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By Marcus Smart

 

When 2020 kicked off, if you’d told me about everything that was about to go down this year, and then said that I’d spend several months pretty much locked inside a bubble in the middle of Florida….

I would’ve thought you were absolutely insane.

I mean, are you kidding me?

No way I would’ve believed that.

And look, when it actually happened, yes absolutely I was dreading living inside that damn bubble as much as anyone.

No family? No outside friends? No … home-cooked meals?

Umm….

I was totally ready for it to suck, I’m not gonna lie. But you know what?

The bubble, it actually turned out to be … pretty damn great.

Not the food, necessarily, or the atmosphere, or us not winning the whole thing in the end, but just the actual bubble part of it — the quiet.

I wasn’t expecting it, but after only four or five days down in Orlando, I realized that the bubble was a blessing, because it gave me the opportunity for some genuine downtime. Lots of stuff I had to worry about before — family drama, promotional stuff, places I had to be at such and such time — that was all out the window. I could actually just sit there alone and….

Think!

And it may sound corny or whatever, but over those few months I was really able to step back and take some time to learn more about myself — what I truly care about, what matters most to me.

Family, great friends, basketball, that stuff was on my mind, of course. But I also thought a lot about this moment we’re all living through right now. About my experience with COVID-19, the pandemic as a whole, and the ongoing movement for racial justice in this country — about how all those things overlapped.

And where we go from here.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

For starters, my experience with the coronavirus was definitely one for the books.

Exactly five days before the league shut things down, we just happened to play Rudy Gobert and the Jazz … and my girlfriend threw a surprise birthday party for me with all of my teammates present.

So when the news came down about the shutdown, and about everyone in the league getting tested, I already had a bad feeling. Between that Jazz game and my party, it was like … Our whole team is gonna test positive. And to top it off, the kicker was that we were in Milwaukee at that point. Staying in … yep, you guessed it … that creepy-ass haunted hotel they have there.

Now not only is the season on hold, not only might our whole team have the coronavirus because we’d all hung out at my birthday party, but also … we have to quarantine and spend an extra night in what is basically a haunted house from Scooby-Doo.

When the news came down about the shutdown, and about everyone in the league getting tested, I already had a bad feeling.

When we finally made it back to Boston and got tested, none of us had any symptoms, but I figured bad news was coming for us.

Then one morning my phone buzzes. It’s a text from our team physician.

“Hey, Marcus. Can we talk?”

I knew right away what he was gonna tell me.

I felt fine, though, so I was completely confident that I would beat the virus. I wasn’t scared. I was ready for it.

What I wasn’t ready for was … our doctor calling me up and telling me that I was the only damn person on the whole team who tested positive.

Literally.

The. Only. One.

Out of all of us – players and coaches and managers and … everyone.

Just Marcus is positive?

Like….

Excuse me?

Jim Poorten/NBAE/Getty Images

Not too long after that, my dad called me up from Texas and told me that he had tested positive, too. And at that point, I’m not gonna lie: That had me frightened.

My dad is 74. He has a long history of respiratory issues, including six or seven bouts with walking pneumonia over the years. Everything we’d read about COVID-19 just seemed so bleak for someone his age, with his medical history.

My whole family was expecting the worst, waiting for it. And then….

My dad experienced no symptoms with the virus. None. He’s been doing great.

It was an absolute blessing.

Everything we’d read about COVID-19 just seemed so bleak for someone his age, with his medical history.

But everything that’s happened with me and my dad has also just been really confusing and tough to fully understand. There are thousands and thousands of people in this country my dad’s age who have passed away from this virus. Shoot, there are lots and lots of people my age who have died.

You just never know with this thing, basically. So much of what we’re dealing with still seems like a mystery.

One thing we do know for certain, though, is that this battle is bigger than any individual. It’s about all of us.

So when I heard that my plasma and antibodies could be used to help others whose immune systems had been compromised — and could potentially save lives — I jumped at the opportunity to help out. And as we began to learn more about how this virus was attacking people, I knew that I had to speak up and do my best to make sure people in my age group (millennials) were taking this seriously. The last thing we needed was for people to assume that because they felt O.K. there was no need to take precautions.

Then, when it became clear that African-Americans and other people of color were being hit hardest — right around the time when peaceful protesters all across the country marched through the streets to voice their outrage at the murder of George Floyd and to push for racial justice — it couldn’t have been more clear to me that we’re living in a pivotal moment in history.

It was like, Here we are out here standing up for our rights, and at the same time there’s a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic out here killing Black and brown people at higher rates than everyone else.

There was no way I was gonna just sit idly by and let this moment pass.

I’m too close to this. It means too much to me.

Courtesy of Marcus Smart

Me and discrimination, me and racial profiling … we go way back.

We’ve got history.

As a kid back home in Texas, I was followed by sales associates in stores and called derogatory names more times than I can count. When I was a sophomore at Oklahoma State, a fan decided that it was perfectly O.K. for him to call me the n-word after I fell into the seats during a game.

When I got to the league in 2014, the racism didn’t stop.

My rookie year, I bought a new Range Rover, and, knowing what I know about traffic stops in this country, I made damn sure that the tint on the windows was legal. Somehow, though … I just kept getting pulled over for my tint.

