Who Are We Going to Be?

Stan Van Gundy
·12 min read

We’d just had a really tough loss a couple of nights before the Capitol riot went down, so to tell you the truth, I was in a bad mood that week. But when I woke up the morning of January 6, the first thing I saw was the result from one of Georgia’s runoff elections. Raphael Warnock had won, becoming the first Black senator from Georgia.

I thought, Hey, this is great. There’s actually some good news today.

Then, by lunchtime, it’d all fallen apart.

After that morning’s walkthrough, I came home to have lunch with my wife and son, who was visiting from Michigan. And they had CNN on.

I think if I could sum up my first thought it was something like, Look how broken this country is.

Our country’s divides have become so deep, so extreme that it’s actually radicalized people. I mean, really think about that. It’s brought people to the point where they’re out for blood.

When I looked at my TV, I saw a lot of craziness. But the one thing that really struck me was seeing a sign that said, “Take Back OUR Country!”

I think we gotta do some soul searching here and really ask ourselves who those people mean by “our,” and who they want to take the country “back” from.

After the riot, I listened to a lot of political leaders say things like, “Yeah, this was really bad, but our democracy has survived before, and it will survive again.”

I think that’s naive. And that’s the same kind of naivete that got us here in the first place.

That’s why I wanted to write this.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I see people getting excited that there’s a new President, and I think that’s great. Really. But it’s a little premature for a sigh of relief.

We can’t waste an opportunity to actually reckon with the racism and hatred that’s been building in this country, long before any individual president took office.

We have to ask ourselves some hard questions.

When people are carrying signs saying, “Take back OUR country,” what do they really want? They want to go back to a time when they had certain privileges that others didn’t.

And I don’t know how to bridge that. I want unity too, but that’s not something we can just “look past our differences” on.

We can’t waste an opportunity to actually reckon with the racism and hatred that’s been building in this country.Stan Van Gundy

Our country is entrenched in a battle where on one side, people are fighting for equality, and on the other side, people are fighting for the status and privilege they see slipping away. I think those people are in the minority. But as we all saw on our TV screens, that minority is fairly large and extremely intense.

We are truly in a fight for the essence of this country and who we’re going to be, and we’re nowhere near agreeing on that. And I don’t think something magical is going to happen to fix it. I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but this really feels like the most serious risk this country’s faced in my lifetime.

So, if you haven’t said anything yet, it’s time to ask yourself, where am I? That’s what I’ve been asking myself.

And not just where am I now? Where was I 20, 30, 40 years ago? Because it’s not like these problems didn’t exist back then. It’s time for this country to decide how much more of this we’ll tolerate.

Who are we going to be?

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

What happened at the Capitol isn’t about one party, or even one president. I think we make a mistake when we think that Donald Trump is the only problem, and that when he goes away, the problem goes away.

There are millions and millions of people out there who look at our country a lot differently than the way I look at our country — and probably you, too, if you’re reading this. Those people aren’t going away, and they didn’t come to those beliefs in the last four years.

There are people out there who really think they’re being aggrieved, that they’re being screwed. And to tell you the truth? On an individual level, some people have been. People in poor communities of every race have been forgotten and let down by politicians on both sides of the aisle. I’m not trying to discount anyone’s individual experience.

But when white people start to believe that their jobs and their lives are under threat because of increased diversity or immigration, and our politicians play into that, it doesn’t comfort people — it stokes fear. It plays to people’s worst instincts. It plays into racism.

I know some people will be upset with me for saying this, but I don’t care. Before we can move forward as a country, we’ve got to collectively understand some facts. This has always been a racist country. It’s always been a sexist country. It’s always been a homophobic country.

We’ve made some gains along the way in terms of racial justice, and women’s issues, and LGBTQ issues, but this is sort of who we are.

My dad coached basketball for 40 years, first in high school, then in college. And for as long as I’ve been alive, he’s been conservative on everything except probably racial justice issues.

Even though I went to primarily white schools, when you grow up around basketball, you’re around people of color, you’re around people from different backgrounds. And as I went from college to college coaching, and then into the NBA, that exposure just grew.

Carlos Osorio/AP Photo
Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

I had the privilege of working with Bob McAdoo in Miami when I first came into the league. Bob’s a little bit older than I am, but not by a lot. And Bob told me he had still gone to segregated schools when he was growing up in North Carolina.

Just hearing him talk about the difference in how, in his community, Black people had been treated as opposed to white people, both academically and athletically, and everything else … and to be around this guy who was this great person of high character, and knowing he hadn’t been given the same opportunities as white people?

When your friends, and people you work with on a daily basis, and people you care about, tell you these horrible stories about their experiences, you’re just like, “That’s not right. This isn’t O.K.” Hearing those stories, it angers you.

