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Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Addresses NBA Strikes For Racial Justice

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The National Basketball Association put the world on notice this week. Playoff games came to a halt when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play on Wednesday in protest of the latest police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis. Protests in other leagues followed suit - the WNBA, Major League Baseball, hockey and football. College athletes marched on campus in solidarity with players trying to raise awareness on racism and police brutality. To talk about what's next, we're joined by the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Lloyd Pierce.

Thank you for coming on the program.

LLOYD PIERCE: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So, coach, I understand you have been in touch with Jacob Blake's father. Why was it important for you to reach out to him?

PIERCE: The level of influence and access that we have as an association is really, really high. And so just the opportunity that was presented to us as coaches - our coaches association to connect with the family I thought would be really impactful - trying to figure out, one, how they're all doing and, two, what we can do from a humanity standpoint to really be there in support of the family.

ELLIOTT: I have to ask, emotionally, did this shooting bring up feelings that you had back in June, when the - during the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta?

PIERCE: Every shooting has an emotional attachment. And I think every time you see another one, you know, it brings you back. They just all add on. And for people that are dealing with anxiety, people that are dealing with depression, people that are feeling like there's so much stress that's occurring, you can see how that comes about.

ELLIOTT: You know, NBA players sent a clear message this week that reverberated throughout the sports world. But beyond that, the protests led to some concrete commitments for change. For instance, the Wisconsin Legislature committed to going into special session on police reform. What kinds of things were achieved through this action?

PIERCE: Well, I think the biggest thing that the players were able to do was express that they want to be heard. They wanted our league to put racial discrimination, racial profiling, racial injustice, police brutality - they wanted to put that at the forefront. Obviously, there are some tangible items that came about, you know, with emphasis on voting, with the emphasis on forming a coalition to address these issues moving forward, with the emphasis on the policing bill of rights and addressing that from a legislative standpoint.

ELLIOTT: You've been a prominent voice in Atlanta for racial justice. At a protest this summer - I'm going to quote you now - you said, "I was born a Black man. I'm going to die a Black man, but I do not want to die because I'm a Black man." Why is sharing your experience with the community there in Atlanta important to you?

PIERCE: I'm sharing it with anyone that'll listen. And I think it's important to note that, you know, prior to June, I really feel that a lot of people in our country, both Black and white and any other ethnicity, were pretty ignorant to the fact that there are a lot of people that feel and think that I - in the way that I do in terms of the fear of being Black, the fear of living in America and being a Black man.

ELLIOTT: I wonder what you say to people who - and we've heard this time and time again...

PIERCE: Right.

ELLIOTT: ...Who think that athletes should be athletes and stay away from the politics.

PIERCE: Well, I wasn't and am not a person who grew up interested in politics. But what I really don't see is someone that looks like me. That's our fight. Our fight is we need to address areas of legislation. We need to address areas of representation. And in order to do so, it's going to require other individuals to fight for those people to be in that position. And so if it requires us as athletes and us in sports to push for new representation - and that starts with the vote - then that's what we're going to be committed to.

ELLIOTT: You know, you're the chair of a committee of the coaches association that's focused on racial injustice. What do you see coming next from the NBA on this subject?

PIERCE: You know, hopefully a lot; I hope there are a lot of angles that come out of this. This isn't us saying, we have the answers, and we're going to tell our players we have the answers and this is what we're going to do. No, this is a different world for all of us. And so we have committed ourselves to working with Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative, working with the Obama foundation and My Brother's Keeper on mentoring and community initiatives for low-income areas, working with various individuals who are focused in our communities on racial justice, education access, healthcare access, police reform, legislative items. We want to hear from them. We want to be educated, and we want to be able to amplify the work that they're doing. And that's been our focus from Day 1.

ELLIOTT: That was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Lloyd Pierce.

Thank you so much for being on our program.

PIERCE: Thank you for having me and continuing to share this information. We all have to do our part, so I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.