The intersection of the movement for black lives and high-level competition has been at the center of the 2020 NBA restart. It’s a lot for anyone to balance.
The weight of coaching one of the 22 NBA teams in the Orlando bubble would be enough for most — ensuring safety, rule-following, and focus. But for Suns coach Monty Williams, that’s not enough. Williams wants to do both, and in his own unique, Monty Williams way, he’s educating his players and generating conversations among them while also building up their confidence, conditioning and energy on the court during this bizarro training camp.
So after the day’s on-court work on Sunday, Williams and his players came together to watch The Uncomfortable Truth, a documentary from a white filmmaker named Loki Mulholland who uncovers his own family’s horrific past perpetuating the slave trade in the American south. The goal, Williams said, in screening the film for his Suns players and staff in addition to recommending it to his friends and family, is to replace assumptions about people with facts. Rather than deciding how you feel about someone based on what you assume about them, history and truth can help people come to an understanding.
“A lot of times we get ourselves into trouble — especially people who have a microphone — when we start to talk about things that we assume,” William said. “If we can educate ourselves and educate our kids and educate guys in the NBA, it can remove assumptions. And once you remove those assumptions, I begin to understand someone else’s background.”
After watching the film, Williams spoke with his players about his own family history — about how his father’s father once traced the Williams family lineage through to a plantation in Lenoir County, North Carolina.
“To see their eyes looking at me, it was pretty cool,” Williams said. “I was thankful to have that moment with those guys.”
Williams understands that even in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the consequent uprisings around the country, digesting the deep-seated racism in our backyards can be difficult, and will drive some to rage or depression. In order to avoid players burying their heads in the dirt, Williams welcomes dialogue.
“I’ve expressed to them — without trying to be over-bearing — when you find out these facts, to try to look at it through the lens of love and understanding,” Williams said. “It’s hard when you watch this stuff to not get emotional, but sometimes the emotion can take you to a place where you can’t recover, so I’ve talked to them about, when you find this stuff out, have an understanding heart and try to look at it through the lens of love so that we can be better going forward.”
Certainly not the exclusive proprietor of such conversations, Williams talks with his own role models as well. The 87-year-old grandfather who helped raise him is still a source of knowledge, still quite “sharp,” Williams said. And Williams often talks of the impact people like Gregg Popovich or the New Orleans pastor Bill Gebhardt had on him. The coach is giving his players their own Popovich or Gebhardt in the form of Williams himself.