In what would turn out to be the final game of the 2019-20 men’s basketball season for the Kentucky Wildcats against the Florida Gators back in early March, the Cats held the Gators to just nine points over the final 8:18 of the contest to pull off the biggest comeback of the John Calipari era in Lexington without Ashton Hagans to ride into the SEC Tournament as the No. 1 seed on a high note.
Unfortunately for the Cats, and virtually everyone in a collegiate season at the time, had their campaigns ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic over the course of the next week, but what transpired in the following months was much more important than the aspirations of cutting down the nets in Atlanta.
They weren’t the first or the only ones, and tragically, they haven’t been the last, but the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Dreasjon Reed and Ahmaud Arbery sent not only the nation, but countless countries across the globe into one massive uprising against systemic racism and police brutality. Floyd had a knee forced into his neck during an arrest by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been arrested after Floyd’s death, along with the other three officers that arrived on the scene back in late May.
Roughly a week after Floyd was killed, Olivier Sarr (who still hasn’t received a verdict on his transfer situation from Wake Forest, even though he’s been on campus working out with this year’s roster) sent this pair of tweets out, including a link to an endless amount of resources surrounding the issues that the Black population continues to face not only in the United States, but around the world.
Here is how you can help. We need you in this and it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or the color of your skin, this affects our entire humanity. We need everybody. #GeorgeFloyd https://t.co/s4E0EGbYkm— Olivier Sarr (@sarr_olivier) June 2, 2020
Among those across the country that have put their foot down to say enough is enough have been college athletes, including star quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence from preseason No. 1 Clemson and Heisman Trophy favorite Justin Fields from Ohio State, who have started to lay the groundwork for true change and alterations in amateur athletics (and the world away from the fields/courts), and that has also included the Kentucky men’s basketball program.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) announced the formation of the NABC Development Coalition that includes 11 players from nine different conferences to bring “a diverse collection of Division I men’s basketball student-athletes that will provide valuable perspective and feedback on college basketball issues.”
One of the 11 players announced to the roster was sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr., who has used his voice throughout this year in the midst of uprisings across the planet. His profile picture on Instagram reads the words, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Brooks was expected to become a leader for the Cats on the court and he’s also doing just that off the court.
Men’s basketball student-athletes will have a voice through the NABC Player Development Coalition! pic.twitter.com/As2Mnnf4ek— NABC (@NABC1927) August 17, 2020
A few days ago, KBJ appeared on the NCAA Social Series with insider Andy Katz to discuss not only the process of working towards a season with the COVID-19 pandemic still in effect across all sports, but the discussions about social injustices he’s had with Calipari and the them.
“The big thing for me (with) social justice and player empowerment was just to get other athletes, other basketball players, and college athletes in general to understand, you know, we’re more than an athlete,” Brooks told Katz. “We have voices and we have pretty good platforms to inform people that their voices can be heard. Their voices should be heard. We are not just athletes that just go out and play our sports and go home. We use our voices to help others.”
You can watch the full conversation with Katz, Brooks, California volleyball player Preslie Anderson and Michigan football player Adam Shibley below.
Brooks later gave Calipari praise for keeping his players informed on the world that was and is changing seemingly by the hour every day, including about the protests in different cities across the country.
“I wanna give Coach Cal his credit,” Brooks said. “He did a great job of making sure that we understood the severity of the situation and the social climate that we were in as a country. We got a Zoom call together and he brought in one of our head police officers and how we should act and react to other law enforcement and things like that.
Like I said, he did a great job of just making sure that we understood this situation was scary and quite frankly could happen to any of us, especially us being a team full of minorities for the most part. It’s something that’s really scary. I really wanna thank Coach Cal for making sure that they sat down and took the time to make sure that we knew things were serious and how we should act and react to make sure we can go home and see our families at night.”
Calipari’s education for his players extended past situations of police violence, including making sure his entire roster was registered to vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, which has shaped up to be one of the most important elections in the nation’s history.
Great talk with the guys tonight about registering to vote and how to get their absentee ballots. This is about more than basketball! pic.twitter.com/GEYTOgjIeT— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) August 23, 2020
The latter sentence about “this being more than basketball” is nothing short of the truth and this offseason, Calipari has put that thought on full display with things such as the “Coffee with Cal” series that raised $1.5 million for COVID-19 relief over the course of 12 episodes, and endowing a McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative Future Leader position at North Carolina Central University, a Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) member where the McLendon Foundation’s namesake, John B. McLendon, coached for over a decade. Calipari was near the head of the charge for this at NCCU with Harvard coach and one of the few Black coaches in college basketball, former Duke guard Tommy Amaker.
“North Carolina Central University is where Coach McLendon got his first opportunity at the collegiate level,” Calipari said in the official release. “I’m grateful to be able to honor his legacy by helping provide that same opportunity to a Future Leader on NCCU’s campus.”
Speaking as not just a follower of Kentucky basketball each season that passes, but as the son of a Black man in America, I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for Brooks, who comes from my hometown and who I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down to talk to him after his commitment to Kentucky, stepping up and becoming a strong voice for one of college basketball’s most historic programs (with a scrutinized past of its own) and the sport itself.
Calipari and his players have done a good job of keeping on topic throughout this chaotic, depressing, violent, sometimes not-believable year that’s included a deadly virus sweeping across the globe and millions of people protesting the killing of Black men and women, along with the trauma given to young Black children in a case like Jacob Blake’s, who is now reportedly paralyzed after being shot eight times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin this past weekend.
The rebellion that’s taken place in his country has reached college athletics and the right side of history will be the kids that have walked the streets with the people in their communities to shout that Black lives matter.
ESPN college football writer Harry Lyles Jr. wrote a piece on players in the Pac-12 Conference coming to the forefront to express their desires for change and said, “There will be plenty of players who decide not to partake in the boycott, which is fine. If anything, that’s just further evidence the players who are participating are doing what’s uncomfortable. But they’re doing what’s necessary for progress, for current players and those in the future.
“Because when it comes to making progress on racial injustice (or anything else) in America, that has been the only thing that has ever worked.”
The right side of history will also recognize the athletes from other less recognized college sports that aren’t basketball or football and the use of their platforms to fight against sexism, racism and the fraudulent amateurism model that’s currently in place.
It’s great to see Kentucky included on that side.