Not long after their practice Monday at Mayo Clinic Square, Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns, Jamal Crawford and Cole Aldrich returned to the court for an entirely different kind of session.
They ambled in shortly after 4 p.m., joining about 30 others seated in a circle in the middle of the court.
All were there as part of the NBA’s Building Bridges Through Basketball initiative, part of the league’s proactive response to players wanting to use their platforms to influence social justice issues.
This particular session was designed to explore the dynamics between law enforcement and the local community — and young people in particular. Towns (pictured above during the session while talking to students) said he had an idea to do something like this, and the Timberwolves made it happen.
High school students of different colors and backgrounds were among those in attendance for the 90-minute session, as is Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. I was lucky enough to be invited as well.
“When you build a community,” Frey said in his early remarks to the group, “you have to meet youth on their turf.”
Arradondo follows that a little later by saying, “Too often folks in our position don’t listen.”
Kim Miller, the vice president of leadership and education programs at the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, facilitates the discussion.
Some of the high schoolers fidget in their seats and avoid eye contact. Friends have been separated so they have to interact with strangers — other kids, police officers or maybe even one of the Wolves players.
Each person in the circle is responsible for introducing someone next to them and delivering three basic facts: their name, where they went to high school and their biggest fear. As it turns out, both Frey and Towns are afraid of spiders.
Then they all rise and are told to stand in certain parts of the gym based on their comfort level with law enforcement officers. Most stand on the “comfortable” side or near the middle. A few high school students stand on the uncomfortable side, while Towns and Crawford strain to hear them talk about their negative experiences.
John Thomas, the former Minneapolis Roosevelt and Gophers basketball standout who is now the Wolves’ VP of Community Engagement, talks about racial profiling he experienced growing up, both in Minneapolis and in suburbs. He said he puts his vehicle registration above the visor of his car instead of in his glove compartment because of incidents between black motorists and police officers.
They all rejoin the seated circle and play a word association game. What do you think of when you hear the term law enforcement, they are asked. Some positive words emerge, like “service” and “protection,” mixed in with harsher ones like “scared” and “antsy.” (Pictured during the exercise: Frey and Miller).
The students are prodded for more. “What words would you use on Facebook?” one officer says, and they all laugh, but this gets things going. “Liars” and “profilers” are among the next two words uttered.
The same exercise is repeated with words about youths, with words like “entitled,” “disrespectful” and “aggressive” jumping out. Nobody is visibly upset, nor is anyone raising their voice. The takeaway message: Nothing is going to change unless everyone is truthful.
Arradondo stresses the need for police to work with communities to build relationships that aren’t adversarial by bringing both groups together in relaxed situations that don’t involve 9-1-1 calls.
He asks for other suggestions on how things can improve, and a student offers this: “The golden rule. Treat others how you would want to be treated.”
The structured part of the program comes to a close with each person being asked to ponder this question: What are you willing to commit to in order to help?
Towns, 22, makes an impromptu speech about being willing to keep mentoring high school students who are only a handful of years younger than him. He urges them to tell friends about their experience. “Spread what you heard today,” Towns says.
Afterward, as the kids release 90 minutes of pent-up energy by shooting baskets in a competition, Towns brings up Philando Castile, the black man shot during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016. Towns re-stresses the need for more dialogue and honesty.
“Being part of the NBA gives us so many opportunities to do such good. When you have such a popular logo and league behind you, they don’t have to do that,” Towns said. “Because they are, it not only helps our league be that much popular, it helps us be truly wealthy with wisdom and the effect we can have on the community.”