Editors Note: This is the second in a two-part series from former Carrier Mills-Stonefort standout Erik Griffin, about the challenges he and other African Americans faced playing and coaching basketball here in southern Illinois.
Ever since Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier in 1947, African American athletes have been cheered for and revered while in uniform, but seen by many as second class citizens away from their respective sport.
The racial slur Bill Russell returned to find smeared in human feces on the wall of his home in suburban Boston was the same one painted on the gates of LeBron James' Brentwood, California home. Two different centuries, decades apart, but the same level of disrespect, hatred and double standard. The respect and adulation that was shown while they were leading the favorite team to victory disappeared when they transitioned to everyday life.
They were harassed by police, not welcomed in certain neighborhoods, their homes and vehicles were vandalized, and they feared for the safety of their families. It is a shame to think that the very same things Robinson, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammed Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke out against during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are still the problems all African Americans face today.
The same unfair and disrespectful treatment of African Americans that Tommie Smith and John Carlos silently protested during the medal ceremony of the 1968 Olympics are the same issues that athletes, celebrities and people from all walks of life are now protesting. It all boils down to the need and demand to be respected as a human being.
Honestly, I felt I had reached my breaking point when the videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd surfaced. I have lived a life fighting against double standards and for respect. To see men who looked like me, my family members, some of my close friends, and many of my players -- to have their lives taken with very little regard enraged me. It could very easily could have been one of my family out for a jog instead of Mr. Arbery. Or me or one of my friends detained by the police instead of Mr. Floyd.
It hit a little too close to home and I momentarily forgot the lessons of my father, David "Judge" Griffin (who chilled me to the bone when he told me of the racism he experienced in the 1940s and 50s) preached to me as a child. I felt like I had run out of answers. That is a helpless feeling when young people look to you as a voice of reason. However, thinking of those young people I had coached and the numerous relationships I have because of basketball, made me realize all is not necessarily lost.
I think of some of my teammates I had at Carrier Mills and SIU as my brothers. I love and consider my players as a part of my family. I view my former coaches throughout my career as mentors and men I can trust.
I have developed great relationships with the guys I shared the bench with during my years at Harrisburg and Meridian. I have become very close with several guys I played and coached against.
These relationships grew not because of our abilities as players and coaches. They grew out of mutual personal respect for each other first, and our love for the game second.
I know my players "get" it; that respect costs absolutely nothing to give but can make the person receiving it feel rich. I have no doubt they are and will raise their children to respect others, because I have already seen them show unconditional respect.
Many of the people I mentioned have reached out to me over the past few weeks and it had absolutely nothing to do with basketball. It was done out of respect because they get it as well. These relationships prove that despite all of the hatred I have experienced and that has been on display, there are many more people who care and treat others with respect because they "get" it. And the people who get it are the ones who can and will influence others to make a change.
We must remember respect is not color blind. It sounds good in theory to say we do not take into account the color or race of others in our daily interactions, but we should be able to acknowledge the differences that define each of us without attaching labels or feeling threatened.
Ignoring I am African American means you are ignoring that my narrative and experiences are going to be different, but at the same time I should be respected without having to demand it. We must be willing to embrace the differences so that we can overcome the fear that too easily turns into hatred and violence. To paraphrase Ms. Aretha Franklin, "You have to be willing to find out what respect means to me."
Great teams do not consist of players who are exactly alike with the same strengths. Their different talents must be recognized and respected before they can be meshed together to become a cohesive unit. It is imperative for those of us who get it to take the same approach to eliminate racism in all forms, and recognize that people from different races can come together out of respect for a common cause as we have seen throughout southern Illinois and other parts of the country.
Great teams also have the ability to finish, be it a key possession or a game, to secure the outcome. We must have the perseverance and diligence to see this through and finish the game. And we cannot stop there as we must pass those traits on to our children and grandchildren because change will not happen overnight.
In the words of one of my Saluki brothers Chris Lowery, "It's not a sprint, It's a marathon."
A strong start is very important but a stronger finish is even more crucial to ensure all people are respected and treated equally.
• Erik Griffin is a 1986 graduate of Carrier Mills-Stonefort High School and a 1991 graduate of SIU. He has coached at Carrier Mills-Stonefort, Harrisburg and most recently Meridian High School.