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Spurs employees at all levels talk about racism, police brutality, privilege, and where to go from here

From Gregg Popovich, RC Buford and Peter Holt to players and other employees, members of the Spurs Family continue a dialogue about race and justice in America.

SAN ANTONIO — Editor's note: The above video was originally published on May 31.

The San Antonio Spurs took a different approach in responding to the police killing of George Floyd that has set of hundreds of demonstrations against racism and police brutality across the world.

Instead of releasing one statement, they listened to their players, coaches, and employees about how these issues impact them, and shared those moving messages.

"We're pressing pause amidst all that's going on to listen to our people, what they're feeling, what their experiences have been, what we can do together to impact change," said Brandon James, who introduced the initiative. "This listening will be ongoing. You're about to hear stories about pain racism has caused, but there's so many other areas we need to continue to listen and learn about, from the systematic and oppressive constructs we need to change, economically, the law, access to education, prejudices and biases, the list goes on and on. Please join us in our conversation as we listen to the voices, and then walk with us toward real change and a society that treats everyone with dignity, respect, and equality."

The #SpursVoices series features emotional videos from Head Coach Gregg Popovich, CEO RC Buford, guard Lonnie Walker IV, and many others at all levels of the organization.

Here's what they had to say. 

On police brutality and George Floyd

"I think I'm just embarrassed as a white person to know that that can happen," Popovich said. "To actually watch a lynching. We've all seen books, and you look in the books and you see black people hanging off of trees. And you are amazed. But we just saw it again. I never thought I'd see that, with my own eyes, in real time."

"In a strange, counter-intuitive sort of way, the best teaching moment of this recent tragedy, I think, was the look on the officer's face," Popovich said. "For white people to see how nonchalant, how casual, just how everyday-going-about-his job, so much so that he could just put his left hand in his pocket, wriggle his knee around a little bit to teach this person some sort of a lesson, and that it was his right and his duty to do it, in his mind."

"I'm 25 years old, but I've been harassed by police on multiple occasions," said Jahred Nixon, who has been with the team for two years. "I've been grabbed up and put in handcuffs and detained in a police station for two to three hours because I 'fit the description.'"

He tells a story of a police officer jumping the curb to ask him what he was doing in broad daylight on the street he lived on. He was 15.

"He said that a neighbor of mine had called in to the police and said that I looked suspicious and looked like I was breaking into houses," Nixon recalled. "I had a phone on me, but I didn't want to go for my phone because I didn't want him to think I was going for a weapon."

"I'm expected to be calm and collected in these situations when they come, but I'm not the one that's being trained, professionally trained for hundreds of hours for these situations, I'm just a regular civilian," he said.

Justin Wynter noted that in 1991, he was a kid listening to music on his Walkman. Now, you can stream all the music that's out there. 

"Rodney King was beaten in 1991, and it was videotaped for the world to see," said Wynter, an associate director of business operations. "George Floyd was killed by police officers and it was videotaped for the world to see in 2020. Why are those stories so similar over the same time frame when we're experiencing so much advancement in technology and other areas?"

Brandon Gayle says the Rodney King beating stuck with him as well.

"There's this concept of the talk," he said. "I don't remember having it with my mom or dad. What I do remember is March 1991 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles. I was ten years old. The video of that beating played over and over again on television. It's an indelible image that I still can't escape mentally."

He was working at Facebook 25 years later when the aftermath of Philando Castile's death was streamed live on the platform.

"The killing of Philando Castile has stayed with me in particular because after he was shot multiple times by that police officer, Philando's girlfriend who was in the car with him, took out her phone and went live on Facebook," he said, fighting tears. "The world was able to watch live from a phone via a product feature I had helped our teams launch a year prior while a black man died at the hands of police."

The continued problem of police brutality against black people has had a lasting impact on him.

"I'm petrified at the thought of being pulled over," he said. "I have a visceral fear and reaction when I see police vehicles on the road or hear sirens while I'm driving to this day."

