Most of my Sunday mornings consist of family, faith, and reflection—there’s occasionally a morning car ride to pick up brunch for my wife and kids. But, this time, when I pulled back into the driveway and parked the car at my own home, I couldn’t leave the driver’s seat.
Sports talk radio is my guilty pleasure and this particular Sunday morning featured an interview with a college basketball coach named LeVelle Moton. The 45-year-old has won 207 games in 11 seasons as head coach at North Carolina Central University—they’ve won their last 3 conference tournament titles.
Now I admit, I have never watched him coach a single game; yet, there I was, listening to him explain a drill he runs frequently at practice to help his players win. He called it the four-chair drill; I’m a basketball junkie so when I hear of an extra technique a coach is teaching his or her team, I listen. My first thought was that it was a dribbling exercise where players need to avoid chairs intentionally placed to obstruct their path to the basket. Or maybe, I thought, it was a new offensive scheme designed to attack the zone or exploit a mismatch. I was wrong on both guesses.
Moton revealed that one night, just 15 years prior, he and former North Carolina Tar Heel national champion Raymond Felton were forced to stare down a police officer’s gun barrel. He recalled having his mother on speakerphone during that encounter in Raleigh, NC, fearful that she would never see her son alive again. Both players survived the incident without injury—Felton going on to play a lengthy career for several teams in the NBA, but neither forgot the trauma from that night and the emotions that now fuel Moton’s drill.
In recent years at Moton’s Division 1 basketball practice, he sets up four chairs on the court to resemble four seats in a vehicle, so that he can teach his players how to “get home” should they get pulled over by a police officer. According to Moton, his African-American athletes are likely to face situations similar to the one he experienced back in 2005. As a result, he has consistently carved out practice time to reenact scenarios and teach his players how to de-escalate a potentially deadly encounter with law enforcement.
He didn’t start teaching it because of the lightning rod tragedy in Minneapolis, MN involving the death of an unarmed, handcuffed George Floyd. He didn’t wait for protests of racial injustice to saturate the national media cycle before making it the top priority of his team’s playbook.
He started it because it’s real.
There is no suggestion, obviously, either by the coach or by me, that all interactions with police will be negative. And there are amazingly emotional stories to be told from other perspectives, but now is the time for lessons to be learned and these stories to be heard.
I sat there in my driveway, feeling speechless that lessons like this must still be taught in the year 2020. But if there’s ever a time designed for hindsight, we’re living it. A moment on sports talk radio, in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when all 50 states have at least one city with an active protest underway, has forced me to stop and listen.
There’s a lesson in that. As a leader, don’t allow this to become just a brief moment for the occasional conversation. Instead, tap into the discomfort regularly, and ask questions with the intent to listen. Hearing is a sense, listening is an art. Intentionally being and practicing better is the innovation this world so desperately needs.
As Moton’s radio interview ended, I wiped the tears from my eyes, had an extra serving of faith and reflection, and exited the car. I walked through the front door to my family, grateful for the opportunity to talk to my own kids about how I expect them to act in situations where others are being racially insensitive.
I wasn’t sure how this blog would be received but I figured, “let’s write the right blog, and feel the right words.” If it makes just one person stop and listen a little longer, and value a different perspective a little deeper, then maybe there’s a win in here for somebody. But it starts with listening and open dialogue. Choosing to remain blissfully unaware of the cries for justice is not acceptable.
A day later I sat down with one of my teammates who is African-American. I’m embarrassed that we’ve worked together for eight years and I’ve never asked about his day-to-day encounters. The stories he shared with me, about racism in general, wore heavy on my heart. I couldn’t believe he had experienced some of what he had…and I never knew or even thought to ask. We were wrapping the conversation and I asked if he saw anything I could do. He said he would be grateful if I used whatever influence or voice I had to encourage the very dialogue we were having.
I likely won’t need to run the four-chair drill at my household, but here’s hoping one day coaches like LeVelle Moton won’t need to do so, either.
By: Don Yaeger
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