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Minnesota Timberwolves follow the lead of their diversity and inclusion executive

The Minnesota Timberwolves are fighting to secure the NBA Western Conference championship Thursday night, potentially bringing them one step closer to an NBA title.

But off the court, the Timberwolves have taken part in a different fight, focused on racial justice and social inequalities in the state, following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 on a Minneapolis street.

Along with members of the team, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Tru Pettigrew has been at the heart of this push for actionable change. Six months after Floyd was killed, Petttigrew, 56, turned down an offer to work with the team — twice. But eventually the offer turned into an opportunity that he couldn’t ignore.

“We all had those callings and those assignments at different seasons of our lives,” he said. “I was called here to build those bridges. There were phenomenal people here doing work but they were working in silos. Sports brings people together from all walks of life.”

Minnesota Timberwolves players, coaches, and staffers at the George Floyd memorial. (Jeff Wheeler / AP)
Minnesota Timberwolves players, coaches, and staffers at the George Floyd memorial. (Jeff Wheeler / AP)

His work began with building trust between the Minneapolis Police and players on the team, who were marching with activists against police brutality as protests erupted just blocks from their home court. The spotlight was on Minnesota, the state with one of the widest income inequality gaps between Black and white residents across the country, and then known for the startlingly violent police killing of Floyd.

Pettigrew said the organization’s commitments to enhance social inequality and tackle racial injustice took shape both internally and externally. On the inside, the organization created employee resource groups for employees of color and LGBTQ+ staffers, in addition to the women’s group, which had already been established.

Externally, the “Pack the Vote” program began in 2020 to encourage voter registration and turnout. In 2023, the Wolves used their influence to catapult the “Restore the Vote Act” championed by Karl Anthony Towns. The bipartisan ballot measure passed, restoring voting rights to more than 55,000 former felons in Minnesota. Under new state law, former felony offenders are eligible to vote in Minnesota as soon as they leave prison. Previously, felony offenders were not eligible to vote until they had completed probation, which is known as supervised release in Minnesota.

Sachin Gupta, left, Joe Branchh and Tru Pettigrew. (Matthew Hinton / AP)
Sachin Gupta, left, Joe Branchh and Tru Pettigrew. (Matthew Hinton / AP)

The Timberwolves are also among the first teams in the NBA to give players and staff the day off on Election Day, Pettigrew said.

With Pettigrew a secret weapon in the equity playbook, the Wolves’ commitment has not gone unnoticed. The team and its players have received multiple awards for their social justice efforts.

Earlier this year, the Wolves won the NBA Inclusion Leadership Award. It highlights a team’s excellence in creating programming that promotes inclusion.

The Dallas Mavericks against the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Cooper Neill / Getty Images)
The Dallas Mavericks against the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Cooper Neill / Getty Images)

In May, the NBA named Towns the 2023-24 NBA Social Justice Champion.

And last week, representatives from the Timberwolves attended an awards ceremony in New York after they were nominated for Sports Team of the Year — along with the Super Bowl Champions Kansas City Chiefs and the Texas Rangers. The Wolves were the only team nominated that had not won the championship in their sport.

Pettigrew said the recognition and awards point back to the bridges they’ve built off the court.

“It’s really been affirming more than anything. Because when you’re doing this work … you can’t always measure what matters,” he said. “And when you start to have other people recognize the impact of the work that you’re doing, that is when it just becomes more fulfilling. And it’s not even about any hardware. It is just knowing you’re making a difference.”

Anthony Towns. (Tim Heitman / Getty Images)
Anthony Towns. (Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

Pettigrew has also impacted the lives of George Floyd’s brother and his nephew, Brandon Williams. Pettigrew was with the family at the White House when President Joe Biden signed an executive order promising to usher in the “most significant police reform in decades.”

Williams said that when President Biden invited the Floyd family to the White House in 2021, they called “Tru” because he was a constant for them during some of their most challenging moments.

“He is a big brother. We meet people with positions like Tru and we call them clout-chasers. They come around when the camera is there or to get a story. But Tru is around all year,” Williams said. “Our relationship has grown to be something way bigger than I ever imagined. There is one word to describe him, genuine.”

Pettigrew is the first to say it takes a team to address systemic racism. He hasn’t done the work alone, pointing to the the Timberwolves’ organization as a whole, the collaboration among different industries and disciplines across the state, and the backing of the Wolves’ CEO, Ethan Casson.

Minnesota Timberwolves team celebrates. (Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)
Minnesota Timberwolves team celebrates. (Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)

“The fact that Ethan was 100%, bought in and committed made all the difference in the world,” he said. “Yeah, I’m out there in the community. I’m out there physically building these bridges. But without Ethan’s support, it doesn’t happen.”

At the end of the Timberwolves’ run, which may come Thursday night if the team falls to the Dallas Mavericks, Pettigrew will step away from the organization to spend more time with his wife and 12-year-old son, who live in North Carolina. Pettigrew, who spent the last four years commuting between North Carolina and Minnesota, will also continue serving in the diversity and equity space through his business, Tru Access. It is the same work he was doing when the Timberwolves recruited him in 2020. For Pettigrew, building bridges is a calling. He says his faith has helped him every step of the way.

“And now those that remain, it’s their responsibility to make sure that those bridges stay in good shape, will continue to build more and maintain the maintenance of those bridges so that they don’t collapse,” Pettigrew said. “I am going to continue to be a bridge builder.”

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This article was originally published on NBCNews.com