Cemented in the back of the players’ and coaches’ minds Saturday night was the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died three days after being beaten by the Memphis police following a traffic stop.
The ghastly and disturbing video of Nichols being stopped, tased, beaten, and left to suffer in the Jan. 7 incident was released approximately 24 hours before the Celtics hosted the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday. Five Memphis police officers were arrested and another fired in the wake of Nichols’s death and the video.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was still shaken as he addressed the media Saturday, understanding that his team is filled with Black 20-something players who could be or may have already been in Nichols’s position, stopped by the police wondering if one twitch of the hand or unwanted question could lead to a violent confrontation, or even worse.
Mazzulla is more than a basketball coach, especially in these situations. He’s a teacher, a life coach, a big brother, a mentor. And he faces a group of players who may be uncertain not about what could potentially happen on the floor but off the floor, when they are driving home from dinner or a night out on the town.
Being professional athletes does not make them untouchable. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the problems or concerns of us regular folks, it doesn’t make them above the fear of running into the wrong officer or being caught in the wrong situation.
Mazzulla, a man of faith who made some well-chronicled mistakes while at West Virginia is fully equipped to consult and advise his players because of those experiences and the humility that it has created.
Mazzulla is imperfect, like all of us, but strong and self-assured enough to know there is a right way, there is a world that could potentially exist where respect and grace are normal, even if it isn’t here or now.
“First understand that I’m a sinner,” he said Saturday. “I make mistakes. By no means do I think I have it figured out because I don’t. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve upset people. I’ve done things in my life, so I think you have to have an understanding and authenticity about who you are, what you’re good at, what your strengths are, where you can get better as a person.”
Coaches in today’s professional landscape need to be more than strategic masters or X’s and O’s specialists, they need to be astute leaders of young men, a close friend, someone they are comfortable discussing matters of life with, and this is one of those situations.
“You have to be vulnerable about that so I think in times like this, you really have to double down on vulnerability because everybody is feeling something different,” Mazzulla said. “Everybody should be allowed to have a different emotion toward it. It’s how you share it. It’s how you own it. It’s how you work through it together.
“The most important thing for our guys to know, that they have a place they can go to. You don’t have to live a perfect life. You don’t have to wear this mask. It’s OK to not be perfect. It’s not OK to not treat people the right way. It’s not OK to not love the guy next to you.”
Mazzulla’s faith and beliefs are two of the reasons why the Celtics are comfortable with his leading the organization until their next phase. He was one of many NBA coaches and players who expressed grief, horror, and anger about Nichols’s death.
The NBA Players Association nearly stopped the season after the video of Jacob Blake was released in August 2020 during the NBA bubble. Over days of negotiations, the players worked with NBA governors to transform NBA arenas into polling places for the 2020 presidential election.
As much as some of these players appear consumed by social media or their brand or sneaker deals, they do pay attention to what’s occurring in their communities. They are moved greatly by these incidents. They are affected. They are anger and saddened.
“It’s tough to come out and play a game in the midst of a viral video that’s floating around that creates that sort of trauma,” the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said. “I would be lying if I said something like that hasn’t happened before or potentially could happen again. I think it’s a systemic issue. I think we can continue to use the words like reform and until we look at the foundation and how things have been initiated and created and designed, I think we’re going continue to run into the same issue.”
NBA players continued the season in 2020 hoping an incident such as Blake’s or George Floyd’s wouldn’t happen again, but they knew it would. But because they are not surprised doesn’t mean they aren’t disheartened or they haven’t lost faith in the system or don’t feel they are safe when they leave TD Garden despite how many points they just scored.
“I’m going to break it down like this: It’s certain people that want the world to change and continue to move forward and certain people that’s OK where the world is at,” Brown said. “I’m going to continue to challenge those people because it doesn’t matter if it benefits your pockets or your financial opportunities, we’ve got to push our society forward and we’ve got to be better in a lot of regards. So what happened in Memphis, I send my condolences to the [Nichols] family. I couldn’t really make it through the video, but as we’ve said many times, and we’re going to continue to say, our society has to do better.”
The hope is that we can be better. That we can love one another unconditionally like Mazzulla says. But incidents in Memphis tarnish those hopes, leaving all of us looking for explanations, solutions, and just plain peace.