The idea came to Michael Malone late one night last week.
Cooped up in his Walt Disney World hotel room, Malone mused about the different ways the Nuggets could continue to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement as the NBA’s return to play picked up steam.
His mind turned to Elijah McClain.
On August 24, 2019 in Aurora, Colorado, McClain, a 23-year-old Black man, was walking home from a convenience store when someone called 911 saying he was “being suspicious” and was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms. Once on the scene, police said McClain refused to stop walking and fought back when he was confronted. Officers struggled to handcuff McClain and used a now-banned carotid hold to pin him to the ground. When medical responders arrived, paramedics injected him with ketamine and on the way to the hospital McClain went into cardiac arrest. He died a few days later.
The incident happened in the Nuggets’ backyard, and while protests over McClain’s death have continued throughout Denver over the last several weeks, Malone wanted to do his part in keeping the conversation going while in Orlando. Denver’s coach thought t-shirts with the message “Justice for Elijah McClain” would be an effective way to continue to raise awareness and fight for justice in his death.
Malone took it upon himself to reach out to McClain family lawyer Mari Newman to ensure that the Nuggets had the family’s blessing to print the shirts. Newman spoke to Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, who was fully supportive of Malone’s idea. Soon, Nuggets staffers were in talks with a Denver company about printing the shirts for their players and coaches. The shirts were then shipped overnight to Disney World in time for Denver’s opening seeding game Saturday against the Miami Heat.
“The message is pretty point blank,” Malone said. “We’re all hoping and asking and demanding justice in the killing of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado.”
Several players and coaches wore the shirts to the arena and Malone donned one during his pregame and postgame media sessions. According to a source, the Nuggets at one point had hoped to wear the shirts during the National Anthem but the league wouldn’t allow it. The NBA has fairly strict rules on what teams can and can’t wear on the court during warmups and the game.
“I feel like everybody’s happy basketball is back, but we’re really playing for the things going on in this world. I think that should be the biggest focus,” Monte Morris said. “… Denver may not be where we grew up at but it’s our hometown right now and that’s who we play for.”
When the NBA and National Basketball Player’s Association hatched plans to continue the season, they did so by declaring that continuing to discuss and fight systemic racism will be a focal point while in Orlando. The Nuggets have done their part.
President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly ordered face masks with phrases like “Vote” and “Time 4 Change” that the team has worn while at Disney World. After the Nuggets’ June 15 practice, Jerami Grant dedicated his entire media Zoom session to Breonna Taylor’s death.
Malone specifically has walked the walk. In June, Denver’s coach helped lead a virtual town hall with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock around how the team can utilize its platform to create lasting and meaningful change. And while inside the NBA bubble, Malone on more than one occasion used his Zoom conference with the media to discuss a past racial injustice that occurred in the United States by referencing the Equal Justice Initiative’s A History of Racial Injustice calendar.
On Altitude TV’s broadcast of a Nuggets scrimmage last week, Hancock lauded Malone’s efforts.
“They’ve got a head coach on that bench who is one of the most learned, engaged, socially conscious dudes I’ve ever met in sports,” Hancock said. “That dude blew me away.”
Malone and the Nuggets are also continuing to talk with I Am A Voter, a nonpartisan organization that according to its website “aims to create a cultural shift around voting and civic engagement by unifying around a central truth: our democracy works best when we all participate.” The Nuggets hope to eventually film PSA’s with the group.
As for the shirt’s, they’re not one and done. Expect to see Malone and potentially other Nuggets personnel wearing them in future Zoom calls and to and from games as the Nuggets intend to do their part in keeping the fight against systemic racism alive during the NBA restart.
It’s a tall order for a team that’s endured a shaky first month at Disney World and has its sights still set on a deep playoff run. But the Nuggets seem up to the challenge.
“We just want to raise the awareness,” said Torrey Craig. “Obviously, it hits closer to us because it’s in our home state. So we just wanted to voice it and let people see that we’re supporting his family and seeking justice.”