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David Fizdale: A voice for the voiceless

‘What good is it to make it if you don’t use your platform to speak up?’


As my wife and I recently celebrated the news that our first child was to be a boy, America quickly shifted my joy to despair, anger and fear. We watched as George Floyd repeated the words “I can’t breathe” in the final minutes of his life, with a cop kneeling on his neck. As my wife listened to him scream for his mother, I could only imagine what she felt. For she was about to bring a man of color into this brutal world.

After my time with the New York Knicks, we’ve come back to Los Angeles, my hometown, to reboot and be around familiar faces and places. Unfortunately, police violence against people that look like me is also all too familiar to me in the city I grew up in.

Professional sports, for many African Americans, has been the ticket to a better life — but it isn’t a ticket out of discrimination and hate. For my childhood friends and me, basketball was our way of life. In 1991, I was an 11th grader playing for the Fremont Pathfinders — a school on the east side of Los Angeles. We had a Hollywood-like season, ranked No. 1 in California, fifth in the country at one point, and were the city champions for the second time in three years.

That should’ve been the touchstone of our year. As we prepared to make a run at the state title, news would break that would change my worldview forever. Just a few days after holding up the city championship trophy at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, I watched Rodney King brutalized on camera by Los Angeles police.

As we watched the footage of Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, all I could think about was the day my mother and I sat watching the vicious beating of King. It brought back all of the times that my basketball-loving friends and I had been pulled over by police for no clear reason. Far too often, I’ve had a gun pointed at the back of my head as I was kept on my knees in the street for what would seem like forever. Memories of cops squeezing our fingers to the brink of breaking and being handcuffed so tight that we would lose the feeling in our hands. If you complained or pleaded, you were resisting, which led to a baton to the back of your legs or the famous LAPD death choke that left black men gasping for air. So as I watched Floyd plead for his life, scream for his mother and repeatedly yell I can’t breathe, an inexplicable chill came over me.

Four cops were involved in the beating of King and four more in the killing of Floyd. LA burned then and it is burning now. The difference today is that technology has allowed more people to see the injustices and the movement has become worldwide. In 1992, I would be in the streets with all the protesters in the LA uprising, screaming for justice with my friends and ultimately changing nothing.

Now I sit here as a black man who has so-called “made it.” Watching as my community suffers again as it suffered 30 years ago and so many times since. But what good is it to make it if you don’t use your platform to speak up? If you don’t stand up or kneel for your brothers, cousins and friends that are disproportionately targeted by police, that suffer unspeakable discrimination, and no matter how loud they yell, no one hears them. I was the voiceless all those years ago and now I am in a position to be heard. But I am also put in another difficult position. A position that risks my livelihood.

No matter how powerful, how rich or how famous you become, racism is an inevitable obstacle that black men face. As Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, many of us in the sports world were asked, “What will you do?” While leading my team, would I kneel in support of Kaep? My answer was simple: If my team kneels, then I’m kneeling. This would no doubt anger some, and I asked myself, “Should I just shut up and coach?” Our team at that time decided not to kneel, but a big part of me lives in regret for not taking a knee. If more of us took that knee, where would we be as a country today? I don’t know. There was also a part of me that feared that protest would be putting my career at risk. Just like Kaep, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf or Muhammad Ali, who all had their careers damaged for protesting injustice.

All citizens have the right to protest peacefully. Yet here I sit, as many of my African American colleagues do, worried about the consequences that we will face for speaking out. Do we leave our community to fight this alone or do we risk our livelihoods? There are already barriers that we face before ever addressing this issue that has made it difficult to become a head coach or top executive. The NBA has been at the forefront of issues of equality, but just like the rest of society, we still have a long road to travel. It’s also not reassuring when you hear the president of the United States calling black athletes “bums” and “sons of b—-es” for speaking out and peacefully protesting injustices.

No one should have to live in fear of speaking out against injustice. We can’t erase the past or the present, but it’s our responsibility to shape the future for our people. Whether it’s police brutality and the criminal justice system, health care and food discrimination, education and economic inequalities or gun violence, they need us. And we need to be able to lead our communities with class and dignity. More importantly, we need to be able to look our sons and daughters in the eyes with pride when they ask, “Daddy, what did you do to help?”

This is the world I am bringing my son into. These issues are not going anywhere until all white people of conscience and/or influence stand with us, march with us, vote with us and kneel with us. Otherwise, hate and discrimination will continue to kneel on us. Either way, it is my duty to try and leave a better world for my unborn son and his big brother Kyle.

David Fizdale is the former head coach of the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.