Meet the finalists for the inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award

·13-min read

Our look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.

Four Quarters
Four Quarters

First Quarter: The unlikely finalist for the Social Justice Champion award

The NBA didn’t announce it would recognize a player with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award until the season was nearly over, so the finalists weren’t positioning themselves through the year for some sort of acknowledgment.

The most unlikely finalist wasn’t even sure he would be on Golden State’s roster, or any for that matter, but Juan Toscano-Anderson has always been civic-minded even if he doesn’t want to be front-facing.

The Oakland native was a surprise contributor this season after spending most of his days in the G-League, becoming a fan favorite shortly after emerging from anonymity. Working in the background is what he prefers, even as he’s gained popularity — which he discovered after organizing a march shortly after the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

Hundreds showed after barely a few hours notice on his Instagram. But somebody had to speak to the crowd, and Toscano-Anderson wasn’t expecting that person to be himself.

“That was actually very intimidating for me because that's not something I've ever done before,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I had to step into that position, and so I faced a fear of mine, you know, kind of leading a crowd, being a true leader and having a voice. I didn't really know the right things to say, I didn't have a pre-planned speech.”

Juan Toscano-Anderson #95 of the Golden State Warriors stands at the line to shoot a foul shot against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on May 14, 2021 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Warriors rookie Juan Toscano-Anderson has always been civic-minded even if he doesn’t want to be front-facing. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Somehow he found the words to tell the people about the fight for humanity and against police brutality, while still promoting a message of positivity — a hard line to balance.

“It was intimidating,” he reiterated. “It was very intimidating the whole time, because I wanted to make sure that I was doing the right things calculating my steps correctly.”

His steps off the floor have been definitive and ordered from his experiences as a kid from the Bay Area, where he was once homeless and moving from place to place while staying active in the ways of service.

“My mom was a single mother. So she didn't have nobody babysitting for her,” he said. “Sometimes we went to work with her. So it just became kind of like, second nature for us, like helping people is just something my mom has always done. And for me, it's just as natural.”

Toscano-Anderson participated in the Voters Win campaign, one that encouraged Black and Latino citizens to vote in the 2020 election, along with the two Walking in Unity events. He also spoke to more than 3,000 African youth about his journey, discussed institutional biases with sixth graders in San Francisco and established the Journey to Achieve Foundation (JTA), which aims to give back to youth and families of color in the Bay Area.

Toscano-Anderson’s parents are Black and Mexican, fitting with a huge demo of the Bay Area. That also blends perfectly with the culture of the Warriors where coach Steve Kerr has long been civically active, Draymond Green is vocal on everything and Stephen Curry has dipped his toe into matters recently, talking with President Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci throughout the course of the pandemic.

“It's a safe space. And that safe space is reinforced,” he said. “I think that you feel more comfortable being yourself, you feel more comfortable with just being vocal about who you are, and there's encouragement from everybody, especially on things like this.

“I think the NBA is doing a hell of a job, supporting the — I don't necessarily want to call it a movement, because it shouldn’t have to be a movement, it should be a lifestyle.”

His lifestyle has changed, signing a two-year deal after taking a chance on staying in the G-League as opposed to going overseas for more money. He’s learning the business side and should he win the KAJ award, the money will go toward his foundation where he hopes it’ll touch more kids in the Bay Area — so long as he doesn’t have to give any more speeches.

“I would much rather help people from behind the scenes, because sometimes doing stuff like that, so strong and powerful, where, you know, you leading some masses, it is very draining,” he said. “And so, you know, I'm just gonna continue to try to help people. When I meet young men or young teenagers who are struggling, I try to build a relationship with them.”

Second Quarter: How Harrison Barnes finds ways to make his mark

Harrison Barnes has called a few NBA cities home, disparate places with different histories and presents, issues and beauties.

Barnes found a way to make his mark on all of them; from his hometown of Ames, Iowa, Oakland, Dallas and now Sacramento.

Barnes, another Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion finalist, made incredible gestures during the NBA restart, dedicating each Sacramento Kings game to organizations supporting racial justice and donating $25,000 to the families of victims affected by police brutality.

