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Back with a Purpose

30 Jun 2020
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Indiana Pacers
Photo by
Indiana Pacers
Justin Holiday
Indiana Pacers
30 Jun 2020

The American Dream is all about achieving success through hard work. We’ve heard this expression countless times. When I was playing in Europe — working my butt off so that I could one day play at the highest level of the game — I was living the American Dream. Still, it never would have occurred to me then to write an open letter to the world.

“Then,” however, is the operative word. Now I am going to do just that.

When the NBA announced earlier this month that it was going to resume the 2019–20 season in Orlando starting on July 30, I was on board with finishing what we started. I also wanted to both ensure that my family and I were positioned for success, and to be a teammate whose name is synonymous with trust and dedication. On and off-court, I am a Black man of morals and values, and that translates to all my relationships — husband, father, son, brother, teammate and friend.

Working to achieve financial security is not something to be ashamed of. And as we head back to the court to resume the season, many players will be out there for the same reason I am —  for our futures. 

But I also realize that there’s something just as critical at stake. More than ever, there is a dire need now to elevate my Black brothers and sisters, to use my platform to empower and elevate our people.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Admittedly, in the past, whenever the issue of social injustice would arise, I’d allow myself to move on from the pain, resorting to bowing my head and praying feverishly to the Lord — and then doing little thereafter. I was worried about speaking out and losing my job.

But I fear that no more.

In fact, the word of God has moved me from a place of fear to a position of empowerment, from which I am now seeking every available avenue to contribute to the advancement of the cause of social justice. James 2:26 says, “Faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” And since the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I’ve been asking myself many questions.

Why does this continue to happen to people who look like me?

What if this were me, my brothers or my father?

How can I keep myself out of such situations?

What should I do to create lasting change?

I don’t know the answer to all these questions. In fact, when it comes to keeping myself out of such situations, our criminal justice system has proven that things are not entirely up to me. But I do know the answer to the last one.

I can play.

Growing up — and well into adulthood — Black people are made to feel guilty for speaking of the terrible things our ancestors experienced. From being on the receiving end of microaggressions, gaslighting, and blatant racism, we are denounced when we voice our thoughts about how the brutality of the past still exists today.

We are forced to find ways to stay safe in situations in which we should not have to worry about our safety. We are tacitly told to dim our lights and stifle our feelings, and thus remaining small when interacting with the police is ingrained in our reactions and thought processes. That’s quite the contradiction to the “go big or go home” mantra we’ve been taught since learning to dribble the ball and dominate the game.

I was worried about speaking out and losing my job. But I fear that no more.

These opinions do not represent a victim’s mentality. These are truths that we, Black people, are continually unpacking — and then often juggling with our guilt, anxiety and fear.

We’re in the midst of a pandemic and a social revolution. We’re processing a change of life regarding the well-being of our mental and physical health. The pandemic is unfamiliar and heavy, and here we are, NBA athletes, called to perform. There is a public expectation of compliance and silence from players because of our financial compensation. You hear it all the time.

Shut up and dribble.

Black athletes, however, are multifaceted human beings, with the physical and intellectual capacity to do more than dribble and dunk. We are more than athletes. 

And thus, we’re able to feel frustrated while also showing up for work with a committed attitude and focused mindset. We’re able to be thankful for a means of prosperity while also feeling conflicted by expectations. Life is more valuable than status and earning power. Job 42:2 tells us that we were born with worth and with a purpose, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the power in my position as an NBA athlete. I also have a platform

I am a proud Black man, a man who has been mistreated due to the color of his skin, yet I have also been blessed to have crushed the odds against reaching the pinnacle of my profession.

And now I’m going to use my rights and unique platform to advocate for change. My open letter to the world is a public commitment to the work you can expect from me, Justin Holiday.

This letter will be met with a range of emotions and reactions, from empathy to apathy, and from anger to frustration. For those who feel frustrated, I implore you to think about how you’d feel in today’s climate, with your job and financial security at risk, coupled with the heaviness of racial inequities, and all the emotions to be unboxed and deciphered.

For lack of better words, there is no playbook for this. We’re riding a historic wave of changes. And I’d like to be clear — I choose to stand on the side of history that facilitates change, real change, and that sparks a healthy dialogue, and establishes unequivocal support for our community in various capacities.


David Zalubowski/AP Images

There’s this awful misconception that if you criticize something, you are ungrateful, hateful and unappreciative. But isn’t the foundation of improvement based upon discipline, actions and reactions? Isn’t self-critique and analysis essential to getting better? As an athlete, when I fall short of my on-court duties, I’m able to lean on film study, additional training, and drills so that I can correct and improve.   

When children misbehave, we correct their actions and guide them to do better. When students err, they are retaught by their teacher or parents. Well, America should not be held separate from those standards. Like an athlete that falls short, a child who is misguided, or a student who doesn’t understand a lesson, change requires education, correction and commitment. Otherwise, we’re ignoring and enabling — and with enabling comes regression.

I refuse to regress, nor do I want to remain stagnant. Our country was built by the hands of our ancestors. For decades, we’ve come face-to-face with countless barricades, yet we’ve almost always moved forward with grace and strength, even when the weight of the world was resting on our backs. We should not have to suffer to experience freedom, equality, joy or success.

We deserve to be loved, supported and respected, and I am committed to making a change, and that change will be reflected through doing my job. Come July 30, when games resume, you can expect an explosion of athleticism and focus from me, coupled with an unparalleled passion for philanthropy and human rights — rights my people have been striving to achieve for decades. 

The time is now, and like the great Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

This is more than an open letter. This is an open challenge — to me and to those reading this — to know better and do better.

Justin Holiday
Indiana Pacers