Rick Carlisle has undertaken some intimidating jobs in his professional life.
He’s had to guard Michael Jordan, mostly unsuccessfully like everybody else.
He’s had to figure out ways to beat Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, a bit more successfully than most.
He’s had to adapt to the Instagram generation, which he’s done while gaining the trust and respect from young players.
But those daunting tasks are nothing compared to what Carlisle and his NBA coaching brethren are trying to tackle in the real world these days.
It’s a simple enough concept, but one that is grounded in centuries of inequity when it comes to race relations. The Mavericks’ coach is willing to admit it is a massive undertaking.
But it is one that he feels must be addressed. Now.
“The word unacceptable doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Carlisle said of social injustice based on race. “It’s an enormous rock that has just got to keep being chipped away at. Four-plus centuries worth of insidious events, and at the heart of it is the fact that this is a moral issue.
“This stuff continues to happen. This is a moment where it appears everyone is finally waking up and there’s a lot of damage been done. But the healing involves reckoning with the past, educating and talking about these events that happened.”
To that end, Carlisle has taken a lead role as president of the National Basketball Coaches Association to spearhead a movement to foster change and improve equality in racial justice matters.
Just days after George Floyd was murdered, Carlisle had a conference call with the 29 other head coaches in the league. From that call, the NBA coaches committee on racial injustice and reform was born.
It’s the reason why coaches are wearing large pins on their shirts during games in the Florida bubble that read: Coaches for Racial Justice. It is why they, in all probability, will take the cue from their players and join in when it comes to a show of solidarity before games. The games have restarted. And that makes this the perfect time to keep the conversation going about social injustice.
These are desperate times for our country and the coaches feel they have a strong platform on which to pass along the important messages of equality.
A nine-member board was named to lead the committee on racial injustice and reform, chaired by Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce. Also on the board: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, the LA Clippers’ Doc Rivers and Utah’s Quin Snyder among others.
Heavy hitters, to say the least.
What happens next is the big question. Outrage has been sparked around the globe after Floyd’s death. Marches, many peaceful, some not, have taken place. The call for change has been loud and clear.
One small step will be the messages that NBA players will wear on the backs of their jersey’s when the league restarts this week. It’s akin to wearing your emotions on your sleeve when your work clothes don’t include sleeves.
That’s one step toward doing what Carlisle and the Mavericks’ organization believe is absolutely paramount: keeping the issue in front of people.
Carlisle and his coaching staff have partnered with Mothers Against Police Brutality, a Dallas organization that has brought a strong focus on the need to monitor and reform the actions of some officers.
Coaching staffs in other cities have formed similar working relationships with appropriate organizations.
And, as the NBA resumes action with eight “seeding” games starting on Thursday (Friday for the Mavericks), Carlisle wants to keep stressing the message. Players are doing their part. The NBA is doing its part. “Black Lives Matter” is emblazoned on all the courts in use or the seeding games and playoffs.
“It’s understanding the moment and the movement that is taking place,” said Atlanta’s coach, Pierce. “That’s what all our coaches are doing. As white coaches, they’re no fools.
“We coach African American men, myself and the white coaches. We’re around it. We know our league is predominantly African American. So if we’re going to ask for others to be empathetic, I think we all have to be empathetic.”
A big part of the issue is education. Not just for the general public, but for the NBA coaches and players.
Bryan Stevenson is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.,-based organization that has fought for equality for decades. He spent more than 90 minutes on a conference call with all the NBA coaches just days after the Floyd murder.
“You have to believe in things you haven’t seen,” Stevenson recently told the Associated Press. “You have to have hope that we can turn this moment into something more than a moment. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. And injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.
“And if the NBA coaches believe that, and if NBA players believe that, then fans can believe it, too.”
This is not something that is going to happen overnight. You don’t make up for 10 years in the buffet line with 10 minutes on the elliptical.
And you don’t make up for 400 years of oppression with one stand-up moment.
But as Stevenson said, giving up is not an option, either. That’s one of the reasons why Carlisle starts every news conference with a reading about a social injustice that happened on that day.
Yes, all 365 days of the year include an episode of systemic oppression and Stevenson’s EJI culled them all together in one calendar.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able to be on TV during the restart,” Carlisle said of NBA coaches. “We’ll be very heavily on social (media). We want to use our platform to elevate the conversation about the history of racial injustice. One of the things that Bryan talks about in great depth is the fact that we need to face the fact that these things have happened over 400-plus years. These events are real. (We have) to reckon with them. By coming to terms and learning and educating, the process of healing has a chance as we move forward.”
And that’s really all anybody is hoping for – a chance that systemic oppression at all levels gets a stern talking-to.