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Throughout February, the NBA celebrates Black History Month in a variety of ways. The league honors trail-blazing pioneers like Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Chuck Cooper for breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1950. Teams look back at landmark moments in their respective pasts. Players wear special sneakers and warmup shirts to commemorate those who have come before. For a primarily African-American league, the monthlong nods serve in part as an acknowledgement that the giant steps the NBA has made toward international success and prominence have come as a result of the strength, sacrifices and contributions of a great many people, on the court and off it, over the years.
They also, however, call to the forefront of our minds how much further we’ve all got to go. That’s what Gregg Popovich was most interested in discussing, and highlighting, when asked for his thoughts on the league’s commemoration of Black History Month prior to the San Antonio Spurs’ Monday night meeting with the Utah Jazz. Popovich, famously one of the most outspoken coaches in American pro sports on social and political issues, had quite a lot to say on this particular matter:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on why it's important for the NBA to promote Black History Month: "We live in a racist country… And it's always important to bring attention to it, even if it angers some people." pic.twitter.com/RCCs7rSJix
— ABC News (@ABC) February 13, 2018
“I think it’s pretty obvious [why it’s important for the NBA to celebrate Black History Month,” Popovich said. “Our league is made up of a lot of black guys. To honor that and understand it is pretty simplistic. How would you ignore that?” […]
“More importantly, we live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet. It’s always important to bring attention to it, even if it angers some people. The point is, you have to keep it in front of everybody’s nose and let them know it still hasn’t been taken care of and we still have a lot of work to do.”
This isn’t the first time that Popovich — an Air Force Academy graduate who served five years in the military, and who has frequently voiced his displeasure with the state of affairs in the U.S. political system and broader discourse — has spoken about the importance of recognizing that many of the issues central to black history in the United States aren’t really “history” at all.
“Well, it’s a remembrance, and a bit of a celebration in some ways,” Popovich said last February. “It sounds odd because we’re not there yet, but it’s always important to remember what has passed and what is being experienced now by the black population. It’s a celebration of some of the good things that have happened, and a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do.
“But more than anything, I think if people take the time to think about it, I think it is our national sin,” he added. “It always intrigues me when people come out with, ‘I’m tired of talking about that,’ or, ‘Do we have to talk about race again?’ And the answer is, ‘You’re damned right we do.’ Because it’s always there, and it’s systemic, in the sense that when you talk about opportunity, it’s not about, ‘Well, if you lace up your shoes and you work hard, then you can have the American dream.’ That’s a bunch of hogwash.
“If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage — educationally, economically, culturally, in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, a neighborhood sense with laws, zoning, education. We have huge problems in that regard that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve. It’s a tough one, because people don’t really want to face it.”
That likely includes many NBA fans, and many Spurs fans, who might appreciate Popovich’s gifts as a coach and executive, but might not look so kindly on his assessment of the U.S. as a “racist country.” Whether or not all those watching, listening and reading share his viewpoint, it doesn’t seem like Popovich is going to be dissuaded from espousing it any time soon.
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