The Trayvon Martin Foundation, the Botham Jean Foundation, The Atatiana Project, Mothers Against Police Brutality, the Michael Brown Foundation, Tamir Rice Foundation, Champion in the Making and the African American Policy Forum were the recipients.

Many of these tragedies were filmed, and it’s a hard ask to keep viewing and not feel numb.

“There's a balance between really protecting your mental space because watching these videos, is traumatic, to constantly see, you know, the disregard for Black bodies being killed in the streets, in the hands of police or whatever it may be,” Barnes told Yahoo Sports. “You have to be mindful that, yes, there is a way to spread awareness. Yes, there is a way to talk about this.”

To be informed and dedicate resources to those who need it is a pain that must be endured. But his work is not just about the pain inflicted on black people, it’s about education and empowerment. So when the Kings turned their arena into a voting center before the 2020 election, Barnes voted there on National Vote Early Day.

Harrison Barnes #40 of the Sacramento Kings looks to pass the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on April 21, 2021 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Harrison Barnes found a way to make his mark on all of them; from his hometown of Ames, Iowa, Oakland, Dallas and now Sacramento. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

He also provided support to frontline workers at each of his previous stops.

“To be able to be fortunate to have played in three NBA cities that have embraced me, like family, from the jump, I almost feel it's right to be active in the community,” Barnes said. “Stand up to the things that I feel like should be addressed and aren’t getting as much attention, highlighting people that are doing the work.”

He’s also focusing on education, financial literacy, police brutality and mass incarceration — all of which stems from institutional racism. He was named to the NBA’s foundation board of directors last October, and has joined Goalsetter, a Black-owned finance app that will provide education and opened savings accounts for 500 youth.

Barnes hopes his ability, name and resources will lead to him being more of a connector. He’s a Black man with his own experiences, of course, but he also knows there are many who know more and just need amplification.

“I can tap an expert to talk about this, and I can engage this group that's doing the work and I can use all these things,” Barnes said. “With the help of the platform of basketball, to hopefully reach a greater audience, and it's all about discussion, we will get the ball rolling, and these discussions can hopefully lead to substantive change.”

There’s no one way to initiate change, especially after laws have been put in place to create and solidify issues that need to be stripped down after hundreds of years.

But having played for Mark Cuban and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, Barnes hopes his conversations with them can have a trickle-down effect.

Barnes launched a series entitled “Conversations with Harrison,” in which he speaks with nonprofit and community leaders, educators, athletes, elected officials and business leaders to promote their work and bring attention to their causes.

“Whether you're having a conversation with an owner, a fan, a security guard, you know, a bus driver, I think there's a constant level of education that goes on not only from my perspective, or from anyone you interact with, but patience,” Barnes said. “If somebody may not have the right response, or responses we don't like, understand that they can change and they can grow from that place.”

Third Quarter: Meet the other finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award

Portland’s Carmelo Anthony, Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday and Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris are also finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award.

Harris focuses on the school systems, particularly in Philadelphia. He’s dedicating $2 million to produce positive effects for Black youths, as well as putting $300,000 to The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia to recruit teachers from HBCU’s, given that those graduates statistically have higher student-loan balances upon graduation.

“It's a huge honor to be selected in that group with all those guys as well,” Harris said recently. “And for me, obviously education and education for our youth, has been a huge focal point that I like to get involved in.”

Harris is a New York City native but has planted roots in Philadelphia. He’s devoted resources and created Tobias’ Top Teachers program, which aims to recruit and retain Black male teachers with workshops and supplies.

Tobias Harris #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers is introduced before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center on March 17, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
Tobias Harris focuses on the school systems, particularly in Philadelphia. (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Another program, his own Lit Labs, provided 30,000 books to 8,000 children to lessen the reading gap and increased by 70%.

“I want to really, really get down to the roots of the school system and find out a way that I can make an impact and help the kids out in the Philadelphia area,” Harris said. “So education has always been a huge focal point for me and the things that I do in terms of philanthropy.”

He also penned an op-ed for The Players Tribune, discussing police brutality while also launching the VOTE 76 initiative to increase engagement amongst his teammates.

