Editor’s note: This Q&A with Carmelo Anthony, which explores the NBA superstar’s feelings on systemic racism, police violence and Colin Kaepernick, was originally published in ESPN The Magazine’s Oct. 31, 2016 NBA Preview issue.
IN A NORMAL time, it would be implausible to sit down with Carmelo Anthony two weeks before the start of the NBA season and not talk about basketball — to not hear a word about his Knicks, his Olympic gold in Rio or his new All-Star teammates. But this isn’t just any time in America. Since the early summer, when six police officers were acquitted in Anthony’s hometown of Baltimore after facing charges resulting from the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, basketball for the Knicks’ franchise player has become secondary to being an active, involved citizen, one aware of his power and influence — and often the limitations of each.
We spent a recent afternoon together in New York talking as black citizens and parents, debating race and policing, owners and players, and the increasing politicization of sports in a tense, post-Ferguson nation. For Anthony, there is no more holding back.
HOWARD BRYANT: It sounds like there’s a sort of tipping point that’s happening around the country. When I talk to younger people, they have this attitude like, “We’re supposed to be past this. This is why I’m upset.” And then I talk to my uncles and they’re like, “See, this is how it is. This is nothing new.”
CARMELO ANTHONY: This is the new ’60s right here. Everybody I talk to, my mom and uncles and friends, they say the same thing. They’re like, “What you’re seeing right now, we’d seen it already. It’s new to you, but it’s not new to us.” I think it’s bigger and much deeper than just actually seeing what’s happening out there. Not just police brutality but so many other issues out there that are being swept under the rug. Our educational system is messed up. Schools are closing left and right.
HB: What you’re touching on is the one part of this that’s been really difficult for me and people wanting to talk about Colin Kaepernick. They’re not focusing on why he’s doing what he’s doing. They look at Baltimore and they’re not looking at the fabric of Baltimore. You have no parks. You’ve got no infrastructure. What do you expect that to look like if you’re taking all the resources out of the community?
CA: When you don’t have resources, it becomes hopeless. There’s nothing to look forward to. I know when I was coming up, it was after-school. We had rec centers to go to in our neighborhoods. We had parks to go play in. We had football fields to go to. You had different things that you could go do. I always find it fascinating when I go back to my community and kids that I have known, or their parents, just hearing them talk. The one thing I get out of it is they just want a voice. They just want to be heard. It’s like, “We want everybody to hear us.”
HB: When you talk about this, you’re not really talking about police brutality specifically. You keep saying, “The system is broken.”
CA: The system is broken. It trickles down. It’s the education. You’ve got to be educated to know how to deal with police. The police have to be educated on how to deal with people. The system has to put the right police in the right situations. Like, you can’t put white police in the ‘hood. You just can’t do that. They don’t know how to react. They don’t know how to respond to those different situations. They’ve never been around that, you know? When I was growing up, we knew police by their first name. We gave them the nicknames. But that’s only because we related. And when the white police came into our neighborhood, the black police said, “Yo, we got this.” That doesn’t happen anymore. You got black police afraid to go into black communities now, and the white police are like, “S—, I’ll come. It’s a job. I’ll go in there and do it.” Not knowing what’s going to happen.
I think athletes now are just going off of what they’re seeing now, which is what? Police brutality. Police killing people. You haven’t seen one thing about schools closing. There’s no rec centers. You haven’t seen none of that on the news. All you see is police killing people. And if I’m sitting there watching that every day all day, I’m going to feel a certain kind of way. Like, against the police. If it was showing schools and why they shut them down and there’s no funding for this and no funding for that, you would feel a certain way about that too. But that’s not what they’re putting out there.
HB: The thing that bothers me most about this is that people believe, especially about black athletes and black professionals in general, “Well, you made it. What’s the problem?” They seem to treat you as if having success forfeits your voice, when actually it should empower your voice.
CA: The reason I feel so strongly about my beliefs is that it’s been going on forever. Then a part of me is like, “I can’t speak up on every single issue because then it’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s just talking again.'”
But when it’s powerful, timing is everything, and for me the Freddie Gray thing was the one that tipped me off. It was like something just exploded. It was like [snaps] now was the time. Enough is enough. And everybody’s calling me like, “We should do this” or “We should do that,” and I was like, “I’m going home.” If you want to come with me, you come with me, but I’m going home. I’m not calling reporters and getting on the news; I’m actually going there. I wanted to feel that. I wanted to feel that pain. I wanted to feel that tension.
