The Minnesota Timberwolves huddled up following a 134-120 win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday evening in what represented a rare victory during a challenging season. But the Timberwolves seemed more interested in discussing a much more important event that just took place.
A jury ruled on Tuesday that a former Minneapolis police officer was guilty on second-degree and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter for the killing of George Floyd. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, was held accountable for the death of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, after kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes just under a year ago.
“We have the game ball and we dedicated that to George Floyd’s family,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “I’m glad we were able to do that.”
Countless NBA players and coaches reacted with relief, gratitude or optimism after spending the past year speaking out on systemic racism and police brutality with words and initiatives. But Floyd’s killing hit the Timberwolves uniquely because it happened in their own city. Chauvin’s trials also ended less than a week after a Brooklyn Center police officer shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old unarmed Black man, during a traffic stop.
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“This was a moment that wasn’t meant for us. This was meant for our city and for George Floyd’s family,” Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I think everyone in America right now is grieving with him and sending our prayers, blessings and love. They need it for countless days. They’ve been reminded of the tragedy that has taken place in their family. They’ve never truly got a chance to grieve. I think for us, we were just trying to do our part that we were there with him. This game of basketball is only just a little part of who we are. This organization and us really wanted to show them that we’re going to be with them every step of the way.”
So when the Timberwolves sat in the locker room, Minnesota coach Chris Finch told his players, “I’m very, very proud of you guys today” both for how they played and how they represented the city on a historical day.
“The mood of the players is one of relief,” Finch said. “I know there was a lot of anxiety surrounding the team over the last few days not only about the verdict, but of course, what might happen to our community.”
Because of that uncertainty, the NBA talked to teams about preparing for contingency plans that could include postponed games. After all, the Timberwolves and Nets postponed their game last week after Wright’s shooting. They then rescheduled it the following afternoon because of the city’s enforced curfew to minimize any civil unrest.
“God knows what the city would’ve been if things went the other way,” Towns said. “It’s a troubling time in American history. We’re just trying to figure out how not to be on the bad side of history.”
How the Timberwolves awaited the news
As Americans and people across the world huddled around their television sets or refreshed their social media, those on the Timberwolves deliberated about how they wanted to learn about the ruling.
“I was watching it. Then I fell asleep,” Okogie said. “Part of me didn’t want to hear it live. I wanted to wake up to the news.”
While Okogie snuck in a pre-game nap, Finch took a pre-game walk. Towns said he “sweated so much that I had to take a shower.”
“It was tense. I was so worried. In these kinds of situations, you always fear for the worst,” Towns said. “It was a strong possibility he was guilty. But we live in a world where you can catch something on high definition video and still talk about if this is going to be guilty. You can have something in 4K, clear as day and shown to people and still have concern that accountability will be there and justice will be served.”
Towns and other teammates learned the news they wanted to hear shortly after 5 p.m. PT. Okogie woke up from his nap because of text messages that flooded his phone.
“A lot of people call it justice. For me, it’s more accountability. If justice was really really served, George Floyd would still be here today,” Okogie said. “We don’t have control of that now. But what we have control over it is the court case and what they decided to do with Derek Chauvin. I think the court made the right decisions and I hope this sets precedent.”
Following Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020, Towns and Okogie participated in protests around Minneapolis. Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell protested in Louisville on behalf of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman who was killed by police after they used a no-knock warrant to enter her boyfriend’s apartment on suspicion of drug and money laundering.
Towns had seven family members die from COVID-19, including his mother, and he even dealt with his own battle with the virus.
And then there was the losing. The Timberwolves (16-43) have the second-worst record in the Western Conference amid varying injuries and slow progress with a young roster.
“There was a sense of relief and joy for me,” Towns said. “I was excited to go play.”
Some of that joy still lingered following Tuesday’s win over the Kings. But then reality set in again surrounding the ruling on the Chauvin trial.
“It’s bittersweet because it cost us a life to see a moment like this; It’s one of those moments that you worry if reform is not done, we’ll have the same situation again,’ Towns said. “Just because justice was served for Floyd doesn’t mean that we’ll be bringing him back home. That’s the most unfortunate part. It was a day where step toward reform was made. But there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of conversations that need to be had so it doesn’t happen again.”
After all, other police were not held as accountable after killing or shooting a Black person.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced in January that no charges would be filed against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, a Black man who was then left paralyzed. Graveley defended the police officers’ reaction, saying it was “incontrovertible” that Blake was armed with “a razor blade-type knife” when he was shot seven times.
A Kentucky grand guard indicted only one of three police officers involved in Taylor’s killing on charges of wanton endangerment for shooting a gun into a neighboring apartment. While former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison faced three felony charges, officers Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove were not charged.
Towns, Okogie and Russell all talked about the big-picture implications in the Chauvin case. Towns and Okogie were among the various NBA players who spoke at length on Tuesday about this issue. Russell took a different approach.
Just as he did with discussing the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, Russell asked questions to a handful of mostly white reporters. Those reporters, most of whom live in Minneapolis, acknowledged their privilege and limited life experiences before expressing frustration with systemic racism and hope that the Chauvin ruling would mark a tipping point toward significant police reform.
“To piggyback on everything you guys mentioned, right is right and wrong is wrong at the end of the day,” Russell said. “For something like that to take so long just to come to light gives you an answer on what you’ve been seeing with accountability, I think that’s a start. Obviously, we want change to be big and grand in the scheme of things. But looking at the small window that we have here, change is happening every day and the awareness we’re bringing to all these different topics and things that aren’t normalized years ago have now become normal.”