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NBA players are showing up and speaking out against police brutality, and teams are backing them up

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson embraces a woman after speaking during a protest in Minneapolis about the death of George Floyd. Floyd and Jackson were childhood friends.
Former NBA player Stephen Jackson embraces a woman after speaking during a protest in Minneapolis about the death of George Floyd. Floyd and Jackson were childhood friends.Stephen Maturen/Getty

For many in the NBA, protesting against brutality and discrimination toward people of color is personal.

Take former Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

“My father was a 30-year veteran of the Chicago police department, and if he were still with us right now, he’d be hurt and outraged by the senseless acts of racial injustice that continue to plague our country,” Rivers wrote in a statement released by the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday night.

“Being black in America is tough. I’ve personally been called more racial slurs than I can count, been pulled over many times because of the color of my skin, and even had my home burned down.

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Rivers, who coached the Celtics to an NBA title in 2008, joined dozens of athletes, coaches, and teams in renouncing the death of George Floyd and advocating for systemic change during a weekend filled with demonstrations across the country.

Floyd, 46, was killed May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The incident, which was captured on video, went viral.

NBA players in particular have been vocal and present, both on social media and at protests. That directly reflects the makeup of the league: According to the latest study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 81.9 percent of NBA players are men of color.

Jaylen Brown, who is a vice president of the National Basketball Players Association, went farther than issuing a statement. The Celtics star drove 15 hours to Atlanta to lead a protest in his home state Saturday.

“Being a celebrity, being an NBA player don’t exclude me from no conversation at all. First and foremost, I’m a Black man and I’m a member of this community, and I grew up on this soil,“ he said in an Instagram video.

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Back in Boston, Brown’s teammates took to the streets in a protest that drew 20,000 people Sunday night. Enes Kanter, Marcus Smart, and Vincent Poirier were spotted among the crowds marching from Nubian Square to Boston Police headquarters.

“We want to come out here and let our voices be heard,” Smart said. “We stand for truth and we stand for justice, and we won’t stop until we get justice, and that’s really what this is about. I just want to tell everyone who thinks this is something more than it is, it’s not.

"So, we’re here to keep George Floyd’s name alive, and keep it going, and his legacy. Something has to change and we’re here trying to make a change.”

The Celtics backed up the four players, issuing a statement Sunday decrying the violence against Floyd, Breonna Taylor (killed in her apartment in Louisville, Ky., by police), and Ahmaud Arbery (shot to death in Georgia), while advocating for change.

“During a time in which the phrase ‘new normal’ has often been used as our nation has struggled with the devastation of a pandemic, we imagine and hope for a ‘new normal’ where every citizen is afforded the same rights, has the same opportunities, receives the same treatment, and can peacefully enjoy every freedom promised to all of us,” the statement said.

“We stand with our players, employees, partners, and fans in being committed to championing the change we need. We need to be honest about confronting racism and abuse of power. We can and must demand equality for everyone. We can and will respond by committing to being part of the solution.”

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The Celtics are the only major pro team based in Massachusetts to issue a statement as of Monday night.

The Sixers’ Tobias Harris marched in Philadelphia; the Hawks’ Trae Young spoke at a rally in his hometown of Norman, Okla. Former player Stephen Jackson, who was a childhood friend of Floyd, spoke in Minneapolis Friday.

“When was murder ever worth it?” Jackson asked. "But if it’s a Black man, it’s approved. You can’t tell me, when that man had his knee on my brother’s neck, taking his life away, with his hand in his pocket, that that smirk on his face didn’t say, ‘I’m protected.’ “

And on social media, players from LeBron James to Carmelo Anthony shared their thoughts, experiences, and demands.

Players have been backed up by their coaches, too. The National Basketball Coaches Association issued a statement Monday, acknowledging their members’ roles as leaders of Black men and committing to creating change.

“The events of the past few weeks — police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism are shameful, inhumane and intolerable,” the statement said. “As a diverse group of leaders, we have a responsibility to stand up and speak out for those who don’t have a voice — and to stand up and speak out for those who don’t feel it is safe to do so.”

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But one coach went one step further. The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich minced no words when it came to what he thinks is partly to blame: a lack of leadership from President Donald Trump.

“It’s so clear what needs to be done. We need a president to come out and say simply that ‘Black lives matter.’ Just say those three words. But he won’t and he can’t,“ Popovich told The Nation. “But it’s more than just Trump. The system has to change. I’ll do whatever I can do to help, because that’s what leaders do.”

Elsewhere in the sports world

Ex-Patriots assistant and current Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was one of a few NFL coaches to issue statements after the death of Floyd.

Flores, who is Black, said he recently has been reminded of conversations he had when ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was criticized for kneeling in protest before games.

“Many people who broadcast their opinions on kneeling or on the hiring of minorities don’t seem to have an opinion on the recent murders of these young black men and women,” he said.

Former Red Sox player Mookie Betts posted on social media that he was in “disbelief yet again“ over the killing of Floyd.

“As I continue to process the recent events, I am reminded that our fight is not over,“ he wrote. "We must not get comfortable when the protesting is over, but remain dedicated to our mission.”

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Abroad, British soccer player Jadon Sancho made a public gesture after he scored in a Bundesliga game this weekend, taking his jersey off to show “Justice for George Floyd” written underneath. He was given a yellow card for the action.

And the players on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team issued a joint statement, saying they feel “nauseated” by social injustice.

“We are proud to be a team made up of diverse women who will never stop pushing for the most basic human rights for our people,” they said.


Katie McInerney can be reached at katie.mcinerney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @k8tmac.