“You just got to be slow to speak and eager to move on.” James Worthy says this, reminiscing, wrapped up in an early May interview, a simpler time when the worries of the world centered largely on a global pandemic.
Racial injustice, protests and all manner of inequality are the lead story now. Again the country has to answer for police brutality, a moment that led to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent arrests of four officers, including a charge of second-degree murder for the Minneapolis police officer who is seen kneeling on George’s neck in a now-infamous video.
“When I saw the video of George Floyd, I cried,” Worthy said this morning. I’m now talking to the former Los Angeles Lakers star under different circumstances. A June morning after a week of protests, some violent but many peaceful.
“My grandfather was born in the late 1800s,” Worthy says. “He used to tell me stories about how he had seen lynchings before and so when I saw that it reminded me of Rodney King. It reminded me of (Eric Garner).”
For Worthy, the video is indicative of a culture that has largely looked the other way as African Americans have begged, pleaded and screamed to be heard.
“I've been pulled over in my life, early in my twenties, disrespectfully,” Worthy says. “And so it hurts to see a lynching live with bystanders understanding what death is all about, watching a young man breathe and the ambulance ended up being his hearse.”
Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1961, the future Hall of Famer grew up where he was increasingly valued for his talents as a basketball player, but also disparaged for the color of his skin.
“I went from second grade to third grade and I had to have my two older brothers walk me to school every morning because you never know when you were going to hear the n-word on the way to school,” Worthy recalls. “’N***** where you going? You're on the wrong side of the tracks.’”
Just a couple generations up the road, Worthy’s grandfather had to deal with the kind of sickening acts that not only change a person’s way of life, but the kind that affects generations—reverberations that are still felt to this day.
“He saw the world a little bit differently than I could have ever imagined.” Worthy says. “I think he saw his cousin, you know, hanging from a tree. S*** like that.”
It’s the kind of experience that bears and necessitates a universal axiom, the kind that gets you through life relatively unscathed.
“He always told us you can't reason with ignorance and as long as nobody puts their hands on you, you're okay. You just got to be slow to speak and eager to move on,” Worthy recalls.
It’s enough to make anyone go mad. Or, more to the point, get mad. Worthy’s sights were set on making a name for himself in basketball.
Growing a few inches in eighth grade and learning about athletic scholarships didn’t hurt the drive. “Basketball was an avenue for me to get a free ride to college.”
He received the errant racial epithet growing up, but he used basketball like a hammer, beating back those words with on-court actions.
“I was pretty shy, didn't have a huge vocabulary, but I had this one thing and that was this game,” he says. “So, when everybody was watching me on the way into the arena, they might be saying whatever they wanted to say, but I knew when I got it on the court it was my time to talk.”
Decades later, the country that both derided the color of his skin and championed his heroics on the court is at yet another crossroads. And it’s being led by a President that continues to inflame instead of comfort.
“I gave up on the President a long time ago,” Worthy says when asked his thoughts on President Donald Trump’s response to the ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I know he has no interest in bringing the country together and you're seeing former generals, people who used to be in his administration have confirmed that he's not someone that wants to bring us together. He's a divider, so we have to recognize that and we have to get out to push to vote. And I know that's an old story, but we really have to organize and get people involved in the election at the local level and national level.”
Worthy is referring to James Mattis, a former Secretary of Defense who resigned his position in December 2018.
Mattis recently said of the President, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
Unsurprisingly, Worthy is a bit more pointed in his critique: “The president, you know, gets a big middle finger from me because that's what he's giving to America. He's trying to destroy America with division and racism and he's making it clear right in front of our faces.”
While much of the world choose to stand up and say "Black Lives Matter," there continues to be a tragic number of those who would rather use this moment to issue a “yeah, but” in response.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees took tremendous heat for his Wednesday comments that hearkened back to previous peaceful protests made by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Asked what he thought about the prospect of players again taking a knee, he responded, via Yahoo! Sports, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
Brees has since apologized for those remarks: “In speaking with some of you, it breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused.”
A week of protests will continue. They will also move on and evolve into political action and other forms of demonstration. Kneeling at major events, whenever those again take place, is a definite possibility.
So it bears repeating from friends, family and prominent figures what protests like that represent and what they don’t represent.
“I don't think he (Brees) really understands that this has never been about the flag,” Worthy said. “This has never been about the f****** flag. This has been about what we've experienced with the "I Can't Breathe" campaign (Eric Garner).
“People have to realize that African Americans have been telling the truth all these years now. Now that videos are available, we see what's been happening for years and years and years.”
This week feels different. There’s a ray of hope that true, meaningful change will bloom from the embers.
“I think this is different than anything I've seen in my lifetime,” Worthy says. “I think this will be the beginning of conversations that a lot of white people have been afraid to have but they know it's true.”