Black Lives Matter: NBA news, Richard Lapchick, Gwen Berry, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Richard Lapchick has spent most of his life fighting for racial equality and he has the scars to prove it.
“I was working late in my college office in Norfolk, Virginia at the time and at 10.45pm there was a knock on the door,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“Anytime I had worked late before, the security would come check and that’s who I thought it was when I heard the knock.
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“Instead it was two men wearing stocking masks who proceeded to cause liver damage, kidney damage, hernia, concussion and carved the N-word in my stomach with a pair of scissors.”
The death of George Floyd and his cries for help were heard across the world, prompting us to consider our own history and how far we have come in the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians.
Sport is our nation’s obsession.
Yet even if each team has just six tackles or must bounce the ball every 15 metres, it still isn’t a level playing field for everyone.
But sport can play an important role in bridging the divide and Lapchick knows that.
The men who attacked him that night in Virginia knew it too.
To most Australians, Lapchick would be a stranger.
In the United States though, he is widely known as the racial conscience of sport.
This is why.
THE ORIGINS OF A LIFELONG FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
In 1978, Lapchick had been asked by African governments to tell the media they would boycott the Los Angeles Olympics if the South African team was allowed to compete in the North American zone of the Davis Cup.
The anti-Apartheid movement was not big but it was growing. The death of South African student leader Steve Biko, alone in a prison cell as a result of injuries sustained in custody, only brightened the flame.
Lapchick was told that night that NLT Corporation, the financial backers of the Davis Cup, were pulling out.
“I flew home to Virginia that night thinking maybe for the first time in my life I’d done something worthwhile,” he said.
24 hours later he was lying in a hospital bed.
But the fight was far from over.
He couldn’t give it all up. Not after what he had been through – and the legacy his father had left behind.
Joe Lapchick, who played in the Original Celtics, went on to become head coach of the New York Knicks.
He also signed Nathaniel Clifton, the first African-American player under official contract to play in the NBA.
At just five years old Richard saw people gathered in his front yard underneath a tree.
They were picketing at an image of his father.
It didn’t stop there either.
He had also heard the very same word that would later be carved into his stomach through the extension phone, meant for his father – a n-word lover – on the other line.
Lapchick didn’t know what it all meant – the phone calls, the picketing and his father’s image hanging from a tree – but he didn’t put down the phone.
Even as he lay in the hospital bed 36 years ago, he was still ready to answer the call to stand up against racism.
“Lying in the hospital that night I realised that if people had gone to the length to try and stop my father 28 years ago before and the length they went to try and stop me that night, they must have felt we were having a significant impact on racism in the United States,” he said.
“So that night I decided I would continue using the sports platform to address racial issues and it has expanded beyond racial issues over the years.”
THE PUNCH BEHIND A SPECIAL BOND
Lapchick is the founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which publishes the Racial and Gender Report Card for the NBA.
He also founded the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, which uses “the power and appeal of sport to effect positive social change in society.”
Established in 1985, it has completed diversity inclusion training at nearly 200 college campuses, almost all of the top pro leagues and the US military.
The program has been in great demand across the US especially now during the racial reckonging and its gender violence protection program has had similar reach.
He also works at the University of Central Florida and has been in discussion with both the NBA and Orlando Magic on partnering to put on events while the league is in the state.
He says that four years ago it would never have happened.
The NBA and WNBA have returned with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed on the game court.
But when Lapchick was growing up, dreaming of following in his father’s footsteps and achieving NBA success, black lives didn’t matter – on or off the court.
“I was determined to be an NBA star myself,” he said.
“My dad is a double inductee as a player and coach in the basketball Hall of Fame, he was the first great big man in the game.
“I was six-feet tall in the eighth grade, one of the tallest players in the NBA area and was recruited by a high school called Power Memorial, which was the top basketball coaching program in the country. I didn’t go there but I became friends with the coach who invited me to his summer camp.
“There were five other white guys and a black guy.
“One of the white guys was literally hurling the N-word at the black guy for the first three days non-stop every time he saw him.
“So, I challenged him. That guy knocked me out cold.”
Little did he know at the time that he would be taking a hit for the NBA’s all-time leading points scorer.
“That guy’s name at the time was Lew Alcindor, now of course Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A lifelong friendship began with Kareem that has been so profound that when he had his statue unveiled at the Staples Center he asked me to speak there.
