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Steve Kerr speaks truth to power — and his players respect him for it

‘There is no question the reaction to me saying exactly the same thing as a black athlete is taken a different way’

CLEVELAND — Draymond Green is a two-time NBA champion. His Golden State Warriors are a game away from winning their third NBA title in four years. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year shares a court with three fellow All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

You know what means just as much to Green? Playing for a white coach, Steve Kerr, who is not afraid to address issues that concern black players.

Kerr, responding to President Donald Trump canceling the Philadelphia Eagles’ trip to the White House this week, made a point to say NFL players kneeling during the national anthem has nothing to do with the military. Kerr said it has everything to do with police brutality and racial inequality. And while the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement requires that players stand for the anthem, Kerr added that he would be “perfectly fine” with one of his players protesting during the anthem because it is “their right as Americans.”

Kerr’s willingness to speak out, especially on a stage as large as the NBA Finals, has endeared him not only to his players but also other players in a league that is about 75 percent black.

“It makes you feel good,” Green told The Undefeated. “It gives you more of a feeling of trust because you know, No. 1, it’s bigger than basketball. It’s important to him how everyone is viewed, how everyone is treated. It is definitely a comforting feeling, for sure.”

Kerr is a former player for an outspoken coach in Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, who has criticized Trump and talked about white privilege. Kerr has been just as critical of Trump. And with Kerr making the internationally covered NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, his words speak the loudest of any coach at the biggest time of the season.

“The president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide us, all of us in this country, for political gain,” Kerr said. “So it’s just the way it is. I think we all look forward to the day when we can go back to just having a celebration of athletic achievement and celebrate Americans for their achievement, their good deeds.”

From former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown, countless African-Americans are asking for help combating police brutality and racial inequality. It’s a nightmarish normal for America, just like school shootings and homelessness.

That’s why it is important for coaches such as Kerr and Popovich to use their platforms. A white person in a position of power who speaks passionately about racial inequality and police brutality garners the attention of people who otherwise may have turned a deaf ear.

Kerr is the son of Malcolm Kerr, a former president of the American University of Beirut who was murdered by terrorists in Lebanon in 1984 at age 52. Whether it’s on Twitter or talking to reporters, Steve Kerr also has spoken strongly about gun violence. He often talks to his players before practice about what is going on in the world socially and politically. Warriors forward David West said most of their conversations are not about basketball.

Kerr acknowledged the importance of recognizable and strong white voices like his speaking out on race and social issues.

“There is no question the reaction to me saying exactly the same thing as a black athlete is taken a different way even if the words were exact,” Kerr said. “It is looked at differently. I think it is important for everybody to speak out if they feel comfortable doing so.”

Kerr has said he does not support the president in large part because he feels Trump has pitted races in America against each other. On Sept. 22, 2017, the Warriors, most notably two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, said they did not want to visit the White House to celebrate their 2017 NBA title because of Trump. The next day, Trump tweeted that the Warriors’ invite was rescinded because Curry “was wavering.” The Warriors spent their time in Washington, D.C., this past February touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture with children from the community.

Fast-forward to the NFL. Trump canceled the Eagles’ visit this week — as few as 10 players were expected to make the trip — with the following statement:

“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow. They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country. The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better. These fans are still invited to the White House to be part of a different type of ceremony — one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem. I will be there at 3 p.m. with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus to celebrate America.”

Kerr acknowledged fatigue with the false narrative that kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” indicates a lack of patriotism and is a slap at the troops protecting America. With Kaepernick lighting the fuse, kneeling during the anthem has always been a protest of police brutality and inequality. That’s a fact.

“But that’s Trump’s whole thing is to appeal to his base, divide us and make this about patriotism when actual patriotism is actually doing something nice for your community, which is what a lot of the guys on the Eagles had done all year,” Kerr said.

Asked about the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, who did not receive an invitation to the White House and chose to celebrate their 2017 championship by giving away sneakers and visiting with Washington, D.C., schoolchildren, Kerr said:

“What you’re seeing is athletes are showing patriotism through their community service,” Kerr said, “while the president is turning all this stuff into a political game and a ratings game and a blatant display of nationalism. Patriotism is helping your fellow citizen. Whether it’s what KD [Kevin Durant] is doing or what we did when we visited Washington or what the Lynx are doing [Wednesday], that’s what patriotism is about.

“I’m blown away by the irony of Eagles being disinvited [to the White House] when you read about their good deeds in their communities, about Malcolm Jenkins addressing lawmakers, really trying to get to the root of the issues we have. Instead we have these military singalongs at the White House to show how patriotic we are, even though we don’t know the words.”

Green has never been shy about exercising his freedom of speech, whether the topic is politics, race or the NBA. And as an African-American player, it means a lot to him that his coach, a white man, also speaks up for black people.

“He is putting himself on the line,” Green said. “But that’s who Steve is. He is not a guy who runs out and hides about things where some may say it the politically correct way. He’s going to say what he feels. And I respect that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.