Nets get political in rare show of protest


BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Maybe it’s because of the money, maybe it’s because of the fame, maybe it’s because sports are inherently a suspension of reality intermixed with illogical tribalism, but politics and sports rarely mix. Athletes and coaches are far more comfortable no-commenting or mumbling platitudes than taking a stand on any situation that could even be marginally toxic or divisive. As Michael Jordan famously said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Deron Williams is one such player. But even Williams joined teammates Kevin Garnett, Jarrett Jack, and Alan Anderson in peaceful protest, donning a black shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” Monday night, to honor the life of Eric Garner, who was killed during a filmed altercation with police.

“I try to distance myself from (politics), but this is one where I really paid attention and saw what was going on,” Williams said.

“I mean, you see the video, you know what happened. It’s not one of those things where it’s, you know, people are saying this, cops are saying that, it’s there for you to see. So you just feel bad that a man lost his life because of that.”

It was a nebulous atmosphere to navigate Monday night, and that’s not even considering the game, a royal 110-88 blowout at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers that saw the Nets outscored 49-27 after Prince Will & Princess Kate, attending their first NBA game, took their seats.

It was marked by the stark contrast between the courtside seats, filled by British royalty, and the oculus, filled with protestors staging a “die-in” and chanting “I Can’t Breathe!” and “No justice! No peace! No racist police!”, among other chants, at police officers outdoors. Protests continued outside the arena and down Atlantic Avenue into the night.

But the most visible protest nationally came inside the arena, with six players — the four Nets, plus four-time MVP LeBron James and two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving — wearing the shirts with the phrase that has become a rallying cry around the wrongful death of an unarmed citizen. “I can’t breathe” were Garner’s final words before he died of “compression of the neck” from a chokehold in violation of NYPD policy, in what a medical examiner ruled as a homicide. Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used the chokehold, was not indicted in Garner’s death.

“We just put the shirts on to let everybody know that we pay attention to things that go on,” Williams said, “especially with us being in Brooklyn, and New York City, where it happened. I think it was good for us to be out there and be seen in the shirts and show our support for him and his family.”

“Guys who felt comfortable going out there with it, we banded together and felt we needed to go out there and make a statement,” Jack added after the game. “You know, individually, it’s up to you. We didn’t pressure anybody to do anything, but it’s just how confident you feel about it. Some people want to do it with words, some people want to do it with action, and that was just the choice we chose today, wearing those t-shirts.”

“They should be political,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who played in the NBA from 1975-1985, said. “They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. They don’t think there’s justice, or they feel like there’s something that they should protest, they should protest. That’s their right as citizens of America.”

Williams said former Nets owner and courtside staple Jay-Z supplied the shirts the Nets wore, which were a different shirt than the ones worn by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, which were supplied by Jarrett Jack’s agency, Excel Sports Management. Jay-Z and Beyonce were in attendance, and had a conversation with the Prince & Princess that delayed the game.

The timing of the protest to coincide with the Royal treatment was no accident. “(Jay-Z and I) talked about it,” Williams said. “Us being in Brooklyn, it would be big for us to wear them, especially with all the publicity that was going to be at the game tonight, because of the royal couple.”

“I think it’s important for us being as how a lot of this is going on in the communities where we’re from,” Garnett added. “You hear the slogan ‘NBA Cares’ and it’s more evident than now to show some support. Obviously we’re not on the front line of this movement, but I think it’s important being from these communities and supporting these communities.”