Basketball will soon be back. It won’t be the same in format, nor in the same place in terms of importance.
A pandemic suspended the season in March and within days brought everyday life and everyday industry to a halt. This past week, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis was the latest — and most publicized — ignitor of protests asking for justice and racial equality.
Amid all that news and far from as significant, the NBA’s board of governors is expected to approve a 22-team return plan on Thursday. That means Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams is expected to lead his team back onto the practice court in some fashion in about a month. He will be doing so in a different world.
How does sport return with more important issues undoubtedly on the minds of players, coaches, owners and fans?
“There have been days where I’m in here doing (my job) and I got my TV right here and I see this stuff going on and I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” Williams told reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday. “My hope is that if we do get back into playing basketball that it does not take the attention off and the focus off of the things that really need to change.
“We’ve often said that sports is a break from reality, and I do not think we need a break from reality right now. I think we need to continue to focus on reality and I’m hopeful that sports can be a part of that reality … I think I toggle between both sentiments right now.”
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that the NBA will approve a return to the 2019-20 season. Phoenix, at 26-39, will have eight regular season games to fight for a playoff berth or spot in a play-in tournament.
They either must be the eighth seed or be the ninth seed within 4.0 games of the eighth seed to earn a spot in a potential play-in tournament, Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania report. The current No. 8 seeded Grizzlies are followed by the Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs in the standings ahead of the Suns.
So with that in mind, Williams has been preparing from a basketball sense. In the past week though, he’s found himself speaking with his team about how to react and respond to racism.
The coach wants to use his platform, too. He wrote a letter about the nation’s problems and is willing to become the Suns’ face of action.
“Coach Pop taught me that when I first got into coaching,” Williams said of mentor and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. “He would often remark that it was boring to just do basketball.
“I don’t want to get in my 60s and 70s and not be able to tell my children I tried to affect more than a pick-and-roll coverage. I want to be able to say to them — not in a way that would be bragging — but I want to be able to say to them you have an obligation to serve, son or daughter. You do. I’m telling you this because I did it.”
Williams is repetitive in that he doesn’t have all the answers. But he has a few tips for players who also feel small, maybe even powerless when so much needs to change.
For one: vote.
As a team, Williams said the Suns can do more by meeting with local police officials to enact change. He hopes people during these times can learn to respect one another and not paint opposing viewpoints with a broad brush.
“Our police men and women who do their jobs with integrity, who walk out of their homes everyday to protect and serve, they need to be esteemed and respected right now,” Williams said. “That to me, in the midst of everything that’s going on, I know policemen and women, them and their spouses are in a tough, tough spot.”
Williams told his players that if they feel comfortable, that it’s time to speak out.
“I’m deeply hurt,” wrote Devin Booker on his Instagram story this week. “I’m also very frustrated because this hasn’t changed after generations of pain, suffering, injustice, fear, inequality…and the list goes on.
“After days of conversations with friends and loved ones, I don’t have an answer. I worry about how this is going to get better because this is our flawed system. It’s a system built upon racism…one race oppressing the other. The repeated cycle of the same things over and over. We don’t have our “leadership” to guide us but regardless it is time for a change. We need justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. RIP”
Meanwhile, Kelly Oubre Jr. has used his social media accounts to call for peaceful protests. On Monday, he told his Instagram followers in eight states and Washington D.C. to vote.
When their jobs ramp up once again, Williams hopes that he, the Suns and the entire NBA community don’t forget to keep pushing for change.
“I’m hopeful if we do get a chance to play, we become a bright spot for our world,” he said.
“At the same time, I’m hopeful that sport doesn’t deflect from the things that we need to pay attention to.”