Winners & Choosers
The Line sat down with retired two-time NBA world champion M.L. Carr to ask his perspective on current civil rights issues. Carr played for the Detroit Pistons then the Boston Celtics, where he also coached. We learned his point of view has been shaped by a lifetime of personal as well as professional experiences.
It was 50 years ago that Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood with raised fists atop the medals platform at the 1968 Summer Games. Smith won the gold medal and earned the record for the 200-meter dash while Carlos took the bronze. Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the historic moment put a spotlight on the ability of athletes to use their fame as a platform for self-expression and the defense of human rights. But for the athletes, standing up for what they believed in had a cost. Fast-forward to today, it still does.
There is evidence enough of the magnitude of the risk professional athletes face if they choose to use their celebrity to take a stand. Until a couple of years ago, Michael Jordan was famously silent on issues about which many believed he should be speaking out. Some have suggested that Jordan didn’t want to put his reputation or business interests on the line. After he ignited the “#TakeAKnee” movement in 2016, Colin Kaepernick parted ways with the 49ers and didn’t play for another NFL team last season.
Since Kaepernick got it going, professional athletes have joined the national anthem debate – on both sides. So have students and their parents, coaches and school administrators. What is the risk and responsibility for the professionals who speak out? And how about the impact of their words and actions on American society and, importantly, the student players who are watching and waging their own civil rights protests?
Carr grew up during the 1960s in the rural south.
Home was a tiny town called Wallace, North Carolina, where as a teenager he was among the 27 black students who integrated Wallace-Rose Hill High School. For Carr, that event was a catalyst for other integration initiatives. He along with a cousin and a friend were the first African-Americans to go through the front door of the “White House Café” and sit down for a meal instead of going to the “blacks only” entrance. Carr did the same at the local doctor’s office and took a drink from the “white” water fountain. And he formed lifelong friendships with two individuals who were white. The first was a local businessman who encouraged Carr to try basketball. At school, Carr met another student whom he describes as “a blonde-haired kid from the other side of town.”
During this great period of change, Carr was playing high school ball in gyms where he was the only person of color and racial slurs were a frequent occurrence. There wasn’t a single other African-American student in his conference. Carr excelled at the game. Despite the pressures of the racism he encountered, he kept playing, scoring points and winning games. By junior year, scouts were coming around.
Carr had options for college but chose Guilford, a car ride down I-40, because the school was the only one to talk about the guarantee of an education; he aspired to be a lawyer. Carr did well in school and on the court. A knee injury during junior year put an offer from The Chicago Bulls on hold but assured he’d graduate with the degree he truly wanted. By senior year, Carr was leading the country in scoring – still limping from his bad knee – and Guilford won the national championship.
Knowing he could return to law school, Carr pursued a basketball career after college. Three American teams rejected him before he played abroad for a while. After that, Carr played in the ABA for St. Louis then went to the Detroit Pistons and eventually landed in Boston as a free agent in 1979.
Boston in the 1970s, like many other cities, struggled with race relations. But in 1974, the violent riots in response to the desegregation of schools gave national attention to the ugliness of bigotry. Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to 11 championships, was the first African-American athletic star in the city. He said, “Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists…Other than that, I liked the city.’’
“Boston itself was a flea market of racism.”
Carr decided to see past the racial issues in Boston and embrace the opportunity. He says he thought he could do something to help. And he did. Carr believed racial tension was rooted in people not knowing or having interaction with those who were different from them. He became celebrated for waving a towel during the game to rally the team and fans as much as he was admired for his basketball prowess. He was a unifier on and off the court, still playing a position he’d adopted as a high schooler in Wallace.
Carr actively sought ways to make inroads with the community. “I set out to have as many interactions as possible, knowing that the racial tensions were their problem and not mine, “he said. “I never took it personally because I had gone through it at a young age under worse circumstances.”
That sense of both the situation and of himself guided Carr and was clearly evident in a story he told about a request for a Celtic player appearance. A Boys and Girls Club in Boston’s notoriously all-white “Southie” called the team’s office hoping to have one of the players lead a basketball clinic. Carr volunteered for the job. The Celtics got a call back and asked if they could instead send a “white guy.” Undeterred, Carr went to the club and put on what he called “the best clinic of his life” because he wanted to eradicate the community’s fear of the unknown. To this day, Carr says, people still remember that clinic because it broke the ice. He continued to forge relationships with the people of South Boston.
His commitment to engaging with others – no matter what neighborhood they came from – promoted understanding. Eventually, Carr’s overtures resulted in him becoming one of the most recognized and embraced public figures in Boston.
Carr sees his intervention as part of the responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete. He shared these thoughts about that and the protest movement and its influence on schools and students:
Goes with the Territory
For those that have the opportunity to be a professional athlete there’s a responsibility to be a part of positive cultural change. Too many of us walk away from the obligation that goes with whatever we do in life. We all need to lead and discourage the tendency within us to focus on me instead of we. In Boston, the players of the 80s – basketball and baseball both – really opened up the discourse through their outreach to the community. Together we can accomplish great things.
#TakeAKnee and Students
I can appreciate what Colin Kaepernick tried to do, bringing attention to young, unarmed black men being shot. It was an incredible step he took, especially knowing there’d be a cost but uncertain of what that would be. But while I understand his intent, the tactical execution could have been different.
Modeling Civil Discourse
A more impactful demonstration for student athletes would be to bring together NFL players, staff, owners and members of law enforcement to have a dialogue about the atrocities and inequality that Kaepernick is protesting.
Having more student-centered conversation about race is something that schools can initiate. It may be uncomfortable but it’s what we have to do because we have a problem. Our discomfort is a sign of progress.
Educating Students about Civil Rights
We need to do more to educate our young people about civil rights. It seems we don’t have a good understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights specifically. During the last presidential election, Gold Star Father Khizr Khan brought the need for better education about our Constitution to the fore. I believe kids should understand their rights but also their responsibilities as citizens of this country.