emotionally. The Wizards themselves have had their fair share of ups and downs, from major injuries to a devastating Covid-19 outbreak in January.
To carve out time, Duncan and Thompson III both believe shows how serious the players and those in the organization are to continuing the work they started last year in the wake of George Floyd's murder by a police officer in Minneapolis. As the 2019-20 season was paused due to the coronavirus, Monumental Sports - which includes the Wizards, Mystics and Go-Go - outlined initiatives to raise awareness and create change in a variety of areas including social justice and voter mobilization.
Led by players like Beal and Mystics star Natasha Cloud, the Wizards marched on Washington last June, on Juneteenth. They also opened Capital One Arena as a polling center for the election in November.
But they wanted to make sure these efforts became a movement and not a moment, and speaking to Duncan was part of that process. Next on the docket is likely a speaker who can educate them on police reform.
"I think that as an organization we are committed from [chairman] Ted [Leonsis] on down to making change in this country in many different areas," Thompson III said.
"We understand that it's a process and it's going to take time and nothing is going to happen overnight. But as an organization, we can't lose our momentum. We can't lose our drive the farther we get away from last summer."