"To see yet another wave of black men and women have their lives taken by police brutality is horrible," said Peter J Holt, Chairman of Spurs Sports & Entertainment. "For members of the black community to still be having these experiences in 2020 is unacceptable."

On racism

Sean Elliott is a Spurs legend, from the Memorial Day Miracle to the 1999 championship, to his broadcasting career. None of that mattered when he was putting on the fifth green at La Cantera during a charity golf tournament

He vividly remembers the moment a man in a truck yelled the n-word at him and Bruce Bowen.

"That happens occasionally, but we just didn't expect it to happen at that point," Elliott said. "Sometimes you get a rude awakening, and you get reminded. I would never hold that against all white people or the people of San Antonio, it's just that it happens still to this day, it happened when I was in elementary school and it happens now, it doesn't matter who you are."

"If I'm in another city, and I get on an elevator with people, lots of times I have to defuse the situation, because people are scared," Elliott said as his voice broke. "They're scared of me. That amazing? I wouldn't hurt a fly."

Elliott was one of many who talked about the extra level of scrutiny that black men actively deal with on a daily basis.

"Every single day when I leave my house, whenever I go to the store, whenever I do an interview, whenever I talk to somebody on the phone, whenever I interact with people, there's always this pressure on me to represent," he said. "I've got to represent the black race to the best of my ability, I've always felt that pressure. I don't know that other people of other races feel that way when they interact with people. Do you feel that pressure to represent where you come from, or people that have the same color skin as you? Do you feel that pressure to smash stereotypes people have of you?"

The constant pressure of racism was a common theme.

"People don't understand the anger and the hate that African people have (to deal with), just beyond this," said second-year guard Lonnie Walker IV. "Every day we have to put on a mask of happiness and thinking we're cool, but realistically we're not."

Walker touched on the fear of being judged as a threat or a criminal, a common theme in these videos.

"I was at the mall and I'm looking at shoes and I'm getting looked at the wrong way, and it's like wow," he said. "But that happens with all black people, and that's just the way we are portrayed and that's how we've been looked at for years and years and years and years."

Nixon could relate.

"Living as a black man, you have to keep yourself uncomfortable because you don't want to make other people uncomfortable," he said. "Walking in a store, I want to make sure that I don't put my hands near my pockets too often because I don't want people to think I'm stealing. The way I walk, I want to make sure that I look inviting to people I don't want to look like I'm a troublemaker."

“Sometimes people might fear me for how I look. They don’t know my heart, though. They don’t know what type of person I am. We might have more in common than you think," said Nixon. "In a racist individual's eyes they don't see that, they don't know that because they don't care to learn."

On why it's offensive to call black people articulate

Wynter's grandfather set high standards for himself, and that's a trait he emulates. But as a black man in America, praise routinely comes with a dose of racism.

"If I walk into a room, I want to let you know that I can not only meet your expectations but I can exceed them, and I can exceed them consistently. Too often that's seen as the exception," he said.

"'You're so articulate, you're so smart.' Black Americans have been smart for decades, for generations, that's not the exception."

As someone who speaks for a living, Sean Elliott is no stranger to these offensive stereotypes.

"So many people over the years have told me things like, 'You're a breath of fresh air, you're not like the rest of them.' I've had people tell me, 'oh, you think you're white,' because of the way I talk, and I've gotten that not only from white people but I've gotten it from black people," said Elliott. "We've been so ingrained with racism and stereotypes that we even have blacks that say that to each other. 'Oh, you think you're white.' Why would I think I'm white? I love being a black man."

On the history of systemic racism

Garrett Jackson said that there are two versions of history for black people, the one taught in school and the one passed down through family.

"My grandma was actually born on an Indian reservation just outside of Tulsa," he said. "I learned at a young age about the Tulsa massacre, where there's a mob of people and they came and burned down an entire city and murdered hundreds of black people, and nobody got arrested."

"A lot of people don't know that," he said. "It's wild to me that that's not a known thing."

