The Week When Sports Would Not Let America Look Away

Before the big NBA game on Tuesday night, we weren’t talking about basketball: only frustration, rage and pain.

On Thursday, sport again took a back seat, as it should, replaced by heartbreaking facts, courtesy of two Major League Baseball teams, and calls for something to be done to end the carnage.

Something is wrong in America. We don’t know how to stop aggression and death.

The massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas have once again shaken us. We are preparing to fight the scourge of gun violence that threatens every part of the country: grocery stores and churches, street corners and malls, and schools full of schoolchildren.

Everyday life gives the impression at any moment that it could turn into horror.

In the midst of it all, our games continue. Important matches with remarkable teams. The Golden State Warriors played their familiar fine brand of basketball in the NBA playoff conference finals. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, division rivals and contenders for victory in this year’s World Series, played out a key series in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Sport can be a tonic in difficult times. Games and great performances offer a chance to wash away terrible emotion. Move on and even forget. But hours after 19 students and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr, a man who knows firsthand the suffering caused by gun violence, wouldn’t let us completely turn away of agony.

And the Yankees and Rays would soon come together in a way that demanded attention to what mattered — and what mattered most wasn’t wins or losses or the battle for first place in the American League East.

In the minutes leading up to Game 4 of his team’s playoff series, Kerr sat down at a table in front of the reporters and let loose powerfully. Nothing he said was scripted. Everything came from the heart, shaped by personal experience. And it had nothing to do with basketball or sports.

“In the past 10 days, elderly black people have been killed in Buffalo, Asian worshipers have been killed in Southern California. And now we have kids being murdered at school,” Kerr said, his words powerful enough to go viral almost instantly. His voice quivered. His eyes narrowed with burning emotion.

He pounded on the table, his voice rising.

“I’m sick of it. I’ve had enough. We’re going to play the game tonight, but I want everyone listening to this to think of your own child or grandchild or mother or father, sister, brother. How would you feel if this happened to you today?

“When are we going to do something? he added.

“Sufficient!”

Kerr has long spoken out at press conferences and other venues for tougher gun laws and against our society’s lust for violence. He did it again this week, blasting politicians for doing nothing and specifically taking aim at the Senate for not even passing legislation as simple as a requirement for universal background checks.

In that moment, to watch him was to watch a man struggle to make sense of a tragedy he knows all too well. In 1984, during Kerr’s freshman year at the University of Arizona, his father, Malcolm, was shot dead by assassins outside his office at the American University of Beirut.

With the dark cloud of wanton gun violence growing in America, don’t expect silence.

Political statements are rarer in baseball, which theoretically remains our national pastime, although its dwindling viewership has aged toward conservatism. Even the staid Yankees — a team so steeped in tradition that they don’t even allow players to wear facial hair — and their division rival have collaborated on a singular message. Instead of posting the usual stats and score updates during their game on Thursday, both teams shared facts about gun violence to millions of followers.

When they played on Thursday, their posts on Twitter and Instagram focused entirely on the number of gun deaths in this country.

“This cannot become normal”, read another. “We cannot become numb. We can’t look away. We all know that if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Another one: “Every day more than 110 Americans are killed with guns, and more than 200 are shot and wounded.

Yankees vice president of communications Jason Zillo put the messages into perspective in a text message to my colleague David Waldstein this week. “As citizens of the world, it’s hard to process these shootings and get back to a regular routine,” Zillo said. “Overnight, we wanted to reflect and bring attention to stats that are so much more important and powerful than batting average.”

Well said. And well done.

I am one of the legions affected by armed violence: the suicide of a favorite great-uncle, the murder of a distant cousin, a baby, by a stray bullet in an inter-gang shootout. My pain swims in the same deep currents that swell across America. Together we cry. Together we decide how to react.

This week, Steve Kerr and the Yankees and Rays were there to remind us not to dive too deep into the easy distraction of sports — and that action must be taken to end this madness.

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