Steve Kerr Empathy and the Warriors Do the Right Thing Moment

Once again- it feels like a broken record- violence has trembled the earth with uncontrolled chaos and a lot of shouting in microphones. The reflexive emotion bare for all to see is a very familiar one of outrage, sorrow and anger, feelings that are not easily suppressed by telling people to calm down, be peaceful behind police lines, or that all lives matter, when the video says otherwise.

Far from the violent epicenter of Charlotte or Tulsa, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr couldn’t keep his feelings a private matter. The very thing that seems to be ripping apart the fabric of American life, inch by bloody inch, is what Steve Kerr intentionally addressed without being politically correct. Wealthy, white and privileged doesn’t mean insular, not caring and clueless. Steve Kerr’s stake in all of this is not a racial one, but one human being caring about other human beings in America, and furthermore, a coach caring about the culture of his players and their families.

“I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country. And it just happened two days ago in Tulsa with Terence Crutcher.” (Steve Kerr)

Steve Kerr was referencing the killing of Crutcher whose hands were up as instructed when he was shot by a Tusla police officer who said she feared for her life. Video gave the story a different texture than what the officer had first communicated about the encounter, which only reinforced cynicism, suspicion, and a narrative that those in power adjust the truth when it benefits them. But to many on the other side, it was just one more shooting, one more reason to be outraged, one more punch in the gut feeling.

Of all the personalities in the sports world to be up front and candid, it was Kerr, the Warriors coach already preoccupied with the preparation of the start of training camp next week who took the lead because  he learned a very difficult lesson about entitlement. He once said he used to think, “bad things happen to other people.” And then it happened to him.

Many, many years ago Kerr was touched by murder when his father was killed in Beirut by Islamic terrorists; it became a national story, particularly when 18 year old Kerr’s Arizona Wildcats played their next game against Arizona State and the students began chanting the terrorist organization’s name and “your father’s history.” Kerr showed restraint and humility, even as he was suffering through grief; he also scored 20 points. And so, there is no greater empathic and caring human being in the NBA than Steve Kerr, the collateral damage recipient a long time ago. When normal rules of love and decency do not apply, Kerr is the broker of understanding.

Damian Lillard recounted a story about Steve Kerr that happened a while back. Kerr was the All-Star coach in 2015 when Lillard was on the team. According to Lillard, Kerr took the time to learn something unique about each player and presented it in the locker room during a pregame speech. So it fits within his character  and past history that Kerr is emotional about the violence and a defender of protests that draw a line in the sand.

“I understand people who are offended by his (Colin Kapernick) stance. Maybe they have a military family member who is offended. Maybe they lost somebody in a war and that flag and the anthem means a lot more to them than to someone else. But then you flip it around and…What about non-violent protests? It’s American. This is what our country is about.”

The Warriors open their pre-season schedule in Canada and many expect there to be some form of group protest with Kerr’s permission behind the scenes. The players under Kerr’s leadership have been legitimized to exercise their collective opinion on social justice matters that hit home, as one more identifying mark in the Warriors motto: strength in numbers. With the Warriors, everyone does it or no one does it.  That’s how they keep their collective bond in tact. It may be as simple as kneeling during the national anthem or the linking of arms ala the Seatte Seawhawks or raised fists. Or it may include nothing. That too is American. Protesting the way you see fit, in ways that are away from the cameras, is democracy too.

The NBA has a very clear policy regarding the national anthem. Stand Up. Stand up or be fined. It’s a rule that was collectively bargained for because Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to participate in the national anthem ritual in 1996 because he was a Muslim. Abdul-Rauf was stigmatized and suffered the consequence because of his actions and the NBA was embarrassed that one of their own was insolent. It brought upon them shame.

When he was at LSU, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson) was a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal. He was SEC Player of the Year for two straight seasons. In the NBA, he was a lottery pick, #3 to the Denver Nuggets. He won Most Improved Player in 1993 but it was his stance against the national anthem and Abdul-Rauf’s Muslim identity that turned him into a figure of scorn.

Like Kapernick, Abdur- Rauf used the word “oppression” to frame his protest within a racialized subtext. But he took it farther than Kapernick. Abdur-Rauf said the flag was a symbol of oppression “and tyranny.” He also said it was a conflict because he was a Muslim. And so he didn’t stand for the anthem and the NBA suspended him. Eventually, the NBA and Abdur-Rauf compromised. He would stand for the anthem but could look down in an act of mercy, always filmed by cameras that settled in on his face ravaged by Tourette’s Syndrome and the accompanying facial ticks. Abdur-Rauf would chant Muslim prayers during the anthem and his hands would be furiously uncontrolled. The six foot guard had a 9 year NBA career and a 9 year international career.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since he has been gone. The world has become closer. The butterfly effect- if a butterfly flaps its wings in Burma, it will freeze the air in Alaska- is truer now than ever before. We are connected to one another by virtue of internet intimacy. As for the NBA, it has a younger, more progressive commissioner that wants to enable his players as men, not just as athletes. The commissioner’s office and the players association are communicating on how best to embrace their member athletes and yet remain respectful so the paying customers don’t feel as if they have to choose sides. Can both happen? Can Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter find some neutral ground?

No one yet knows how far NBA players want to go with a protest. Television cameras will record their every muscle flinch and body language. In a league of 450 of which at least 75% are African American, the issue of police abuse of power is one that is familiar and is a trigger for a majority of NBA players. There won’t be any suspensions; that would be counterproductive, telling players don’t feel, don’t react, don’t be a human being.  Everyone is emotional right now, particularly since a NBA city, Charlotte, is dealing with the detritus of a police involved shooting that turned into a death, and then another death.  Charlotte is the home of Steph Curry.

Two years after exiling Donald Sterling out the league for racist comments, the NBA is being looked at as the leader among men. What they do in the next month may not only set the standard but it will be the footprints that will be modeled and practiced. How do you create a bridge of self-expression, protest and loyalty? The NBA players will be front and center in a few days when training camp starts. Do they stand? Do they sit? Do they say something? Do they wear something? How can they be silent?

Steve Kerr answered that question pretty easily. He couldn’t be silent. He wouldn’t. And in a couple of weeks, his players may not be silent either.

It’s like that in America.