Gregg Popovich pointed out that America's founding ideals of freedom and liberty have not been enjoyed equally by all citizens, and still aren't today.

"The history of our nation from the very beginning in many ways was a lie, and we continue to this day, mostly black and brown people, to try to make that lie a truth so that it is no longer a lie,.and those rights and privileges are enjoyed by people of color, just like we enjoy them,"said Popovich.

On black children

"I'm now a father of two brown boys," said Gayle. "The reality of not being able to protect myself now extends to them. I can’t protect myself and I can’t protect my boys because nothing has changed."

"This is my normal, and it's a hell of a weight to carry as a human being and a father every single day," he said. 

"My children were born out of love," said Stephanie Charlise Ashe, who has been with the Spurs for seven years. "They were born into love. Why does this world hate them because of the color of their skin? We're not an accident. No matter what you believe, we were created, and all of us were created with purpose, so why are we looked at indifferently, and with all the contributions that we've made?"

"They shouldn't be seen as less than, they never should," Wynter said. "They're not above anyone either, we should be standing on equal footing to accomplish things together, but sadly, just given the trajectory and the history of what we've experienced over several generations, my concern, and my fear is that it won’t change. History will continue to repeat itself and that’s sad.” 

"When you're a black male in this world, sometimes you have to grow up a little faster," said Nixon, who has worked for the Spurs for two years. "I knew who Emmit Till was and Medgar Evers and all these prominent figures in black history before I knew that Santa Claus wasn't real."

Buford said that hearing these stories helped change his perspective on the struggle and strength of black people.

"It gave me a different understanding of how strong our family members are who face racism on a daily basis, and to not be afraid of having courageous conversations, and recognize the growth potential that we can share by understanding each other better and by recognizing the huge impact that standing up against something as harmful as racism can produce," he said.

On the emotions of this week

"Pain, anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, motivation," said Spurs GM Brian Wright. "I've felt the full spectrum of emotions since I learned of the tragic killings, and then subsequently watched whats going on in the streets of all of our American cities. The fight, knowing that we can no longer to afford to allow things to remain the same, to allow what's happened to us for hundreds of years to continue today, just in a different form."

"You're first shocked at what you're witnessing, and that shock quickly turns to a level of sadness, and sadness ultimately comes out as anger or rage," said Landry Fields. "I don't think there is adequate language to describe it."

"It's 2020 and realistically we feel the same exact way dudes feel back in the day," Walker said. "We have to find a way to make this really resonate on everybody."

By sharing their stories in an open setting, black members of the Spurs family appear to have made a significant impact on some in leadership positions.

"It was humiliating for me to think that I feel like I'm tired when they wake up facing those fears, facing that pain on a daily basis," said Buford. "I can't imagine the fatigue that racism brings into an individual, and then for those people to be strong enough to show up every day, and we have expectations that we're all going to give it 100%."

"The anger, pain, exhaustion, and sadness I heard in these impactful stories was agonizing and heart wrenching," said Holt. "It shook me to my core."

"I don't want to become hateful," said Ashe. "I'm angry, but I refuse to be hateful. because if I do, then I become just like those in the world who are creating this chaos."

On privilege and learning

Popovich has long called on white people to use their privilege to join the fight against racism.

"We have to do it. Black people have been shouldering this burden for 400 years," Popovich said. "The only reason this nation has made the progress it has is because of the persistence, patience, and effort of black people."

"I fully recognize that I'm a white male," said Holt. "On top of that, I was born into a privileged name and a wealthy family."

"I've been blessed in my life to experience many different people and places, I've been blessed to have relationships with incredible and amazing people of different races, religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, places of origin," Holt said. "Because of this, I thought I understood race. I now fully realize that I do not understand. I must listen and learn more than ever."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed after peacefully protesting in defiance of an injunction against civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. He then wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

"In this message, Dr. King was speaking specifically to the white moderate, but I think in this moment it speaks to all who are moderate about this situation," Wright said. Here is the passage from Dr. King:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

"We need this help, the black community needs help, and we have to do it collectively," said Walker. "That comes with votes, that comes with really doing things. Instead of just sitting back and thinking a simple social media post is going to help. It's about action. Words help, words can get only so far, but when you're about your action and you go to it the right way, then that hits home, that hits deeper."

