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Sometimes, the Minnesota Timberwolves protested with actions. Sometimes they protested with words.
The Timberwolves postponed their game against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday less than a day after a Brooklyn Center police officer shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old unarmed Black man, during a traffic stop. Before the Timberwolves’ rescheduled game against Brooklyn without fans Tuesday, both teams wore T-Shirts during pre-game warmups with the message, “Justice and Liberty FOR ALL.”
And after the Timberwolves’ 127-97 loss to the Nets, their players condemned Wright’s killing. Meanwhile, former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin is on trial over the death of George Floyd less than a year ago.
“There’s only so much you can say,” Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell said. “We have a platform right here to bring awareness to it. There’s nothing we can do from this conversation right now. The biggest thing is bringing awareness and going out and actually do things about it.”
All of which raised a difficult question for the Timberwolves to answer: Was it too premature for the NBA to reschedule their game for Tuesday, while emotions are still raw and frustrations still fresh? Or was this the right call so that the NBA could ease scheduling concerns, follow the city’s curfew, and give the players a megaphone to talk about these issues?
“I definitely think it was the right call for it to be canceled yesterday,” Timberwolves rookie forward Anthony Edwards said. “But to play today, I don’t really know how to answer that. I don’t know. Maybe, maybe so.”
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns was excused to miss Tuesday’s game to be with his family on the one-year anniversary of his mother's death. The Timberwolves dealt with a 3 p.m. local tipoff time that interrupted pre-game preparation and nap schedules. And the last-place T-Wolves (14-41) were facing a dangerous Nets team (37-17) that shares a tie with the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Russell offered a “no comment” on whether these circumstances factored into the Timberwolves’ poor performance. Minnesota coach Chris Finch conceded “there were a lot of contributing factors” before stressing “it’s our job to come out and be better than that.”
“That’s the unfortunate part about it,” Timberwolves forward Josh Okogie said. “I love basketball with all my heart. I eat, sleep and breathe basketball. It’s my job and it’s what I love to do. For sure, yesterday was not the right thing to do to play basketball. But when things like this happen, I get mad because I also now have to stop doing what I love to do because somebody can’t follow the rules and somebody else can’t value life. You see what I’m saying? Why do I have to suffer based on something that wasn’t even supposed to be taking place in the first place? But yesterday for sure was the right decision not to play. Today? I’m not even sure, to be honest. I don’t know. I can’t tell you. But it just sucks I can’t focus and we have to worry. Everything just sucks. I can’t give you an answer to that question.”
How Timberwolves wrestled with the Wright shooting
Discussing Wright’s killing, Okogie referenced comedian Chris Rock’s recent bit that questioned those that justified police brutality by simply chalking it up to law enforcement simply having “a few bad apples.”
“Say I’m starting an airline business. ‘J.O. Airlines.’ Come fly with J.O. Airlines. I say all of our pilots are pretty good, but we’re going to have a few bad apples. Would you buy a ticket to J.O. Airlines? Probably not,” Okogie said. “I wouldn’t buy a ticket to my own airline if that was the stigma going around. Same thing with hospitals. If I was going to a hospital because somebody needed an implant or a procedure done and they say, ‘Most of our doctors are good, but we have some bad apples in the hospital,' nobody would go to that hospital. There are some jobs where you can’t have bad apples, especially when there are people’s livelihoods at stakes. The police industry is in the same thing. You can’t have bad apples.”
Police said that Wright had warrants out for his arrest and was stopped because he had expired plates. And they said that the police officer, Kim Potter, shot Wright accidentally as she intended to fire a Taser and not a handgun.
“I’m not here to say that Daunte Wright, whether he was right or wrong in that situation, he shouldn’t have to pay the price of life or death for that,” Okogie said. “There’s been so many situations where I’ve been wrong. But I shouldn’t be at the hands of a police officer on whether I live or not. We played today, we lost and I probably ran five plays wrong today. I shouldn’t be killed for it. The other team probably did something wrong today. They shouldn’t be killed for it. It hurts because all of this could’ve been prevented.”
