Lakers Offering More Than Words in Effort to Heal Los Angeles' Racial Divide

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterNovember 29, 2016

Photo by Kevin Ding

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The cops, with their natty reversible "LAPD" jerseys worn with the white on the outside, started warming up at the east basket. A group of men aged 16-25 from the inner city, with no uniforms but so many Jordans and Kobes to make up the flat-out superior sneaker gear, started warming up at the west basket.

On this rare rain-soaked Southern California Saturday afternoon, the Lakers had invited members of the Los Angeles Police Department to play basketball in their gym against the young men from South Central L.A.

It was the third time in November the Lakers had opened their practice facility for this type of meeting. And it was proof that the NBA is taking action on an issue its officials and players like-mindedly wanted their league to lead.   

Delivering more than just preachy, wishful words.

Actually doing something.

But positive developments are not the same lightning rods as violent tragedies.

People staying alive do not make the same headlines as people being killed.

So what difference could this really make?

Lakers forward Tarik Black addresses the group. The youths half-jokingly ask for the Mercedes-Benz key dangling from Black's hand. He indulges them with idle hoops chitchat in a language they know well.

"The person who talks the most cash money [is] usually the worst guy on the floor, though," Black says with a smile.

Black then explains that he's from one of the original neighborhoods with an epic racial divide, North Memphis. So he knows all about being stigmatized as a black kid with all these tattoos...except now he has his bachelor's degree, plus a master's degree in African-American studies. He's also pursuing his real estate license, all while making seven figures in the NBA.

Black, 25, notes something else: "My first coach—my first mentor—was a police officer."

One young man in a tank top puts his phone down and turns his eyes up.

"I have a lot of love for police officers as well," Black adds. "I understand. Trust me, I understand."

Police and young men from Los Angeles have formed new levels of respect for each other by playing against each other on the basketball court.
Police and young men from Los Angeles have formed new levels of respect for each other by playing against each other on the basketball court.Photo by Kevin Ding

Once the first game begins, a police officer wearing red Clippers shorts gets poked in the right eye. The guy wearing a black Mayweather-Pacquiao 2015 fight T-shirt and sparkling stud earrings is the one who did it, and he goes over to pat the officer on the butt with apology, basketball-style.

But then he comes over to the officer on the bleachers after game point to check again, this time more personally.

One of the kids who has come out to these Lakers open gyms is now planning a career as a highway patrol officer.

"From the experience he's had here," adds Dino Smiley, a man best known for running the famed Drew League, where even NBA stars play in the summer.

Smiley's regular job is counseling young men for the City of Los Angeles' parks and recreation department.

"The interaction has just been great," Smiley says of the Lakers' events. "You catch 'em on the sidelines...just talking."

For some perspective, consider what LAPD senior lead officer Christopher Baker saw at the start of this unique run.

"The first week, when we all walked in here and we were sitting on the bleachers, there was a separation of police officers and community," Baker recalls. "You could see it. You didn't have to be a paid observer to see what was going on."

The process of building off the natural respect between basketball players was the idea of Lakers community relations director Jason McDevitt, though the seed was actually planted by NBA star Carmelo Anthony.

McDevitt was in attendance at Anthony's July town hall meeting to address policing issues in South Central.

Lakers staffer Jason McDevitt thought up the idea for the Lakers to host basketball games between police and youths while attending Carmelo Anthony's town hall conversation in L.A. over the summer.
Lakers staffer Jason McDevitt thought up the idea for the Lakers to host basketball games between police and youths while attending Carmelo Anthony's town hall conversation in L.A. over the summer.Greg Beacham/Associated Press

When McDevitt shared several concepts for the Lakers extending the NBA's "Building Bridges with Basketball" program, there was overwhelming support for this idea of using the Lakers' brand and gym to facilitate human connection. Inside the room where McDevitt shared his ideas with Lakers players, head coach Luke Walton and general manager Mitch Kupchak, there was a real excitement before the season. Lou Williams, Metta World Peace and Nick Young—three of the older players on the roster and three guys who don't necessarily fit everyone's image of a role model—were the ones most eager to volunteer to build a long-term program.

Julius Randle then took the Staples Center public-address microphone before this season's opening tipoff to publicly put the rest of the team on record about its commitment to the plan.

That Randle became the public face of the Lakers' efforts was no surprise. Turning 22 Tuesday, Randle qualifies as the most life-advanced of the Lakers' young core of players, engaged to be married and so proud he is about to become a father that his unborn son's name "Kyden" dangles from his necklace, plated in gold script.

Randle's opening-night promise to the fans didn't involve the usual basketball-themed promises at all.

Instead, it was that Lakers players will be involved in the community to make a difference in this day and age.

