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NBA, NBPA add social justice panel to Rookie Transition Program

Incoming players will learn how to become more involved in social equity work at annual welcoming event

As NBA rookies, second-year players, journeymen – and even 2008 second overall draft pick Michael Beasley – competed by day in the Las Vegas Summer League this week, at night the first-year players were in the conference rooms of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center learning the ropes of being successful in the NBA.

Much like in years past at the Rookie Transition Program (RTP), a joint orientation symposium run by the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to prepare draftees for a smooth transition to professional basketball, players were provided information and resources on how to prevent injury and illness, how to maintain healthy relationships and how to protect their finances, among other topics.

But for the first time at the RTP, there was an emphasis on social justice and how players can become more involved in social equity work in their respective communities.

The RTP, which was launched in 1986, is normally held near the league’s headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, after the various summer leagues, but due to the condensed league calendar brought on by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the NBA decided to hold the RTP simultaneously with the Las Vegas Summer League because most of the new incoming players were already there. (Last year’s program was held virtually.)

It is one of a handful of joint programs between the league and the NBPA with a goal of welcoming incoming players to the league, which also includes team awareness meetings, which are essentially check-ins with players across all 30 league teams.

“Because we have so many complementary resources – the PA [players’ association] and the league – it’s a chance to sort of share all of it with them, give them sort of a full-scope view of what they’re going to have access to as players in this league, and as people in this league,” said NBA senior vice president of player development Jamila Wideman, who helps run the RTP and design the curriculum for the multiday event.

“At a fundamental level, this program is about recognizing that players are our people first and athletes second. … It is very much about recognizing that humanity.”

This year’s program consisted of a series of panels and discussions about physical and mental health, financial management, relationships with coaches, among other topics. Speakers ranged from former (Shawn Marion, Antoine Walker) and current players (Robert Covington, NBPA vice president Grant Williams) to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas.

The social justice panel – which emphasized how players could use their platforms to help effect change, and how NBA-led initiatives could assist them – was led by NBA Foundation executive director Greg Taylor, National Basketball Social Justice Coalition executive director James Cadogan, NBPA Foundation executive director Sherrie Deans and former NBA player Caron Butler. (Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was scheduled to sit on the panel as well but had to withdraw at the last minute.)

While the large anti-racism protest movement of 2020, which was sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police, played a part in the social justice component being added to the RTP, Wideman explained that the program’s commitment to constantly evolving and maintaining a curriculum that’s relevant to each draft class would have necessitated the incorporation of social justice discussions regardless of what happened in Minneapolis last year. NBA players have been speaking out against anti-Black racism since the first Black players were allowed in the league in the 1950s, but in more modern times, the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin triggered the type of outspokenness that is commonplace today. So tailoring an RTP panel to those sensibilities was a no-brainer.

Wideman made clear that the league doesn’t encourage players to be more involved in social justice causes, but rather provides them with the resources they would need to go down that path. Some players enter the league having been socially engaged most of their lives, so they don’t necessarily need to be pushed to activism, but rather the RTP is about educating them on which initiatives the league, NBPA and current players are working on to possibly further the new players’ involvement.

“I might say that what we’re doing is meeting players where they already are,” Wideman said.

Deans, executive director of the NBPA Foundation, the arm of the players’ association that provides funding for the philanthropic efforts of all NBA players, said the players most wanted to know about how to sustain a protest movement and, in the grand scheme of things, if protests truly mattered and would it lead to substantive change.

“I had to say yes,” Deans said with a chuckle. “There’s so many things that we just wouldn’t have gotten if we didn’t demand them and make people feel uncomfortable.”

Deans stressed to the rookies that the inroads the league as a whole made in the last year – putting “Black Lives Matter” on the court and as messaging on the back of jerseys during last season’s bubble, voting initiatives, head-coaching diversity, the creation of the NBA Foundation and National Basketball Social Justice Coalition – all came from the demands and negotiations of the players.

“I wanted them to understand that that work of sort of keeping the fire going was really going to be their responsibility now,” she said. 

That responsibility will fall on rookies such as Golden State Warriors guard Moses Moody, drafted 14th overall, and guard Ayo Dosunmu, drafted 38th overall by the Chicago Bulls.

Moody, who after the murder of Floyd shared a poem he wrote for his high school senior speech on what it means for young Black men to come into contact with the police, said that the social justice panel taught him the importance of authenticity in social equity work, and how practicing what you preach is key to being effective. 

“People can recognize and they’ll realize that you’re just talking and you’re not actually living by what you’re saying,” Moody said.

Dosunmu, the son of Nigerian immigrants, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, spent three seasons at the University of Illinois, and will remain in his home state as a member of the Bulls.

He’s heard all the criticism of Chicago, how its violence has been compared with a “war zone.” As a 21-year-old, Dosunmu is still trying to figure out what he wants to do to improve his city, but what he took from the RTP was that effecting change comes from confidence, which Dosunmu does not lack.

“I have the right people around me to help me make very intelligent [decisions], and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “So, I just do a lot of research. I read a lot. I do a lot of writing.

“So, I’m very confident to speak on what I know, what I believe because I know that the work is there.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"