Steve Kerr, Stan Van Gundy trying to do their part to fight racial injustice
Steve Kerr can’t watch it, and Stan Van Gundy doesn’t need to.
Many black people have to keep away from it, because watching yet another video of an African American being killed at the hands of the state strips away at their souls and state of mind — that it can happen at any point with very little recourse.
A knee to the neck of George Floyd until his breath is taken away.
Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, charged in Georgia with felony murder and aggravated assault in the death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot three times.
Kerr, three-time championship coach of the Golden State Warriors, isn’t black.
Van Gundy, a successful coach at multiple stops, isn’t either.
But that hasn’t stopped them from feeling outrage and doing something about it.
Both outspoken coaches have been involved with the Players Coalition, which was founded in 2017 in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans.
The coalition sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr after the footage of Arbery’s death emerged, calling for the arrest of McMichael and his son, and Kerr and Van Gundy signed the document.
Arbery was killed Feb. 23, allegedly because he looked like a suspect who had committed a series of break-ins in the area. Initially, no charges were filed by the Glynn County (Ga.) Police Department.
Perhaps due to public pressure, the power of social media and, maybe, a document featuring 64 signatures, McMichael and his son were eventually arrested and charged.
The coaches’ signatures began with a text from Van Gundy to Kerr about the document, but this isn’t the first time either has been willing to speak out about injustices in America.
Kerr can be coy and self-deprecating during playoff news conferences, reading the room and delivering wit with the best of them. But on this, he was as subtle as a sledgehammer.
“I think all you have to do is read the story to understand that this was a horrific act and, unfortunately, a story that's all too familiar in our country,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports recently.
“We have to do something about it. I think in particular ... white people need to stand up and say we're not gonna stand for this. All we have to do is imagine if the roles were reversed, the races were reversed, it would be a completely different outcome.”
Kerr has a personal interest in gun violence and its prevention. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in Lebanon in 1984. The elder Kerr was a professor and president at the American University of Beirut.
Steve has called gun regulation a matter of “common sense” and also believes it’s the single biggest issue in this country.
“[And] when it’s tied to racism, it’s especially difficult,” Kerr said. “That’s why I signed my name.”
The events seem to pop up frequently, names of unarmed men who first become victims, then hashtags, then, somehow through investigations of things that aren’t germane to their demise, guilty of their deaths.
The nation could barely wrap its mind around the footage of Arbery’s death and catch its collective breath before the next wave hit with the footage of Floyd’s disturbing death that involved four Minneapolis police officers.
“I don't watch the videos. Too difficult, too painful,” Kerr said. “I read about the situations and then I try to at least add my name to anything that might be able to help in some positive way.”
Kerr and Van Gundy understand the burdens of racism that have plagued the black community.
As they’ve gone through their coaching careers, or even just aged as men, they’ve seen it first-hand.
“I've never met a single black parent that doesn't have to sit their kids down and talk to them very directly about how you deal with the police if you're stopped,” Van Gundy said. “‘You do this, this and this, so you come home alive.’ I started getting more of that in my career. I'm like holy [expletive]. I've never once talked to my kids about that or felt the need to. If my kid got pulled over, it was because they deserved to get pulled over. Even if they mouthed off, nobody was gonna shoot them.”
Van Gundy talks candidly about the systemic racism that is prevalent throughout the country, but Kerr goes deeper.
“Let's face it, we're a nation founded on slavery,” he said. “If we think that because slavery was abolished, that's the end of it, we're just blind to the reality of it. Modern society is directly impacted by centuries of racism, and slavery.
“You think of the history of what slavery did to [black people], tearing families apart, destroying social networks of communities and things that tie people together and allow them to flourish.”
With players like Andre Iguodala and David West on the Warriors in recent years, Kerr’s been able to engage with his players in discussions about race whenever issues have come up — which has been far too often.
“The way I feel as a white person ... we're all running a marathon and we've told all the African American communities, you don't get to start until we're halfway there. At the 13-mile mark, you get to start,” Kerr said. “At the end, white people are like, where are you guys? That's, basically, why the impact of the American experience was so damaging. The impact is felt every single day today in a thousand ways.”
Kerr understands the freedom in how he can approach these topics. His candor is hailed as refreshing, along with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s blunt-force honesty on political matters, as well.
He knows African American coaches aren’t allowed that type of currency publicly.
“That’s just a different way of describing white privilege,” Kerr said.
A high-ranking African American NBA executive echoed Kerr’s words, but chose not to have his name on record for that reason.
