LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Just hours after watching civil rights icon John Lewis’ memorial service on the television, New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry kneeled at midcourt behind the words “Black Lives Matter” during the playing of the national anthem. As an African American man, Gentry has experienced plenty of racism in his 65 years. He was honored to be a part of the historic moment alongside his team, the Utah Jazz and the referees.
“To be the first [team to play] and to do it on a day where we are celebrating the life of John Lewis, all these things tie it together,” Gentry told The Undefeated before the game at HP Field House. “I just watched President Obama give a great eulogy that means so much to our country and everything it’s about. Voting. Good trouble. So, to have this happen on the same day where we are playing again is very historic.”
The contest between the Jazz and Pelicans (which the Jazz won 106-104) was the first NBA game since March 11 when two Jazz players tested positive for the novel coronavirus. It was also the first game for the predominantly Black league since the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25. Yet another Black death due to police brutality sparked protests worldwide, in which many NBA players participated.
Since arriving to Orlando, Florida, to resume the season, players and coaches have remained vocal about social justice. They have worn “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, preached about voting and spoken about the police brutality killing of Breonna Taylor. Most of the players are also wearing social justice messages on their jerseys for at least the first four days of the season. Among the jerseys on Thursday, Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson wore “Peace” and Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell chose “Say Her Name.”
For Gentry, the pregame demonstration by the teams was also a strong statement.
“For me personally, it was a very emotional thing,” Gentry said. “Here I am with [Jazz head coach] Quin [Snyder] who I’ve known since he was 16. And [Jazz guard] Donovan Mitchell, who I have a ton of respect for. In between these two guys. It makes me feel proud that we are after the same thing. We want what everyone is looking for. That is equal justice and to get rid of all the systemic racism that is in our country.”
Growing up in Shelby, North Carolina, a predominantly white town, Gentry faced his share of racial challenges. He didn’t go to an integrated school until junior high. But it was as an adult that he experienced more blatant racism.
Scouting a high school basketball camp in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1978 as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Colorado, Gentry said he wasn’t allowed to play at a golf course nor eat at a restaurant because he was Black. He remembers then-Air Force men’s basketball coach Hank Egan, a white man, keeping him company.
Gentry’s brother-in-law Don Harris told The Undefeated that he recalls several acts of racism that the coach endured. Harris said Gentry received racist letters for being named head coach of the LA Clippers in 2000 after fans noticed at the press conference that Gentry’s wife, Suzanne Harris, was white.
Harris also recalls a white store clerk racially profiling Gentry and asking him to buy what he needed quickly and leave.
“I told Alvin that I can’t believe that dude treated you that way,” Harris recalls saying. “He said, ‘C’mon man, it happens all the time.’ It really opened my eyes.”
“There have been so many things that people aren’t aware of with me,” Gentry said. “But if it happened now, I wouldn’t accept it like I did then. It was one of those deals that at that time you say, ‘That is the way it is.’ ”
As the head coach for the Phoenix Suns, Gentry also remembers being racially profiled when he was pulled over by a cop at 3 in the morning near his home after returning from a road trip.
“The police passed me, turned around, came back and stopped me,” Gentry said. “I said, ‘What are you stopping me for? I want to know. What law did I break?’ He said, ‘Well, they’ve had some burglaries in this neighborhood.’ I said, ‘No they haven’t. I live in that neighborhood. We have an email. We have a group text.’ Anything that happens in that neighborhood everybody knows about.
“What it does is makes you angry. It does. You work your ass off and you’ve earned everything you got. What they don’t understand is by doing that it takes away your manhood. I’m being stopped? You have no reason to stop me. The only reason to stop me is because I’m driving while Black. Some people don’t understand it. They say, ‘Well, sometimes I think everybody overreacts.’ Yeah, we do overreact because it happens time and time and time again. That is why we overreact.”
As the father of one daughter and two sons, Gentry is also aware of how his children are treated, especially his sons, who, according to Harris, have also been racially profiled.
“They are these biracial kids,” Gentry said. “They were just these cute little kids. Then when they become 6-foot Black men, you can say whatever you want. It’s tough for those guys to understand that I was this cute kid and now I’m a big threat. It gets tough for them sometimes to digest it. They have to understand that this is the real world.”
Gentry has become like a father figure to his own players.
After the loss to Utah on Thursday, he spoke about how proud he was of the players kneeling and using their voice against social injustice, racism and police brutality. Gentry also used a choice expletive in response to anyone offended by the social justice stand by the players.
“Well, number one, I think we know what the narrative is and anybody that tries to make it anything different is full of s—,” Gentry said. “I don’t know any other way to say it but that. I know what these guys are all about and they’re all about equal justice, they’re all about systemic racism that is running rampant and they want to do something about it.”
It’s Gentry’s leadership and experiences that have earned the respect of players around the league.
“Alvin has been through a lot. He has been on Earth for a long time,” Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday said. “With the things that he has seen, I feel like he can educate us, the younger generation. Just to be able to have him, the things that he has gone through, especially being where he is from in the South, just talking to him personally is pretty cool.”
“Everyone in this league loves Alvin and loves the man he is,” Pelicans shooting guard JJ Redick said. “His leadership has been great.”
On Thursday, Gentry celebrated the life and service that Lewis gave to America in hopes of making it a better place for people of color. He also saw the fight in the eyes of today’s NBA players.
“I stand by them. I think this is a great thing that they are doing,” Gentry said. “There is good leadership in this league and I’m really proud of them when I see the things that are happening. I love that LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade stood for something [at the 2016 ESPYS]. And that makes me really proud of those guys.
“I see this younger generation of players doing the same thing. They stand for something. Donovan Mitchell. Jrue Holiday. All these kids that are young guys, they stand for something. They have to find good trouble. And that is what they are going to do.”