There is one thing, maybe, Chris Paul got wrong on Friday.
He’s the president of the players association, a great and thoughtful player and man, on the court and off, but he may have misspoke.
“You get a chance to read and see pictures of the Cleveland Summit, for those who came before us, the Muhammad Alis, the Jim Browns, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars and how powerful they were,” he said. “We’re not saying that we’re all that, but what we’re doing in our league is huge.”
The Cleveland Summit took place on June 4, 1967, when Jim Brown, maybe the best running back who ever lived, brought some of the most iconic Black athletes of any time together to support Ali’s refusal to be drafted.
Look it up and you’re bound to see Bill Russell, Ali, Brown and a quite young Abdul-Jabbar, who would still be known as Lew Alcindor another four years, sitting together in suits in front of a bank of microphones.
The part Paul got wrong?
“We’re not saying we’re that.”
He might not be saying it, but what he and so many other socially-minded athletes are doing is likely to make a bigger difference than Ali, Brown, Russell and Jabbar ever could.
They’re the pioneers and it’s our great fortune they were on the right side of things and, but for Ali, remain with us today.
Historically, they will not be eclipsed. Yet, the impact they ultimately had, we must hope, will be.
The Cleveland Summit occurred 17 months before Richard Nixon, the original “law and order” candidate, won the presidency, 65 months before he won it again and 87 months before he resigned it in disgrace.
The times, they were a’changin, but resistance was powerful and unmoving, too.
Ali ultimately won in the Supreme Court, even unanimously, but still had his heavyweight title stripped and went 3 1/2 years during the prime of his career without a fight because no promoter would do business with him after his conscientious objection.
Paul, the rest of the NBA, other athletes and leagues following their lead, however, have a chance to make real and lasting progress, changing the way we look at each other in this melting pot of a nation for a far greater good.
If every American could have listened to Paul explain the last couple of days, what the players are trying to do, what they’ve been through, the change they hope to affect … well, one hopes it would be persuasive.
“Guys are tired. I mean tired … I don’t mean physically tired, we’re just tired of seeing the same thing over and over again,” he said.
Paul was emotional, explaining he’d had the opportunity to speak to the father of Jacob Blake, the man who was shot seven times in the back earlier this week by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake’s father, Paul said, graduated from Winston-Salem State in Paul’s hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
As Paul began speaking Friday, he noted the date, a nod to the unfortunate fact such battles have been fought forever.
“It’s kind of ironic to be here on the anniversary of the March on Washington and, unfortunately, the death of Emmett Till,” he said, “and we’re still fighting these same social injustices on a daily basis.”
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old young Black man lynched on Aug. 28, 1955, in Mississippi. His killers were acquitted.
The original March on Washington, led by Martin Luther King Jr., took place 8 years later to the day. Another one took place Friday.
“Everybody expects us to go out and play, I get it, but we needed some time, all of us,” Paul said. “We needed some time to refocus and understand … that we’re human.
“A lot of times people pass judgment about what we should do or shouldn’t do, but I give our guys a lot of credit … down here performing and speaking out about different social injustices that’s been going on day in and day out, while trying to be a great athlete … a great husband … a great father.”
His words are moving.
It was more moving to watch him say them.
“Everybody just expects us to be OK because we get paid great money,” Paul said, “but we’re human and we have real feelings and I’m glad that we had a chance to get in a room together to talk to one another and not just cross paths and say ‘Good luck in your game today.’”
Those talks, between players, coaches and ownership, have been productive.
Before choosing to return to the court, the league and the players association, in a joint statement, explained three actions they’ll be taking together.
One, establish a social justice coalition comprised of players, coaches and ownership “that will focus on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”
Two, every NBA franchise will seek to make its home arena a voting location and, where that might not be possible, as Paul said, perhaps a team’s practice facility could be made one.
Three, “The league will work with players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”
Paul, other players, the league, are not going away. Also, though the nation appears divided, far more are ready to be on the right side of history than were the day so many icons sat down in Cleveland.
Then, it was counterculture. Now, it’s just culture, even if 30 to 40 percent of the country failed to get the memo.
Paul, and others with the same platform, now putting social consciousness in front of their millions, pledging not to leave the civic space, are in a position to do what their predecessors couldn't.
To, ultimately, win.
We would win, too.
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