After the Los Angeles Clippers waxed the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of their first-round series, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had very little to say about basketball. Earlier that day it was revealed that Jacob Blake, a Black man shot multiple times on Sunday by police in Wisconsin while his three children watched, will likely not be able to walk again after part of his spine was severed by one of the seven bullets fired into his back.
Rivers ripped off his VOTE! mask while delivering his postgame response to reporters, contrasting the Blake tragedy, and the larger context of racism in America—with the fear-mongering tone of this week’s Republican National Convention.
“All you hear [from] Donald Trump and all of them, talking about fear,” said an emotional Rivers. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.” The son of a Chicago police officer, Rivers went on to say that police training needs to change and police unions “have to be taken down.”
The horrors rolling through Rivers’s mind at that moment were in all likelihood very personal. Racism has followed him for 58 years, wherever he’s gone, in unspeakable ways. In high school, he was a McDonald’s All-American, before becoming a star at Marquette University, just 45 minutes north of Kenosha, where Blake was shot. While there in 1980, he met his future wife, Kris Campion, who is white. Being part of an interracial relationship was eye-opening for Rivers. Kris’s tires were slashed and a racial epithet was marked on the sidewalk outside her parents’ home in suburban Milwaukee.
"The whole thing with me and Kris affected my play," Rivers told the Orlando Sentinel’s Brian Schmitz in 2001. "I had a terrible year. I wasn't focused on the games. It was why I left." Rivers was forced to graduate as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks the following year.
In his book, Those Who Love the Game, which he wrote while playing for the New York Knicks, Rivers brings up discrimination and racial bias around the NBA, pointing out how the media contrasts white and Black players with stereotypical tropes, and how white executives can block Black candidates from management positions.
And in the mid-’90s bombshell book Money Players, which was released a couple years later, Rivers tried to explain why the NBA at the time had so few Black coaches or front-office members with actual power: “For years in this league, guys have been hiring their friends. The guys who do the hiring are white. Is that racism? Maybe not. But it’s still a problem.”
A short time later, after two seasons playing for the Spurs, while living in an exclusive community in Shavano Park—an enclave outside San Antonio that according to the 2010 census was 1.43% African American—Rivers had his home burned to the ground. As the flames consumed everything he owned, Rivers was playing golf in Seattle while his wife and children were visiting her family in Wisconsin.
"When I pulled up to the house, I really didn't have a thought," Rivers said. "I just saw my house gutted. Then I thought about my dog, Ginger. My wife gave the dog to me before the first game of my rookie year. Later, they found the dog dead in the rubble. Everything else in that house was just stuff. The clothes, the furniture. I lost everything.”
Police didn’t believe race was a motivating factor in the fire—they suspected local teenagers—but they did believe it was arson. Speaking about the incident shortly after, Rivers found that hard to swallow. "But they did it to my house. I'm Black," he said. "You always have to think that played a part of it.”
Nearly 20 years later, Rivers was head coach of the Clippers when the NBA banned longtime owner and known racist Donald Sterling for life in the middle of a season after Sterling’s girlfriend, V. Stiviano, leaked audio tapes of him making several disgusting statements, including, "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with Black people. Do you have to?"
So a lifetime facing bigotry lay behind Rivers’s tears last night. He knows that societal change moves at a snail’s pace, if at all. Whether it’s Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri getting assaulted by a police officer as he tries to celebrate the team’s first championship, or LeBron James having the n-word spray-painted on his Los Angeles home, or Rivers having all his possessions turned into char, there are countless examples that demonstrate how wealth and status don’t guarantee protection for any Black person living in America.
That’s also why, after seeing footage of Blake get shot in front of his three children, traumatizing them in irreversible ways, NBA players feel helpless and frustrated. They want to protest. Their minds are away from the game that has long been a refuge.
There are no answers or quick-fix solutions either, which makes everything all the more difficult to process.
“It’s amazing to me,” Rivers said last night, his voice breaking. “Why we keep loving this country. And this country does not love us back.”
Originally Appeared on GQ