The education of Meyers Leonard
The Heat center, in his own words, reflects on standing for the national anthem and learning from his African American teammates
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – While his Miami Heat teammates have kneeled during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to police brutality, social injustice and racism in America, Meyers Leonard has been standing with his hand on his heart during the national anthem.
Leonard originally explained his stance – his brother and other close friends are military members – when the Heat returned to action on Aug. 1, but with Miami playing in the 2020 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, a new audience has taken to social media to criticize him for standing.
Leonard, who has consistently stated that he is wholeheartedly down to fight against the oppression of African Americans, reflects on his experience in the NBA bubble standing for the national anthem and learning from his African American teammates.
You can be both.
I can love and have appreciation for the military while also feeling pain in my heart for what’s going on in America, particularly to the African American community.
I 100% know that my teammates aren’t kneeling to disrespect the flag or the military. They have their reasons for protest and equality, and I respect that and honor that. At the same time, I have my reasons to stand and they respect me for that, too. They have embraced me, in fact. I’m so damn thankful that they have, because they know I’m pure in the heart and in the fight with them as well.
After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I was shocked to see that my name was trending on Twitter. Some of the things that I heard after Game 1 were very hurtful. People calling me a racist and countless other things. It’s unfortunate because I want everyone to like me. I know the reality is, that’s not going to happen.
But when my character comes into question, when I’ve clearly done my best to show in many different ways, what I stand for, who I am, whether you want to believe me or not, it hurts. There are some people behind me who have said, ‘Look, leave this dude alone.’ And I’m very thankful for that. At the end of the day, I can’t make everyone happy or believe me, but I’m going to do my damn best.
And I’ve done my best to say, ‘Look, if I can do anything to help people understand, it is to understand that you can be both.’
There’s a different emotion that comes with having a deep connection to the military. My brother joined the Marine Corps because of 9/11 and was on the front line. He’s told me stories that I needed to hear that I didn’t necessarily want to hear.
If I got a random phone call in the middle of class in college, guess what, I’m walking out of that room because it might be my brother and it could be the last god damn time I talk to him. I put my hand over my heart and stand for that national anthem because of the real and raw emotion I feel towards that. There are times when I hear that anthem, I have to put my head down, because I think vividly of my brother and other people who have fought for this country.
I’ve sat and talked with SEAL Team 6 operators fighting the worst of the worst. I’m talking about the baddest motherf—–s on the planet. One in particular wanted to take his own life. That’s tragic to me. That’s real to me. That hurts me. These people are my close friends. There is a different emotion that comes with that. And that’s real experiences sitting and speaking with them about some of the things that these people have been through.
I imagine different, but the same type of emotion that comes out of African American people when something happens like with George Floyd. And they’re thinking, ‘Wait, this has been going on too long. How the hell do you want us to react? Look at the systemic issues. How do you want us to react?’
I try to sympathize.
I feel that pain, too.
I come from a white community, a rural farming community. Good-hearted people. People that love everyone, just like I do. But I didn’t see some of these things growing up. I just didn’t until I was on the AAU circuit. And that’s what I keep saying, AAU circuit, college, all these years in the NBA. Basically, I’ve now been around African American culture long enough to feel the pain they’re feeling during these times.
Talking with teammates, some of this s— is eye-opening.
I’ve learned from their personal experiences and stories. The pain they have felt and gone through. The situations they’ve personally been in, and their families. Listening to Dre’s [Andre Iguodala’s] story, I would have had no idea. I’ve simply wanted to be a listener and educate myself on the constant struggles that can come with being African American in America.
Although I was poor as s—, I grew up without a dad, I grew up with all these different challenges, I still have white privilege. And I get it … I don’t know what it’s like to be racially profiled. I don’t know what it’s like to be [former Portland Trail Blazers teammate] CJ McCollum and get pulled over for going one over the speed limit. And the police are saying, ‘Oh, what are you doing around here?’
Listening to UD [Udonis Haslem] and understanding that during COVID mainly inner-city kids would get crushed. That hurts me. I don’t give a damn who you are or where you come from. I care about people being in pain.
Being a white man, from a mainly white community, I haven’t been directly impacted by these things, so I have to listen and learn.
I can’t imagine truly, truly what it’s like for someone to say, ‘Oh, well, he might be up to no good. You know what, just pull him over just because, what’s he doing in a nice car in a white neighborhood?’
You can flick on the news, but you don’t really know unless you’ve experienced it or been around it. I was never turning a blind eye, I was just never around it growing up. I never knew what it was like to hear guns popping off in the middle of the night. I didn’t f—ing know.
And there’s plenty of people around the United States of America and around the world who say, ‘Yeah, well, f— that, All Lives Matter.’ No, that’s bulls—. Have some sympathy. Learn. Educate. Flip on the TV. Do some research. All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.
How do I now, in military terms, put boots on the ground and continue to make an impact or just use my voice?
People do need to see what’s going on in the world. Clearly there’s a reason why there’s been so many reactions and so much back and forth between certain groups of people.
I had someone from back home say to me, ‘Meyers, what do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement?’ I said, ‘Well, it is powerful. It’s real, man. Like, I know we don’t really see it where we’re from, but you got to turn on the news. And trust me when I tell you, because I’ve been around this culture for long enough to know this is real pain. This is not fake. This is not fake news. This is real pain.’
He said, ‘Well, what about All Lives Matter?’ And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa.’ UD told me stuff like this would be coming and I told the man, ‘I got to stop you right there.’
It is now my job, more than me trying to influence people. But how do I change the minds of a lot of people who just say, ‘Meyers, what a way to stand for the national anthem. That’s great. I’m going to have support that way.’ I’m going to also say, ‘Look, this s— f—ing matters.’ That’s one of the most powerful things and opportunities I think I have personally is to help educate people who are like me, from small white communities, who may be good people that just don’t ever see it.
Whatever it may be, I am going to continue to push forward because I can say all I want, there’s going to be some people in African American culture that are like, ‘You know nothing, so shut up,’ regardless of how good of a person I am. But that one conversation with the person I had back home may turn to them going to work or going to dinner and then you got a whole group of people that are like, ‘Meyers, thank you for saying something, because we don’t know what’s going on in these other places.’
I just want to impact people, man.
So it’s how can I continue to use my voice, use my platform, use my money, use whatever, to say, ‘Look, this is what’s in my heart and this is what my family believes in.’ But please understand that I am with it. And I want you to know just how badly I want to help people and will continue to do so.