MINNEAPOLIS - Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas are in the middle of uncharted territory with the Minnesota Timberwolves. They’re navigating the organization through the double gut punch of 2020 that is the Coronavirus pandemic, and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It’s largely why they’ve decided to let their players take the lead with taking action to fight racism and social injustice. With 14 of the 16 players on the roster being people of color, they’re stepping up to the plate. The conversations started within 24 hours of Floyd’s death.
Four Minneapolis police officers responded on May 25 to a report of a forgery in progress near 38th and Chicago. The scene eventually led to Floyd, unarmed and handcuffed, being pinned to the ground by former officer Derek Chauvin using his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleads for help, screaming ‘I can’t breathe” before he eventually loses consciousness. He was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead a short time later.
Chauvin and the three other officers involved were fired the next day, and Chauvin is jailed at the Oak Park Heights state prison, charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers are charged with aiding and abetting murder.
The scene was all captured on cell phone video, and as hard as it is for Saunders to watch, he’s also seen the Minneapolis community come together since. It took demonstrations and rioting to get there, but it’s happening.
“You see that video and you watch it, of the killing of George Floyd. You watch it and you’re getting sick to your stomach as you watch it, a knee on another man’s neck. Then you see on the cop car, the uniforms look familiar and it’s Minneapolis PD. That hurts,” Saunders said. “But the aftermath of that, I think you see a lot of the community come together and you see there’s a lot of goodness in this community and there’s a lot of fight in this community. Fight for each other, but then also fight for what’s right. We know there’s a saying ‘Minnesota Nice,’ but Minnesotans can also fight and stand for what’s right and help each other.”
The Wolves used the days that followed Floyd’s death to have team meetings, conversations across the entire organization on racism and social justice and Rosas brought in Tru Pettigrew, an expert on diversity and a public speaker to talk with the team.
Players had an open forum to express their emotions, and some difficult conversations needed to be had.
“We sought to learn, to understand and to sympathize with what’s going around our community and our organization. Our players, our staff in order to be a willing participant for positive change,” Rosas said. “Internally what has helped us to just to have conversations, hard conversations that need to be had. At the end of the day, we know that we can do anything within our power to impact change in a positive way. These opportunities, you have to embrace them.”
They’ve also taken action. Karl-Anthony Towns made his first public appearance since losing his mother during the Covid-19 pandemic at a rally led by fellow NBA player Stephen Jackson, a close friend of Floyd’s.
Josh Okogie has been very outspoken on social media since the deadly incident, was also at the rally with Towns and participated in the “Change Starts With Me” food and supply drive for south Minneapolis residents who couldn’t shop for essential needs. Businesses in the area were shut down after they were damaged or burned in rioting.
Okogie has been personally affected by two killings in 2020. He’s from Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbury was gunned down by two white men in February. He returned to Minneapolis for individual workouts shortly before Floyd was killed.
“He’s chosen to stand on his platform and let everybody know how important this is for him and time for him to stand up and be active as much as he can,” Rosas said. “We support him.”
D’Angelo Russell led rallies in his native Louisville. The Wolves formed a partnership with The Minneapolis Foundation, which aims to fight racism and social injustice, and gets money to people affected by Floyd’s death. The Wolves joined the “Team Up for Change” initiative with the Bucks and Kings.
Wolves and Lynx players also participated this week in packing 1,000 meals and 2,000 snack packs for Urban Adventures, a south Minneapolis community center impacted by both Covid-19 and the civil unrest after Floyd’s death.
“Taking action is going to be big, in whatever way an individual can take action is important because this is a pivotal moment for our nation, and a nation rid of hatred, rid of racism and one that stands up for equality of all people is what I envision,” Saunders said.
It won’t happen overnight, Rosas and Saunders are willing to do whatever it takes going forward to create positive both in the Wolves’ organization, and the community.
“One thing that sticks to me is when Stephen Jackson came in and spoke and when he mentioned how close him and George Floyd were. He said ‘The only difference between us two is that I got the opportunity and he didn’t.’ That hit a lot of us. It could’ve easily been anybody else,” Rosas said.