“When he was a guest of Barack Obama to receive his Presidential Medal of Freedom, I was one of two guests that he invited, and when I was scheduled to have surgery here in Orlando several years ago, he flew here to be with me.”
But aside from that chance friendship that would go on to last a lifetime, Lapchick had a new way of seeing the world and it in itself was life-altering.
“When I was 15 I suddenly had a young urban African-American lens to see what was going on in terms of race in the community and I decided to spend the rest of my life working in the area of civil rights,” he said.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU RAISE A FIST, EVEN IF NO ONE ELSE DOES?
According to The Guardian, transcripts show that George Floyd told officers ‘I can’t breathe’ more than 20 times before his heartbreaking death.
But each time, his cry for help went unheard.
It was not the first time that someone has hit record, in the hope that we would finally pay attention and it certainly won’t be the last either.
“People demonstrated around what happened to me, what happened to civil rights activists in general,” Lapchick said.
“But those generally went with news cycles and when the cycle passed people went back to their daily lives.
“This time it’s different. This time we not only saw a still photograph and perhaps television footage but we actually watched an American citizen have his life taken away from him and be murdered.
“We watched the whole thing.”
NBA and WNBA players get their chance now to take a stand, like so many other athletes did across the globe in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality, Freedom.
Just some of the messages worn in the opening days for the entire world to see.
But it is even more powerful to take a stand when it is not popular.
That is exactly what Gwendolyn Berry did when she raised a fist in the air on the podium at the Pan American Games in 2019.
But as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee were praised for declaring their support to athletes protesting after Floyd’s death, she was left wondering why.
Why they hadn’t been there for her when she made her voice heard following the fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown by a police officer.
Why she was put on probation for a year for making a difference when no one else would.
“We’re tired of speaking out, we’re tired of protesting, we’re tired of being killed,” she told foxsports.com.au.
“These are white people problems and they need to deal with it.”
They are problems she has been dealing with for her whole life and in that moment, when she raised a clenched fist in the air, she was saying that she had enough.
“For my whole life I’ve been poor, I’ve been disenfranchised, I’ve been uneducated and I am a product of the system,” she said.
“I feel like in that moment whatever come over me in the moment, I wanted to make a stand.
“I feel like it [the death of Michael Brown] could be my son, it could be my brother, it could be my cousin.
“I knew it was imperative for me to fight and stand for someone because I want to protect my family.”
While sporting bodies publicly declared their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, just a year ago Berry was left to fend for herself.
“I hate to say it but athletes might lose a lot,” she said, when asked about the price sportspeople may pay for speaking out.
“Athletes may lose a year or two, financial stability and they might lose their careers.
“That’s the biggest thing, especially for track and field athletes, we don’t make enough to lose everything.”
PEOPLE POWER CAN KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING
Berry says it is time for white athletes to use their position of power and privilege to help level the playing field.
“I feel like they need to take the lead,” she said.
“They are benefiting from the system that has held them to a high regard for so long and now they need to call each other out.
“It’s their responsibility.”
Lapchick’s scars tell just one story of a lifelong fight for justice.
He risked his life for the cause but it shouldn’t have to be that way.
There is power in numbers and the momentum sparked by the death of Floyd can’t fade into the distance while black athletes are the ones left to raise a fist and face the consequences.
When it isn’t popular to take a stand, they can’t be left to fight alone.
But even if they are, the potential will always be there to inspire change.
WNBA star Maya Moore put her career on hold in 2019 to help wrongfully convicted African-American man Jonathan Irons be released from prison after over 22 years locked up.
Lapchick himself had a 35-year friendship with Muhammad Ali, who was a champion inside the ring but also changed the world outside of it after famously opposing the Vietnam War.
He pinpoints the death of Ali as a pivotal moment for young athletes reluctant to take a stand.
Ali was too great to take down.
“So many young athletes knew he was famous as a boxer, knew he did some things for social justice but all of the news stories and broadcasts about the magnitude of his commitment to justice stunned young athletes,” he said.
“I could argue he was the most popular person in America at the time of his death. They saw 125,000 pour out to the streets of Louisville for his funeral as his entourage was driving through the city.”
He says that now athletes have more potential than ever before to unlock the endless power of the masses.
“Colin Kaepernick first took the knee and opened the doors completely to athletes being activists and I don’t have any doubt that’s not going to stop at this point,” Lapchick said.
“I think their voice is going to be a force that’s a game-changer.”