“The tragic deaths that occurred in both Georgia and Minnesota are just further evidence that this country is still far away from real equality,” he told Yahoo Sports. “As a nation, we are still afraid to have open and honest discussion about the disparate treatment that people of color receive in comparison to whites.
“As black Americans, we continue to fight against age-old stereotypes and racist views in every corner of our lives. If the race of these victims were reversed, what would the discourse and reaction be in our country?”
The answer, unfortunately, seems all too obvious and simple.
Black people don’t know how conversations are held in settings that don’t involve them. There’s no way of knowing if the empathy displayed in front of them is consistent or convenient.
“I think most people in my circle can talk about this stuff and we are horrified. And then we move on. Move on to the next day,” Kerr said. “Human nature is to live your own life, take care of yourself, take care of your family.
“When you see something horrifying, you wanna do something about it. But when you don't live it, when it's not in your backyard, not your children, it's easier for things to slide by. Even when people are outraged.”
Kerr paused for a second to gather his thoughts.
“The violence continues.”
The two coaches walk a fine line. They know adding their names gives an extra layer of credibility to the Players Coalition, founded by former NFL player Anquan Boldin and Saints defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, but they don’t want to co-opt the causes and the work the coalition has done.
“I've actually done very little,” Van Gundy told Yahoo Sports. “I don't really want to be out front, don't think I should be out front with this. I want to lend my name to supporting them as much as supporting the issues.”
But he’s done more than that, writing op-eds for Time magazine and closely studying political campaigns to see where his contributions could be most helpful — and if winning isn’t the likely option, getting a seat at the table with the decision-makers is the next best thing.
Van Gundy went to a correctional facility near Daytona, Florida, and taught a class on issues in sports every Thursday before the pandemic changed things. Jeff Van Gundy, his brother and ESPN commentator, came as a guest speaker during Stan’s last week, and called the weekly class “his best social event of the week.”
Stan gushes about Boldin, a three-time Pro Bowler who retired in 2016 following a final season with the Detroit Lions. Van Gundy was Detroit Pistons team president and head coach.
“Boldin retired with good years left in him because he wanted to devote his time to this,” Van Gundy said. “It's hard not to be inspired by somebody like that.”
Van Gundy relocated to Florida after being fired by the Pistons in 2018, diving deep into Central Florida’s issues. He’s accompanied Boldin on trips to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, pushing Amendment 4 — which passed to help nearly 1.4 million convicted felons who completed all terms become eligible to vote.
“Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, invest a lot of their time, they'll go to the state house and lobby people,” Van Gundy said. “They know what they want. Criminal justice reform. Equality issues have taken them a little into education things.”
Van Gundy has seen Boldin lobbying for more fair laws, battling against giving juveniles life without parole, and trying to end the cash-bail system and mandatory sentencing.
Van Gundy has gotten one of his former players, Quentin Richardson, involved as well. Richardson signed his name to the coalition’s document calling for action on Arbery’s death and moderated a discussion with Boldin in Orlando on the juvenile justice system.
Players Van Gundy coached in Detroit, like Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, have also been active with discussions and suggestions on social matters.
Van Gundy has seen Boldin call for better training, recruiting and selection of police officers because of the shootings of people of color.
“They work with lawyers who can actually propose legislation. This is a different group,” Van Gundy said. “I've never seen athletes present an actual bill to lawmakers. They get in the weeds and do work. They get help, but they're the ones driving the agenda.”
He wants to get the NBA more involved with the Players Coalition, but admits it could be a tough task to get so many on the same page, saying, “It would become an ego thing. Football versus basketball, whose name is out front.”
Van Gundy wants to get in front of teams during training camps to get Boldin connected with the players, if front offices and ownership are amenable.
Van Gundy recalled bringing Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a Detroit native, to speak to his team.
After speaking with the Pistons for three hours on a variety of topics, a player raised his hand with a question for Dyson.
“As a white person, what can I do?” Jon Leuer asked.
Dyson’s response: “As someone who works closely with people of color every day, you have to tell your people and your friends, [how] it is. When an off-color comment or joke is thrown out, you gotta [check them]. It's not the, ‘Hey, some of my best friends are black thing,’ but it's, ‘They have the same goals as you, me and everybody else.’”
The goals are jogging in a neighborhood or performing mundane everyday activities without fear.
Or being able to merely exist in today’s world without worrying about becoming an enemy of the state because of skin color.
“If you can't tie all these things from the past together with what's happening today, you're just blind,” Kerr said.
Isn’t justice supposed to be?
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