It was one year ago—exactly one year—that, in the wake of the despicable killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, we began hearing something extraordinary from the realm of pro athletes, especially NBA players and coaches. It was coherent and consistent outrage, expressed, almost universally, with grace and empathy. There were powerful personal anecdotes, there were calls to action, there were messages of sheer pain and anger. When taken together, all of those messages showed that as wealthy and removed from George Floyd as those in the league now might be, they all recognized Floyd as a man and felt some pangs of his pain. They had seen enough unarmed Black men killed to declare that they would not accept deaths like his any longer.
Remember the angst of Pacers center Myles Turner, who wrote, “Why Do They Keep Killing Us Man. . . this was heart breaking to watch, There’s a systematic agenda against us and I cannot be convinced otherwise.”
Or the anger of Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade, who wrote: “JUSTICE WILL NOT BE SERVED UNTIL THOSE UNAFFECTED ARE AS OUTRAGED AS THOSE WHO ARE!”
Or the eloquence of Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who recalled attending a recently desegregated school in rural Kentucky five decades earlier where he was, “not wanted nor welcomed.” The details of his experience were not recorded on a cellphone for posterity, but he remembered clearly the feeling of being a helpless eight-year-old.
“I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood,” Casey wrote in a team statement. “As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings – helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.”
It is hard to look back on the gravity of that moment in time because of the foolishness of our present moment. The eloquence and seriousness the NBA showed last May, and for the entire gut-wrenching summer of 2020, has devolved over the past 52 weeks into something so different and petty as to be unrecognizable.
Kyrie Irving and Lucky the Leprechaun
On Sunday, an NBA player who purports to be a grown man celebrated a win in a playoff game by running to midcourt to stomp on a cartoon leprechaun, an act that was followed by another grown man, a fan, in the stands chucking a water bottle at the player.
The nonsense grows from there. On Monday, multiple NBA players who are also allegedly grown men followed up by logging onto social media to register their offense at the desecration of the floor cartoon.
This has been the NBA’s top storyline of the past 24 hours, bigger even than injuries to stars like Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid. First Kyrie Irving of the Nets made a point to scrape his shoe across the face of Lucky the Leprechaun at the TD Garden in Boston, prompting the water bottle incident. Then, on Monday, Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis, two members of the 2008 champion Celtics, fired back at Irving. Garnett lamented on Instagram, “Nobody gonna say anything about Kyrie stomping Lucky?” and added, “We just gonna act like we didn’t see that? Tf going on …”
Davis was tougher on Irving, writing, “You step on Lucky, you step on everybody that played for that team,” and suggested that such actions could precede, “somebody get(ting) hurt in real life.” Nets star Kevin Durant responded with a series of laughing emojis followed by a profane phrase. Durant does have a point—when you step on Lucky, you do not actually step on any past Celtics, you step only on a piece of painted flooring, and for Davis to suggest otherwise is laughable.
Still, it bears repeating that this is what our heroes of the NBA are up to today. A year ago, they were taking to the streets to protest for the dignity of Black lives. Now they’re taking to the Internet to protest the dignity of a cartoon, and a moderately creepy, winking cartoon wielding a shillelagh, at that.
The entire kerfuffle has been placed into the context of poor fan behavior that we’ve seen across the league in recent days as droves of fans are allowed back into arenas for the first time in 15 months, starting with Wizards star Russell Westbrook being doused with popcorn in Philadelphia and Hawks star Trae Young being spat upon at Madison Square Garden. That is fine. With a fan attempting to run onto the floor in Game 4 of the Sixers-Wizards series on Monday night, it’s clear there is an ongoing trend of poor fan behavior happening.
But doltish fans acting like dolts is not the real story, not a context big enough for what is really going on here in the NBA. Fact is the players, too, are acting like silly children and that is a monumental disappointment in the wake of a year in which the NBA had so admirably taken the lead on pushing for a national emphasis on social justice.
Remember that? Remember those weeks and months in which NBA players spoke out in voices that brought pride to the league? Remember when one player addressed his fellow rank-and-file players by suggesting they not go to play in the NBA restart in Orlando because the focus should remain on social justice: “Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as Black men every day we wake up.”
An NBA player said that. In fact, that player was Kyrie Irving, and even if you disagreed with his outlook, you could not deny that he was speaking with passion and conviction. Now, his conviction is being expressed through a shoe-wipe on a fictious character, which has somehow morphed into an important issue.
A reminder: It’s not. It’s not important at all. A year ago, NBA players, including Irving, were talking about things that really matter—justice and equality and humaneness. Let’s not forget that.
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