Hours after a wave of protests swept through the NFL in response to President Donald Trump saying he hoped “son of a bitch” football players who kneeled during the national anthem were fired, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone sent a text to four of his most trusted players.
The group included budding star Nikola Jokic, who’s from Serbia; point guard Jameer Nelson, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Pennsylvania and is going into his 14th NBA season; Paul Millsap, another veteran who spent his childhood in Montbello and then northern Louisiana; and lastly, Gary Harris, the team’s starting shooting guard from Fishers, Indiana.
Malone reached out to them to ask if they would form a four-player committee to serve as a conduit between the coaching staff and the team on a variety issues, both basketball and social.
“It might be basketball related, or it might be about what we’re dealing with right now outside of the sports world with President Trump and everything else,” Malone said. “I hit those guys up last night to sort of start that discussion. And we talked about it last year. Colin Kaepernick started it last year. The funny thing is, it’s growing and growing, and he’s still the one guy who can’t get into the NFL.”
Politics and sports have become even more intertwined than usual since Trump on Friday suggested that professional football players who kneeled during the national anthem as a way to protest racial inequality in America should be fired. Thirty-two Broncos players kneeled during the national anthem Sunday. Both Malone and president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said that if any of their players wish to use their platform to speak out on racial or social issues, they’ll support them.
“We’ll never be an organization that suppresses individuality,” Connelly said. “We have 17 players in that room. We have 50 staff and basketball operations. We’re all going to see things differently. But we’ll never be a team that says, ‘Do this or do that.’ It’s got to come from your heart.”
The Nuggets are among the most diverse teams in the NBA. Ten of the 17 players on the roster are black men who were born in the U.S. Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles are Canadian. Juancho Hernangomez is from Spain. Jokic is from Serbia. Emmanuel Mudiay was born in Africa and grew up in Texas. Mason Plumlee and Tyler Lydon, the two players on Denver’s roster who are white and were born in the U.S., are from Indiana and New York, respectively. The hope is that the four-player committee Malone created will help take the temperature in the room.
“One thing the NBA is all about is diversity and inclusion,” Malone said. “We respect all of our player’s voices. We’re going to let them talk amongst themselves and let us know how they feel.”
Malone watched Sunday as all but one member on his favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, stayed in the locker room during the national anthem. Offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who did three tours in Afghanistan, came outside the Steelers tunnel and held his hand over his heart while the national anthem played. Malone said he had no problem either way with the majority of the Steelers’ decision to stay in the locker room for the national anthem or Villanueva’s decision to come onto the field for it.
“We’re not going to suppress anybody’s wishes,” Malone said. “That’s the great thing about this country. That’s the great thing about this league. And that’s the great thing about this franchise. We will give guys the right to do what we feel is best for them.”
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