HB: I remember when I was in college at Temple, just walking down the street. Here come some cops, put me on the ground at gunpoint. When that happens, it can’t be any more personal.
CA: When you’re in that environment, it’s a part of your life. You can’t control it. And it’s not until you step outside of that environment and start looking back that you’re like, “Oh, this is messed up.” I sit down with different people I grew up with and start reminiscing, and before when I used to tell that story it was, you know, funny. “Yo, remember when we got pulled over? When the police put us on the ground or they chased us?” It was funny. Now that s— ain’t funny no more.
HB: Did you watch the Tulsa video? [Editor’s note: The Sept. 16, 2016, shooting, captured by a police officer’s dashboard camera, showed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher, being shot and killed by a white cop during a traffic stop. The officer, Betty Shelby, pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was acquitted in 2017.]
CA: Yeah, of course.
HB: I watched that and the first thing I said was, “That’s a murder.” That was the first thing that hit me.
CA: Right, and you could watch that with kids, and even kids will say that. There’s no more hiding news.
HB: Yet you still have a lot of people who just don’t see that this is an issue.
CA: Everybody knows it’s an issue. But it’s deeper than that. It’s higher than that. The system is broken. And we’ll continue to keep saying that. How can you sit and watch an execution live? And now it’s starting to become a norm to watch that. When you see it now, it’s like, “Oh, man. Another one got killed. Another guy got shot.” And you know, just like in anything, not all police are bad. You know what I mean? You have good ballplayers, you have bad ballplayers. You have good writers, you have bad writers. You have good drummers, bad drummers.
HB: You’ve met with law enforcement. What has the response been?
CA: Speaking to them directly, you realize you are very limited in what you can do. I’ve met with a lot of them, all over the country, and they get it. They understand, like, you know, it’s messed up. They’re like, “We don’t condone that.”
HB: But …
CA: “But at the end of the day, we roll with the blue.” Like, “We’re the boys in blue, and we stick by our code.” And I don’t want to sound crazy when I say it’s understandable, because if something happened to somebody on my team, they get in a fight, you’re going to protect them. And from that perspective you understand it, but you realize that what you can do has limitations.
And I realize that they’re scared. When you’re going out here every day, when you’re putting that uniform on, in certain neighborhoods you don’t know what’s going to happen. But that’s because there’s a distrust.
“For me the Freddie Gray thing was the one that tipped me off. It was like something just exploded. It was like [snaps] now was the time. Enough is enough.”
HB: The dynamic in sports, the NHL aside, is white owners, white media, white coaches, black players. That dynamic makes it difficult to be understood. How do you feel like your message has been received?
CA: I control my own message. I don’t go through the traditional outlets to get my message out there. I create what I want to and I put it out there on my own.
HB: Whatever gestures you decide to make this season in support of your message, as a team or individually, what do you expect the reaction to be?
CA: The NBA is very supportive. They want to team up with us and be behind it, but at the end of the day it’s still a corporation, so there’s only so far that they’re going to let you go. And one gesture’s not going to change anything. So regardless of if we stand out there and put our arms around each other to show unity and solidarity, on the flip side, at the moment somebody goes out there and puts their fist up, that’s going to be something different.
Colin Kaepernick sat down. That caused a different reaction. And people didn’t even know why he was doing it. They just thought it was disrespectful to the actual soldiers and people who fought for the country, and it had nothing to do with that.
HB: Have you spoken to Colin at all? What was your initial reaction when you saw it?
CA: I spoke to him that night. He reached out to me that night. And I’m watching and I’m like, “OK.” Like, “What’s next?” In a very respectful way, he was like, “I took this step and, you know, just wanted to get your thoughts on what’s happening.” And I said, “Well, you’re courageous.” I said, “You just showed a lot of courage in what you just did, but now is the hard part because you have to keep it going. So if that was just a one-time thing, then you’re f—–. But now you keep it going and be articulate and elaborate on why you’re doing it, and be educated and knowledgeable of why you’re doing it so when people ask, you can stand up for what you believe in and really let them hear why.”
HB: You’re talking about issues that most of America doesn’t really want to talk about, yet you also just played for your country and won a gold medal. How does being called unpatriotic affect you?
CA: I mean, you hear it. I just think that’s bull—- for somebody to call me unpatriotic. That’s totally bull—-. I’ve committed to this country on many different levels. Committing to USA Basketball since I was 19 years old, playing in four Olympics, going to the different parts of the world. Where they were warring, you know? Traveling to Turkey where they were bombing the building three doors down from us. Going to the games where they’ve got “Down with the USA” signs out there.