One time it was like, “This is a pretty nice car. Pretty expensive. It’s yours????”

Another time, I get pulled over for the tint again, and the officer recognizes who I am. So for whatever reason he starts going in on Colin Kaepernick.

“I can’t believe that guy would actually kneel like that during the anthem,” he tells me. “Can you believe that? I’m just really glad you’re not like that guy. Right? You’re not one of them.”

I was terrified hearing that.

I felt like that officer was looking for me to challenge him, or to respond in a way that would allow him to take some action against me. I basically just kept quiet, hoped for the best, and asked, again and again, “Is that all, officer?”

A year or so later, I got pulled over for speeding and it was just … more of the same.

“Nice ride. Are you a rapper or something?”

And then….

“No, you speak too well to be a rapper.”

Me and discrimination, me and racial profiling … we go way back.

I could go on, I’m sad to say.

There are several more, including stuff that’s happened right inside NBA arenas.

But the incident that has stuck with me the most, and that’s had the biggest impact on me, occurred a few years back after a victory at the Garden.

I was pulling out of the arena parking lot when I saw a white woman with her five- or six-year-old son crossing against the light right as the cars were starting to come at them. I had my windows down and realized something bad was about to happen, so I yelled to her, politely, that she needed to hurry and get out of the street so the two of them wouldn’t get hurt.

The woman was wearing an Isaiah Thomas number 4 Celts jersey. And there were all these other Celtics fans around who were at the game. I figured she’d be cool.

Nope.

She swung her head around and it was….

“F*** you, you f***ing n-word!!!!”

The incident that has stuck with me the most, and that’s had the biggest impact on me, occurred a few years back after a victory at the Garden.

For a second it was like I couldn’t breathe.

Did she really say that?

And in an instant, just like that, I was made to feel less than human.

I wasn’t a person to this woman. I was a form of entertainment. Nothing more. And, believe me, it took every ounce of restraint in my body not to curse her out.

A few seconds later, I drove off. I just wanted it to be over.

But I think about that night, that moment, a lot. And more than anything else, I think about….

That little boy.

David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

I think about that kid all the time — and, honestly, now more than ever.

Everything about that experience makes me so sad for him.

I mean, to openly spew hate like that? In front of a child?

It just reminds me that racism is not something you’re born with. It’s taught.

And the fact that people are actually out there teaching their kids — through their words and actions — how to be racist … that truly breaks my heart.

Dozens of times since that run-in, I’ve prayed for that child who was clutching his mom’s hand that night. For his future. And for all the kids out there being brought up to hate rather than to love.

No kid should be exposed to that. Our children deserve better.

They’re our future — the ones who are gonna decide how things go from here on out.

I mean, to openly spew hate like that? In front of a child? It just reminds me that racism is not something you’re born with. It’s taught.

Which gets me to the main thing I want to say here. What I want to leave you with.

Despite everything we’ve been through this year — all of it, as ugly as it’s been — I still have a ton of hope for the future of this country. And I can tell you straight up that it’s the kids who have me most hopeful right now.

It’s the kids who have me … optimistic.

Still.

I’m still very optimistic about our future.

When I got cleared by doctors and was coronavirus-free, one of the first things I did was get to marching in Boston. I wanted to join the people out there doing all they could to speak out against injustice and hatred and police brutality – folks looking to ensure the future of our country is better than its past.

And what I saw was awe-inspiring.

It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. A multitude of races and ethnicities and age groups and just … people of compassion coming together. It was a beautiful thing. And it brought tears to my eyes. It really did show how powerful we can be, and what we can achieve, if we could all just get it together.

I feel like the pandemic, and this past year in general, really has exposed the fact that there is a lot within this country, within the world, that could use some rethinking. But, you better believe that it’s also shown that when the right people come together, and put aside our differences for the sake of progress and justice, we can be a truly powerful force for good.

And, more than anything else, the one thing that has really helped to lift me up and keep me hopeful is….

These kids.

Jabin Botsford/Wash. Post/Getty Images

I’ve seen so many kids with their parents out at rallies — marching, chanting, holding up homemade signs.

And I’m telling you, these young ones … they get it.

They understand that love is better than hate, that innocent people should not be hurt or killed, that fairness and equality should be a given within our society, and that we’re all in this together.

It’s 12-year-olds and five-year-olds, and high school kids, and, in some cases … toddlers. No joke. There are woke-ass toddlers out there right now.

It’s awesome!

It makes me smile just thinking about those kids, and what they’re bound to accomplish for our country in the coming years. I’m inspired by what they’re doing — how they’re not just out there, they’re actually helping to lead — and where they’re going to take this country down the line.

We’ve put in some good work at this point, and won some people over, and we’ve gotten some new regulations passed in some cases. But this is really only just the beginning. There is so much more to be done.

This is like when you play a seven-game series, you know what I mean? You’re not going to be clapping because you won the first game. You keep your eyes on the prize.

And when I think about who’s gonna be getting the ball in crunch time down the line, in the future.

It’s gonna be those kids.

And in my heart of hearts, I truly believe that … they got this!

Because of them….

I have hope.