Anthony has long been vocal on how oppression affects Black people and how it’s generational. He serves on the board for the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, and many will remember his stirring speech at the ESPY’s a few years ago with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul.

His foundation has served as an instrument for over 15 years and is the biggest name on this list.

“It’s not enough to only fight for social justice in the moments of brutality or injustice. For equality to truly exist, we need to push for equity and justice in all areas of Black lives,” Anthony said in a statement. “That can only happen when opportunity exists. My mission is to continue fighting for reform in our justice system, amplifying the voices of the fallen, and generating opportunities to uplift Black creatives and storytellers who will propel the narratives that for too long have gone unheard.”

Anthony was a guest Editor-in-Chief for Slam Magazine’s social justice issue and through his STAYME7O banner, has invested in the arts and creativity. Recently, Anthony created the Creative 7, a global content company that will display stories of overcoming adversity, social activism and entertaining storytelling. Even though he’s been in Portland for only a short time, Portland’s Art Museum’s Black Arts and Experiences Initiative would be the recipient of the $100,000 award should he win.

Carmelo Anthony #00 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks to pass in the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets during Round 1, Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center on May 29, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony has long been vocal on how oppression affects Black people and how it’s generational. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“I’m going to keep fighting for progress and using my resources in hopes that we will be able to create a future for the next generation where everyone is accepted and celebrated for being their truest self, regardless of who they are, what they look like or where they come from,” he said.

Holiday and his wife pledged the remainder of his 2020 salary after the season was suspended to the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Justice Fund. It aims to fight systemic racism and increase economic equality by providing support to Black-owned businesses. This year, it announced support for 25 nonprofits and historically Black institutions in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Last fall, the Holidays joined with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation to identify small, women- and Black-owned businesses most in need of assistance. They selected seven recipients this January and have jumped into the technological sector, working with Microsoft’s Nonprofit Tech Acceleration for Black and African American Communities.

If Holiday is selected, he’ll award the money to the EXPO of Wisconsin.

Fourth Quarter: The 2004 Pistons full of coaching candidates 

Ben Wallace could only smile. It was moments before he would enter a conference room inside the Detroit Pistons Performance Center to represent the franchise in the draft lottery — and he had no clue he’d be the good-luck charm as they’d get the first pick for the first time since 1970.

Wallace chuckled at the notion of his former teammates being up for head coaching jobs, Chauncey Billups (Clippers assistant) and Darvin Ham (Bucks assistant).

The three were teammates on the Pistons’ 2004 championship team, perhaps the most unlikely champion in NBA history.

“Chauncey, knows the game, inside and out,” Wallace said. “From the point guard position, that had to manage a number of different personalities and attitudes and still came out as a Finals MVP. Chauncey is definitely right there.”

They were superstars but they were an eclectic mix of players with a hard-driving coach in Larry Brown. Wallace himself knows he could have his days, but Billups’ demeanor has always been seen as front office or coach-like.

Commentator Chauncey Billups looks on during the 2019 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 20, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups is up for a head coaching job. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Ham’s journey has been a little different but he’s been a grinder as a coach, not unlike he was as a player.

“Darvin knows the game,” Wallace said. “An undrafted player that came into this league. When I think about players, or guys or teammates that I've played with, when it comes to coaching, those are the names that I think about, at the top of my list.”

And there’s another guy, too. Rasheed Wallace was recently named head coach at NC Good Better Best Academy in North Carolina. Rasheed’s emotions, technical fouls and vocal nature are always mentioned but his basketball knowledge, honed at North Carolina under late coach Dean Smith, should never be questioned.

“Sheed is oftentimes misunderstood. But you get what you get. A highly intelligent person,” Ben Wallace said. “A people person, can talk to kids, can talk to parents and talk to that guy up in a cheap seat, the cheap seats that keeps yelling and screaming.

"And as a coach, that's what you look for, nobody wants to allow anybody to coach their kids or mentor their kids [that] have never experienced life."

Ben Wallace went to one of Rasheed's games that he coached this year, and although Rasheed didn't get ejected, he did use the patented phrase to the refs: "Ball don't lie."

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