Like, for example, I don’t know a single Black adult who I’ve worked with, who as their kids become teenagers, particularly their sons, haven’t had to sit down and have a talk about what to do if they get pulled over by the police so that they came home that night.

And I’m saying, “Wait a minute? That’s unbelievable in this country.” I have four kids, all in their 20s now — three of them girls, and one son. Never once had that talk. In my mind, if my kids got pulled over, they probably deserved to be pulled over, number one. And I never worried that anything was going to happen to them. I never had to have that conversation.

The fact that every, and I mean, every — without exception — Black parent that I know has had to have that conversation, that alone pisses me off. It’s the fact that they HAVE to have it that pisses me off.

If you think that’s just about how much money you make, you’re wrong. It’s not just about economics. There are NBA players all the time who are getting pulled over in their own neighborhood because they’re living in pretty nice areas, driving pretty nice cars, and they’re getting pulled over because some police officer doesn’t think they belong there because of the color of their skin.

And I think what we do a lot of times with people like Bob McAdoo, or the athletes in our league, is we try to hold them up as proof that racism doesn’t exist. Like, Look, they made it, nobody’s holding anybody back, instead of dealing with the hard reality, which is that they’re the exceptions.

What we do a lot of times with people like Bob McAdoo, or the athletes in our league, is we try to hold them up as proof that racism doesn’t exist.Stan Van Gundy

Back when I coached the Pistons, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris came up to me around the time that Kaepernick started protesting, and they said, “Hey, we’ve got to do something.” And we got them involved with Jocelyn Benson. She’s now the secretary of state in Michigan, but at the time she was the CEO of RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, which does work around race and sports. And she helped them organize a policing town hall.

A lot of activists and people from the community came, and to hear our players tell their own stories — tearfully in a lot of cases — about what they had gone through growing up, and how they had been treated in their communities, and how painful it clearly still was for them? That was really poignant for me, because I deeply respected and loved those guys. Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson. And to really hear the depths of the pain? Yeah, that hurt.

I think the players in our league have been unbelievably inspiring to people like me. They make me want to do more to support them and work for the issues that they think are important.

I’ve been around NBA players for 25 years and have always been impressed with their character and commitment, as well as how they navigate the difficulties of trying to use their platforms for social good. I’ve always had great respect for players, and I’ve got even more now. I would love to support them any way I possibly can because they deserve it.

Sometimes for me, I turn on CNN and see stuff like the Capitol riot, and I go to a bad place where I see no hope for our country. Then I turn around and listen to our athletes and watch what the WNBA players did to help Raphael Warnock get elected. And you go, “You know what? Nah, we’ve got hope. Because these people are going to fight for what they think the country should be.”

A lot of them are fighting for people in the communities that they grew up in. They know what this is all about. And then there are also players like Kyle Korver, who didn’t grow up marginalized but have been around people who have and heard their stories and said, “That’s not right. That’s not what we’re supposed to be in this country. And I’m going to stand up and say something.”

Young people are always my hope, especially the WNBA, which doesn’t get nearly enough credit.

The W is undoubtedly the most progressive sports league in the country. I mean, I’m proud of our NBA people, but nobody has spoken up, spoken out more as an organization than the WNBA.

Derick Hingle/AP Photo
Derick Hingle/AP Photo

I just find all of those people really inspiring. If I have any kind of hope, that’s where it comes from.

I promise I’m gonna shut up soon, but before I do, I want to use my platform to say one more thing.

I’ve been pretty outspoken over the years, and I know I kind of have a certain reputation for it. There are a lot of things I care about, like equality and racial justice, and I’m not gonna be quiet about them. I’m not gonna stay silent. I’m proud of that.

But I don’t want any praise or recognition. I don’t need a pat on the back for it. If I’m being honest, every time somebody praises me for speaking out, I actually feel guilty. I mean, I’m a white guy coaching an NBA team. And I know I’ve had way more opportunities and chances than a Black coach would in this position. I’m not taking some huge risk. I’m not really putting anything on the line.

The question people should be asking is, What took you so long, Stan?

A lot of people have said this, but the first time I heard it verbalized by someone in sports was by Steve Kerr: “Racism is a white person’s problem.” And it is. Black people suffer the consequences of racism, but it’s our problem. And that’s why we have to speak out when we see it.

But there are a lot of times that we need to step aside and let others talk. I’ve certainly been guilty of this, of taking advantage of my right and my platform to speak out, but not doing enough at times to elevate Black voices in the discussion.

I think it’s important that we have white people speaking out, but we also need to point people to Lloyd Pierce and to Doc Rivers, and encourage people to listen to Anquan Boldin and Natasha Cloud and Nneka Ogwumike and George Hill and Renee Montgomery, to hear their stories. We need to make sure we’re elevating them and not just speaking out ourselves.

We’ve got a long way to go.

But let’s not let up.

Let’s not get too comfortable.

We gotta make sure we keep this fight going.