The pain was obvious on the face of Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers Tuesday night. His words were searing, and strong. He spoke powerfully about fear, about politicians who use fear to win votes, and there was no doubt how he felt about hearing that the people to be feared looked like him.
“We’re the ones getting killed,” Rivers told reporters, his voice forceful, emotional, yet calm. “We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. I should just be a coach.”
Rivers, a Black man, was the focus of all the cameras and the microphones, but it was the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin, by a white police officer, that the coach wanted to talk about.
“I didn’t want to talk about it before the game, because it’s so hard, to just keep watching it. That video, if you watch that video, you don’t need to be black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged.”
Those words struck me as defining, as marking a milestone in this year of uprising and protest. While racial inequity is a far more perverse and endemic problem in our society, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles of closeted athletes and those who are excluded because of who they love or who they are, and how much harder it is for those who are LGBTQ and also face discrimination because they are also Black or Brown, or not white.
This news conference, of course, wasn’t Rivers’ first foray into social matters beyond the hardwood, including his speaking out in defense of gay players coming out in the NBA.
In October 2012, on the eve of his ninth season as coach of the Boston Celtics, Rivers sat down with the publisher of Boston Spirit magazine about the topic of gay players in the NBA. It had been five years since John Amaechi had come out, and as our Cyd Zeigler noted, the coach had been one of the first people to publicly support him.
“I could care less what people thought and I didn’t worry about it at all,” Rivers told Boston Spirit. “It’s not one of those things where we had to have a front office discussion. It’s funny, I actually think someone in the front office wanted to have a discussion and I said ‘For What? And that’s how I felt about it. It was easy for me. John’s a great, great guy.”
This was in 2012, six months before Jason Collins came out; Boston Spirit publisher David Zimmerman asked Rivers if the Celtics players would accept an openly gay player.
“Absolutely,” he said. “They would support him first, and then harass him second [laughing] — in a locker room fun way, not in a bad way. He would get razzed just like his teammates would get razzed. There would be no difference or change. I think it would be a one week story at home.”
“Then it will go away. You rarely hear any racial slurring in the crowd anymore, but you did — you used to when Jackie first played. But it went away. I think it will be the same in this case.”
And when Collins did announce in April 2013 that he was gay and would continue to play, Rivers was good to his word. That month, he told Sports Illustrated, “It’s no one’s business what you do.”
“You can like who you choose to like, and you can love who you choose to love. That’s the way it should be,” Rivers told SI’s Ian Thomsen. “The thing that should be celebrated is that two people love each other, and that’s a good thing.”
As NBA players pause their playoffs in protest of the Blake shooting and systemic racial injustice, it’s hard to think of good things, and of love. Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation reported Thursday’s NBA playoff games may be postponed as well. “The season feels like it’s hanging in the balance,” he wrote.
As I write this Wednesday evening, the WNBA has decided it, too, will not play tonight. Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams spoke for the league’s players:
This started out as a story to show the intersectionality of Doc Rivers and of our fight for equality, with the fight to end hate and baked-in discrimination based on race.
But it draws to a close with the words of a straight white dude whose writing I admire. A man who, like Doc Rivers, rose to the occasion just when we needed some perspective, to hear (or read) someone size up what this moment means.
“Enough is enough,” James Dator wrote in SB Nation:
“Players are understandably questioning why they are playing when awful things are happening in their communities. Coaches are finding it difficult to focus when shootings keep occurring to people of Black people. Sports are secondary to everything else that’s happening, and it remains to be seen if the NBA postseason will continue is planned after the Jacob Blake shooting and the protests that follow it.
“One thing is clear: If games are canceled and everything falls apart, don’t blame the players for taking action. Blame the fact that it’s been three months since George Floyd was killed and despite hundreds of thousands of protesters, and millions of hours calling for police reform and plans to deal with systemic racism — still nothing of substance has been done.
“If the NBA season ends over the shooting of Jacob Blake, then the only people to blame are those who were in a position of power to effect change, and chose not to.”
My last words: Got someone to hug? Do it, right now, tonight. If not, call, DM or text a friend; tell them you love them. For tomorrow and in the days that follow, our love for each other will be needed more than ever.