At first, Utah Jazz forward Kyle Korver wondered if his teammate was to blame for wahat happened. Details were fuzzy at first but it appeared that one of his black teammates had gotten arrested and had a wild incident with police outside of a Manhattan club.
“What was he doing out in a club?” Korver remembers thinking. It was a blame game as old as time. The “Yeah, but” that people often give when hearing about an incident between police and a black victim. What was he doing? How was he to blame? What did he do to make this happen? Korver experienced those knee jerks.
But he caught himself. And as time wore on, Korver began to see his reaction as being indicative of a larger issue: He had the privilege to care or not care. The white privilege.
Korver wrote on op ed in the Players Tribune, published last week, titled “Privileged”. In it, Korver details his journey through white privilege and the events that have transpired during his NBA career that led him to examine his whiteness and what his whiteness entitles him to.
“When the police break your teammate’s leg, you’d think it would wake you up,” Korver wrote. “You’d think. But nope.”
Korver, who grew up in Iowa, was referring to a 2015 incident in New York City where, while Korver was a member of the Atlanta Hawks, his teammate Thabo Sefolosha was assaulted by police officers and thrown in jail.
Sefolosha is a player of South African and Swiss descent whose family fled South Africa because of Apartheid before settling in Switzerland was arrested for allegedly resisting arrest and refusing to move from a scene where another NBA player was stabbed.
Former Milwaukee Buck Chris Copeland, who was playing for the Indiana Pacers at the time, was stabbed along with his girlfriend while they were walking to their car outside a Manhattan Club called 1 OAK.
Sefolosha and Hawks forward Pero Antic came outside when they heard Copeland had been stabbed. Police told them to leave the area and both were arrested for refusing. Sefolosha had a verbal exchange with one of the officers. Police then jumped on him and one officer hit him with a baton, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court against five police officers and the City of New York.
Sefolosha suffered a broken leg during the melee and was forced to miss the remainder of the season. He was ultimately acquitted of misdemeanor criminal charges and the city was forced to pay him a settlement.
Korver wrote in his op ed that when the rest of the team heard about the incident the next morning he was initially skeptical of Sefolosha’s account. Korver remembers thinking he had to have done something bad for the police to react that way. Before even knowing all the details, Korver laid the blame on his teammate.
Korver said he struggled personally with what his reaction as a white guy had been to what his friend of color had just gone through. He felt as though he had let Sefolosha down even though he hadn’t even witnessed the incident.
For a number of years it gnawed at Korver until a new flashpoint ignited those feelings all over again.
Korver was an All-Star while with the Atlanta Hawks, who were coached by current Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. Following his stint in Atlanta, Korver played on Cavs teams that went to back-to-back NBA Finals before settling back in Salt Lake City with the Jazz.
One of the reasons Korver chose to return to Utah was the presence of several friends on the Jazz team, including Sefolosha, who Korver says is one of his best friends in life. Conversations with Sefolosha have contributed greatly to Korver’s growth as a person and informed his reaction to a new incident that occured in 2019.
On March 11, 2019, Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook had an altercation with a fan in Salt Lake City at the end of the bench during a game between the Thunder and the Jazz. The fan yelled racist comments at Westbrook, including telling him to “Get on your knees like you’re used to”. Westbrook, in turn, threatened to assault both the fan and his wife and refused to be pulled away from the incident by teammates.
In a postgame press conference Westbrook stood resolute and adamant that his response, while aggressive, was necessary. Westbrook said the fan told him to get down on his knees, amongst other comments.
“I think that’s racial,” Westbrook told the press afterwords, “For me, disrespect will not be taken from me. That’s just one video but I sit back and take it a lot of times, especially here in Utah. Everytime I come here there’s a lot of disrespectful things that are said. And for me, I’m not just gonna continue to take disrespect of my family and I just think that there’s gotta be something done. There’s gotta be consequences for those people who just come and say anything they want to say. And if I had to do it over again, I would say exactly the same thing because I truly will stand up for myself and my family.”
For Korver and the members of the Utah Jazz roster, as well as the greater Jazz organization, it was a galvanizing and thought provoking moment. Korver detailed team meetings and conversations within the organization about what should be done about it. Salt Lake City has a national reputation of being one of the most racist NBA cities. Players for years have complained about the atmosphere. The Jazz, for their part, decided to do all they could to ensure a change in image. The Jazz released multiple public statements, including addressing the fans at a subsequent home game, saying that they stand against racism as an organization. The Jazz banned the fan for life along with other fans involved in the incident.
But for Korver personally he found himself at the crossroads of privilege once again. Korver detailed a closed door meeting the Jazz had following the incident and how his teammates of color told ownership about all the degrading, insulting and horrific thing fans say to them that are racially charged. Korver said that one teammate felt as though he was a zoo animal for fans.
Korver, who had initially assumed the incident was just Westbrook being Westbrook, looked over at Thabo Sefolosha and remembered what he had gone through in NYC. Korver remembered how embarrassed he himself was at his own ignorance to what a teammate of color experiences in contacts with police.
Korver talked about how no matter what he does to support his teammates and friends of color, no matter how he commits to being an ally, his privilege is that he has the choice to do those things. Korver calls it “The Privilege of Opting In.” He can stand in solidarity with people in his life who are facing racism and oppression….. Or he can just blend into the white crowd. That’s his privilege.
Ultimately, Korver has decided not to blend in. His teammates of color can’t when they go out at night. Particularly in Salt Lake City. His evolution has been recognizing covert racism, listening to what people’s issues are, and wanting to stand in solidarity with the people of color in his life.
Korver seems committed to making sure that from now on his knee jerk reaction isn’t “What did he do?” but becomes “What happened to him?”
Korver’s article can be found at https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/kyle-korver-utah-jazz-nba