You’re representing something that’s bigger than yourself, bigger than the New York Knicks or any other team. You’re representing the whole country. You’ve got the USA on your chest, and when you hear that national anthem, regardless of how you feel about it, you get a sensation inside you. That’s why the emotions came out after the fact, because I knew what was going on back here in the country, in our own communities. And for me to know that and still be over there fighting and playing and representing our country on the highest scale that you can represent it in sports, it was all those kind of emotions.
“I said, ‘You just showed a lot of courage in what you just did, but now is the hard part because you have to keep it going.'”
Carmelo Anthony, on his advice to Colin Kaepernick
HB: In the NBA, it seems like you have more power — more than NFL players, more than some baseball players. I always thought that standing up in 2014 during the Donald Sterling thing was a real opportunity for players to say —
CA: I said the same thing. But I never stepped out there and said anything about the Donald Sterling piece because at the end of the day, you realized that it’s bigger than you. It’s like police brutality with the system. The system is broken. It’s a bigger entity than you are. Right? So you’re dealing with something much more powerful that kind of controls you in every sense that you can imagine. The way I would have done it if it was close to me is I wouldn’t have come out. That was the opportunity right there: “I’m not playing.” At that point it wouldn’t have been about basketball at all. That was a race issue right there. That was where you could have put your foot down and said, “No, we’re not — we’re not having it.”
HB: Don Yee, Tom Brady’s agent, said players have no idea how much power they’ve got, that they could bring this entire system down and create something for themselves if they wanted to. If I just move over into just the system of sports, is there something different and something better to be made?
CA: I think the resources are there. I think we’re powerful enough. I can only speak for basketball players. We’re powerful enough to, if we wanted to, create our own league. But everybody would have to be willing to do that. You have to be willing to say, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m supporting this right here.” Because at the end of the day, the athletes are the league. Without the athletes, there’s no league. Without us, there’s no them. And they don’t think like that. They say, “We’re your main source of income, so you’re going to need me before I need you.” I think you just have to be willing to do that. You have to be willing to make that move, and, you know, strength comes in numbers. If you don’t have those numbers, it’s not going to work.
The people in the position of power understand now more than ever that some of the athletes are just as powerful as them. And that’s the scary part. To know that, “Somebody I’m paying, you know, is just as powerful as me. We don’t want that.”
HB: I make the argument that in the 21st century, the black athlete is the most influential black professional in the United States. There is a history, a heritage of outspokenness. Yet through about 30 years, the mid-’70s up until the late ’90s, you didn’t really hear a lot. So people seem surprised when they hear you talking now.
CA: It was about building that corporation. And it was about building the perfect athlete. Michael Jordan came in, and he transcended the game to another level on the court and off the court. So everybody wanted that typical athlete, that clean-cut athlete suit. Politically correct. Never spoke outside of his message. When you had athletes who spoke out during that era that you’re talking about, the ones that did speak out got ousted. It was, “Put the muzzle on your face.”
HB: It’s the evolution of the athlete. Now it’s athlete as an individual corporation. But the difference is you have every other ethnicity out there, they get to be proud of what they are. You hear in media, so many writers going, “Well, and I don’t want to be a black writer. I just want to be a writer.” And I’m like, “Well, why don’t you get to be both?”
CA: Because it’s not accepted. We’re the only culture, we’re the only race that doesn’t have our own. For us, what we have? We have the ‘hood. So there’s no resources in the ‘hood, other than drugs. Either you have a good jump shot or you selling crack rock. These other races out there, they got their own neighborhoods. They got their own community, their own stores. They support one another. And we don’t.
HB: And where does that come from? That comes from the fact that we have separated education from community. My neighborhood in Dorchester, in Boston, in Roxbury — any black family that had any prospects, they left. Why? For the schools.
CA: Because there’s no resources.
HB: And when stability’s gone, what’s left?
CA: Nothing. Hopelessness.
HB: Yet you hear this cognitive dissonance when Baltimore hits and people say, “Why are they burning down their own neighborhoods?” without realizing they aren’t ours.
CA: That’s right. We don’t own anything. That Rite Aid? That isn’t ours. And that’s what I’m talking about when I say it’s all part of something bigger. These times, they’re crazy. It’s not about the one thing. The system is broken. You hear people saying, “Justice or else.” I think you’re starting to see what “or else” looks like.