During conversations on what more his Gophers basketball team could do to impact communities in need during a tough year, Richard Pitino looked to Jarvis Omersa for inspiration.
Omersa is known for his emotionally-charged sideline cheers and highlight dunks.
The 6-foot-6 junior from Orono who just celebrated his 20th birthday Monday used that nonstop energy and enthusiasm this summer to set an example for giving back and supporting change in the Twin Cities.
“It’s very important,” Pitino said. “The first thing you can do is be involved in your communities to help. When you see guys in your program do that when you’re not making them do that, it certainly shows the substance we have in this locker room.”
Earlier this week, the NCAA approved rules to allow athletes to wear patches on their uniforms to support social justice issues. Don’t be surprised if Omersa is the first Gopher to jump on board.
Standing up against racial inequality is something Omersa didn’t hesitate to act on after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. He joined peaceful protests on the streets with his mother who has long been an activist against social injustice.
“People that do protesting, they feel the need to do that,” Omersa said. “I was out there. I did a lot. It was fun being out there. It really felt like a team environment where everybody has the same goal, the same idea and the same mentality. That people have a lot of the same mind-set and ideas trying to address it and make a change, it’s a comfortable feeling. It makes you feel people are going to back up what they say.”
On her son’s activism, Sara Omersa said she raised him to stand up for what he believes in.
“And if you believe strongly about something that’s going on,” she said, “then I’m going to support you 100 percent.”
Omersa and his mother walked alongside protesters delivering strong messages about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. They witnessed rioting that ensued in the nights immediately after Floyd’s death. They didn’t condone the looting but understood the emotions behind it.
“Everybody was already fed up,” Omersa said. “This was outrageous. We don’t stand for this as a country anymore. Every case before George Floyd was just as important as George Floyd’s. … But I think George Floyd’s death has made people want to speak their minds and not afraid of the backlash.”
The Omersas were among volunteers helping with cleanup and donation drives in Minneapolis. They also handed out masks, hand sanitizers and water bottles.
“The greatest part about it was that people were willing to do something for somebody else,” Omersa said. “Really seeing that energy and being a part of it was the most surreal feeling I’ve had in a long time. It was just really cool and important. I wish I could share that experience with everybody.”
Even without being able to attend summer school in person, Omersa has been taking online classes to stay on track to graduate early with a degree in business marketing and minor in communications. He also worked at a landscaping company for summer employment.
On the basketball side, Omersa watched more game video and reviewed how to be a more effective undersized post defender. Minimizing fouls was an area of focus. He also continued to add bulk to his already powerfully-built and athletic 235-pound frame.
“I’m very proud of him,” his mother said. “He’s doing well. I’m sure he put 10 pounds of muscle on. I bet he’s 245 or 250. He’s had a really good summer, really good. Very positive.”
Athletes have a platform to be voices for change. Omersa realizes that even more now. He is still thinking about what the Gophers can do together to help the community and promote racial equality.
Voting is something students can definitely do this fall to inspire the younger generation, he said.
“I feel like if you want to make a lot of noise about what’s going on right now than you should be willing to take the time to educate yourself on what you’re voting for and to actually vote,” Omersa said. “We need to use our platform to affect generations below us. That’s the only way there will be a change.”