Charlie Beck of the LAPD.
Charlie Beck of the LAPD.Reed Saxon/Associated Press

This day of friction and age of violence are such that they brought LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and rappers Snoop Dogg and The Game to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a stage over the summer, prompting Beck to characterize the encounter as a chance to "put aside the things that divide us and come together on the things that bind us."

Well, The Game is a diehard follower of the Drew League, and Snoop's the guy who gave Kobe Bryant a customized purple and gold car as a retirement gift and is always promoting the Kobe-less Lakers via social media channels. (To his 13.6 million Instagram followers, Snoop declared Sunday nightwarning: NSFW language: "We ain't the same Lakers you thought we was!")

One of the first things Beck did as police chief was to go into housing projects play basketball. He has also played in numerous games in the community over the years.

"Basketball is that icebreaker," Smiley says. "Basketball is common."

Pro football is back in Los Angeles now, and the Clippers are really good...but Lakers basketball remains the unquestioned king of the sports landscape.

That's why when Walton's mentor, Phil Jackson, first became Lakers head coach in 1999, Jackson aspired to doing more than maximizing Shaquille O'Neal's and Kobe Bryant's epic talents and egos.

Jackson hoped to build a group that demonstrated such winning teamwork that it would help heal the Los Angeles area. This spread-out urban world was deeply wounded back at that time by race riots in South Central stemming from the police beating of Rodney King.

Now similar issues have risen up with undeniable ferocity nationwide as Walton inhabits Jackson's old office. Even though Walton would never claim to be the philosopher Jackson is, there is a renewed sense on the surprisingly competitive Lakers of how influential it could be to have a group of mostly young and African-American Lakers wanting to come together, show gratitude and play fun-to-watch team basketball.

"The power of a team that comes together can be a beautiful thing," Walton says.

That's the romantic part in us. We yearn to better the world.

That's why Superior Court Judge Leslie Brown is spending this Saturday in a black Lakers cap and offering these young men a chance to visit his chambers, whether to kindle an interest in a law career or just to see the shrine to Magic Johnson and the Lakers that Brown has in his office.

And it's with that sense of finding connections through our emotions that Black lectures about how cops and drug dealers both kiss their daughters goodbye each morning and must make peace in their minds that "I don't know who is gonna come get me today." They just hope to make it back home to their families each night.

Like Phil Jackson, Luke Walton hopes a Lakers team that demonstrates good teamwork can offer a rallying point for the city of Los Angeles.
Like Phil Jackson, Luke Walton hopes a Lakers team that demonstrates good teamwork can offer a rallying point for the city of Los Angeles.Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

The Lakers' efforts are not unfamiliar. Back in Jackson's glory days as Lakers coach, O'Neal dabbled in police training—starring on the court while promoting the idea of respect for law enforcement.

But there's a deeper truth that comes from one kid getting to know one cop a little bit and vice versa.

A couple of the officers playing attended Fremont High School in South Central, same as Smiley. A couple were even good enough to play in the Drew League, and being able to hoop legitimately is certainly one way to earn respect.

Far more important, though, most of these officers patrol in the neighborhood of their basketball opponents. They can and will see each other in real life.

To make the initiative as organic as possible, no one on either side was required to participate in these Saturday get-togethers. It was strictly voluntary for the police, who got a standard email blast about it. It was just as optional for the young men who usually spend 1-6 p.m. playing pickup ball at the rec center in Washington Park near Compton Avenue, not far from Watts.

"The community that these young men live in is the community that needs us most," Baker said.

Back on Dec. 5, 1963, amid rising tensions, then-LAPD Chief William H. Parker established the department's community relations policy with these prophetic words that live on in Special Order 33:

"The success of a police force in the performance of its duties is largely measured by the degree of support and cooperation it receives from the people it serves."

In the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965, the LAPD established its formal community outreach program that still exists today. But that program was updated and expanded by the department in 2015 in response to race-related tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City in late 2014.

Because so many more incidents have followed, the NBA became dedicated to the cause entering this season.

The LAPD and community leaders were already planning an educational seminar to build a bridge between officers and those in the neighborhoods. When the Lakers wanted to get involved and use basketball as the backdoor play to get more people's attention, it wasn't a hard sell.

A community policing seminar will take place next month as the culmination of the Lakers' program, and it will not be limited to basketball players. Smiley plans to fill his gym with people needing to have frank dialogue with the LAPD and learn valuable lessons through role-playing skits.

You see how this can all be worthwhile, even if the squeaking of some sneakers cannot possibly shift the entire landscape.

We're conditioned to think that a success story would be some overlooked kid jetting to the hoop Saturday, catching the eye of Lakers executives behind the glass in Kupchak's upstairs office and miraculously earning a spot on the Lakers while the cops all cheer him on.

Alas, this is not a storybook issue.

That doesn't mean we can't celebrate our small victories.     


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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