The Timberwolves said the same thing following Floyd’s murder, too. They held Zoom meetings and conference calls for both group and individual discussions. They invited guest speakers to talk about systemic racism and how to get involved with their community. Towns, Russell and Okogie participated in peaceful protests.
The Timberwolves and the WNBA's Lynx forged a multi-year partnership with The Minneapolis Foundation to address racial inequality by providing funds geared to address violence prevention, system inequities and criminal justice reform.
The Timberwolves were among the NBA teams that gave their employees the day off to vote on Election Day as well as to use their arena for in-person voting.
Gregg Popovich on Daunte Wright shooting:'It just makes you sick to your stomach'
After Wright’s killing, those in the organization questioned whether those initiatives have been enough.
“Obviously if you’re back in this situation, you feel like you have to do more,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said. “That’s a wake-up call for all of us. We all love Minneapolis. We all love Minnesota. It’s an incredible place to live and to be. It’s unfortunate we’re here again. But for us, it comes with a responsibility. We have to review what we’ve done in the past and what we can do more to bring more awareness so we’re not brought back in this situation again.”
How Timberwolves handled their postponed game
When the Timberwolves postponed Monday’s game, they still found it important for everyone to get together.
The Timberwolves brought in Tru Pettigrew, who through Tru Access has delivered motivational speakers and has provided diversity training for educators and law enforcement officials.
Pettigrew had already spoken to the team last year following Floyd’s killing. But the Timberwolves found it important to have more conversations to talk about another racial injustice and to create a team-bonding moment in a season that lacked many.
“Guys didn’t want to leave,” Rosas said. “They wanted to stay around each other They wanted to talk through things. They wanted to have open conversations because the next thing is you’re going home by yourself. In this reality we live in, you have that window of time to be together.”
Rosas, the NBA’s lone Latino to hold a prominent front office position, also said those conversations became productive because of the team’s makeup, which extends to the front office and coaching staff.
“I’ve learned more in the last year from our players than I have a lot of times in a lifetime of personal experiences,” said Finch, previously a Toronto Raptors assistant coach. “You can never tell somebody how they’re feeling until it’s known. That’s why we try to encourage the dialogue. It helps alleviate any pressures that are building up inside of them, any frustrations and anger as well as what we can learn from that.”
That only reinforced both more awareness, and frustration, that plenty of work needs to be done.
The Timberwolves’ coaches and players can condemn racism all they want. They can launch initiatives to help the Minnesota area with more resources and access to voting. But what has Minneapolis' leaders done?
Chauvin lost his position, but it remains to be seen how the jury rules in his trial. Potter and Brooklyn Center police chief Tim Gannon resigned, but it is unclear if they will face any other consequences. Though President Joe Biden has condemned police brutality and systemic racism more strongly than Donald Trump ever did, significant police reform legislation has not been passed on the federal or state levels.
“We have to hold people accountable, but for real, though,” Okogie said. “I don’t want this to go it’s just another episode; we’re going to say we hold people accountable and then we just wait until this dies down and everybody forgets about it. We need to keep having this conversation. It’s happening too frequent that a young 20-year-old kid gets killed not too far from where they’re having the trial for another Black man getting killed. That shouldn’t happen. That shouldn’t be that frequent where somebody gets killed for the same thing that somebody is on trial for doing. That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Tuesday, the Timberwolves went back to their jobs. Even if they didn’t do so successfully. The Timberwolves will also play the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday at Target Center, without any fans, at 3:30 pm CT.
“It was important for us to play. It’s important for us to move forward in the most normal way possible in the most abnormal season," Finch said. "With all things considered, we’re just trying to establish as much normality as we possibly can. Hopefully tomorrow will be better because today is out of the way.”
As the Timberwolves have experienced all season both on and off the court, the next day does not always yield a better mood or outcome. For better and for worse, they will still try.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Minnesota Timberwolves pained by Daunte Wright shooting