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Minium: ODU Men’s Basketball Team Talked Honestly About Race and Grew Closer as a Result


By Harry Minium
Jeff Jones is a 60-year-old college basketball coach with a degree from the University of Virginia who thought he knew a lot about Black history and systemic racism.
He keeps current on national issues. His wife, Danielle, is a journalist who works for an online publication that focuses on national politics.
But in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died with a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, Jones realized he was terribly uninformed.
Jones participated in a three-part Zoom seminar with a group of basketball coaches and officials last spring designed to educate people on systemic racism. He listened to speakers, watched videos and did homework.
And opened his eyes.
"The thing that program taught me was how woefully inadequate my education had been on the subject of racism, and in particular, institutional racism," Jones said.
"I was a good student and all that, but my education was lacking. Not in math or science but about the systemic racism and how that impacts our country still today."
Jones did not go out and try to save the world, but as Old Dominion University's men's basketball coach, decided to have a series of long and difficult discussions with his players.
Those discussions led to a bonding of sorts that made last week's loss in the Conference USA tournament, and the end of ODU's season, all the more difficult to swallow.
The conversations occurred last spring and over the summer, when the pandemic forced players to stay home and take classes online.
They spoke by Zoom every day, and they didn't talk a lot about basketball. They spoke about how things were going at home, poked fun at each other and bantered back and forth like they would have in the locker room.
Along the way, they had some frank discussions about race. Jones said those conversations convinced his players to take positive action to affect change when all returned to campus.
They hosted Zoom meetings with the Norfolk and ODU Police, met with Rev. Kevin Swann, a former ODU basketball star; every player got registered to vote and then they conducted a voter registration drive – masks and social distancing included – on campus.
"A lot of stuff was said in the spring and summer," Jones said, referring to calls for change from politicians. "But a lot more was said than done.
"Our focus had to be local. But we wanted to take some form of action and not just kick the can down the road.
"I'm happy with what we did."
Did those conversations affect how the team played this season? Impossible to know.
But suffice it to say this team played with passion and heart through a difficult season in which the pandemic was a daily threat. Players essentially sheltered in place when not playing or practicing and played in nearly empty arenas.
They endured a week in quarantine and played two games against Marshall without their starting guards, and split the series with the Herd.
This team wasn't the most talented in ODU history, but it was among the closest groups of young men I've ever covered.
Jones knew some of the basics of Black history but was surprised at all he did not know.
He thought the GI Bill, which helped soldiers and sailors returning from World War II go to school and buy homes, was a boon for all Americans until he learned it was not – Blacks were largely excluded from the bill's benefits.
He had never heard of redlining, instituted in the 1930's by the federal government to further segregation by literally drawing red lines on maps. Federally insured mortgages weren't available in those neighborhoods, largely populated by African Americans.
Realtors at the time knew not to sell homes to Black families in the suburbs. That is one reason why so many Black families today are concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods.
African Americans have a fraction of the combined wealth of white Americans. And home and land ownership account for a huge portion of that gap.
As Jones began to share what he'd learned, he was surprised that many of his African-American players were also unaware of much of their own history.
"I think a lot of guys were surprised by what they didn't know," Jones said. "It spurred a lot of discussion and I think a common bond was forged."
Sophomore guard Jaylin Hunter said the conversations were tough on everyone, given the feelings generated by police shootings, demonstrations, and riots.
He praised Jones and assistant coaches John Richardson, Bryant Stith, Chris Kovensky, Dennis Wolff and Kieran Donohue and the entire staff for taking part.
"The first thing we talked about was George Floyd," Hunter said. "And the first thing Coach Jones said to me was that he was undereducated and wanted to hear our point of view."
Some players expressed hurt and anger over what was happening. Many spoke about their experiences with racism as kids and young adults.
Race is often the elephant in the room on sports teams, and especially in football and basketball, in which a majority of players are African American. Jones said talking about race was uncomfortable but healing.
Hunter said Black history, though taught when he was in high school, needs to be addressed more deeply. He realizes he has a lot to learn.
An aside: During an online Conference USA discussion last spring between players and coaches, one C-USA head coach in a sport I won't name acknowledged he'd never heard of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
During two days of race riots, more than 1,200 homes and 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District, an African American community, were destroyed.
It was the wealthiest African American district in the nation. Booker T. Washington called it the "Negro Wall Street."
The official death toll was 36 and 800 were admitted to hospitals. A 2001 commission said as many as 300 people may have died, most of them Black.
"Sometimes, I find things on social media that I didn't know happened," Hunter said. "At times people try to suppress things and pretend it didn't happen.
"It's not something we need to be angry about, but we do need to be educated about."
Asked what he would advise others to do, Jones said go online to reputable sources and start reading, or type "Black history seminars" in your Internet search engine or go read a good book on Black history. 
A personal aside: To get a true understanding of just how ghastly slavery was, go to your nearest bookstore and purchase "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," which Douglass wrote in 1845.
I picked it up on vacation last year and my eyes were opened. Douglass, a former slave who befriended President Abraham Lincoln, was a magnificent writer with a keen intellect. His book is not for feint of heart. It's difficult to read, but I'm glad I did.
Jones said the discussions with his players were among the few good things that emerged from the pandemic.
"We were able to talk about issues, to come together as a group, that maybe not would have happened had it not been for COVID," he said. "If I look for a silver lining in all of this, I think that's one.
"It's hard to impact positive change if you don't know what the heck you're talking about. I'm definitely not a political person. I'm not one to put my political views out there.
"But I don't see speaking out about racism, whether current or past, as a political issue.
"I see it as a moral issue."
One that, regardless of your political persuasion, should no longer be the elephant in the room.
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