Privilege is not a concept that only white people in the organization are grappling with.

"For me even as a person of color, I have to make sure that I am offering my presence for people who have gone through injustices and discrimination and marginalization far beyond whatever I have," said Fields. 

"It's hard for me as a person of color to admit because I'm mixed, and while I have experienced the discrimination and the racial profiling that a lot of my full black brothers and sisters have, there's still I know that degree does not even match what they go through," he said.

"I have to check my own implicit bias, even against people of color," he said. "It takes vulnerability to say because it's so shocking for some people to hear. I want to learn too, even as a person of color."

On what comes next

"Once this is over, what's next?" asked Walker. "We got all our anger and all that screaming out it probably hit some cops, it probably hit some people and they understand, but we have to do something bigger than that, as a community as a country as a city. We have to find ways to connect between the government and the people because we're not connected at all."

"The bad happened, now you've gotta have the good outweigh the bad, so I want to come and help out my community that's been broken," Walker said. "Let's help each other out, let's start here."

For many, finding common ground is the first step.

"There's an African proverb that says 'If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, take others with you.' We have to go far, that's why we're rallying," said Fields.

"Empathy allows us to engage in quality engagement, and with quality engagement, we might achieve equity," he said. "Just like you would probably do with anybody who is mourning over something, there's an offering that needs to be made simply of presence and proximity."

By fostering this discussion, people feel seen and heard.

"As people have come and just shared their support, that's what I've been thanking them for, for seeing me as a person," Ashe said. "That's the key, that's how we continue to love each other, it's not about our differences."

Popovich, as he's done for years now, called on white people to join the fight for racial justice.

"We have to do it," he said. “Black people have been shouldering this burden for 400 years. The only reason this nation has made the progress it has is because of the, persistence, and patience, and effort of black people," he said. "It's got to be us in my opinion that speak truth to power, that call it out no matter what the consequence is. We have to speak, we have to not let anything go.”

Leadership vocalized their commitment to working toward justice on these issues.

"I want to confirm the organizational commitment to being purposeful in establishing actionable programming to promote anti-racism," said Buford. "I hope that we can find a multitude of organizations throughout our community and throughout our country that will join in this time as an opportunity to make this a tipping point for change."

"It's like the neighborhood where you know there's a dangerous corner, and you know that something's going to happen someday, and nobody does anything," Popovich said. "And then a young kid gets killed and a stop sign goes up. Well, without getting too political, we've got a lot of stop signs that need to go up, quickly, because our country is in trouble. And the basic reason is race."

"As an organization, we believe we can do more to help address the systemic racism in our society, and we embrace this opportunity," Holt said. "We have incredibly strong and thoughtful leaders in every area of our Spurs family. I'm grateful for their willingness and courage to tackle this complex and important issue. I also know that I must do more. Together we will put the whole weight of our organization behind this critical effort."

"My hope is that we're all capable of doing the work that's needed to ensure that whatever that new normal actually is, that it creates an equal opportunity for me, my wife, my boys, and others who look like us to feel like our lives actually matter," said Gayle.

"It's about just recognizing that we all deserve love and respect and to be kind to each other," said Ashe. "We don't have to be best friends, but we surely don't need to be foes. We need to be able to support one another."

"We all want peace," said Walker. "We all want to feel loved and feel safe."

So, what will it look like? For Walker and many others, it's committing to the perpetual struggle for justice.

"We have to keep on fighting for this, we can't just let these protests end because we're tired, even if we don't protest we have to find ways to talk," he said. "Being able to talk and have these folks really understand our pain and our hurt and how we feel, because we don't feel protected at all."

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