One month ago, just after the Milwaukee Bucks decided to stay in the locker room as a protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake, setting off a domino effect that put the NBA playoffs on pause, Turner NBA analyst Chris Webber went on air to share his thoughts on a historical moment. What happened was a three-minute impassioned and desperate plea for racial equality that went viral. Even if you’ve already seen it, watch again:
Yesterday, hours after Kentucky’s attorney general announced that there would be no murder charges for the three police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, GQ spoke with Webber about the NBA strike, the country’s reaction since, his collection of Black art and historical artifacts, and the Western Conference finals, which Webber is announcing for Turner Sports.
GQ: When the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play in their first-round game against the Orlando Magic, you gave a powerful monologue about marginalized communities in this country. What were you thinking before you started to speak?
Chris Webber: I have to thank Turner for the opportunity because the way that it happened, we really have great relationships at work and the producer called me and he said ‘hey I know you’re passionate about this, do you want to say something here?’ I was getting ready for the game and I didn’t know there was a stoppage. I said yeah. He said ‘you’ve gotta get here in 15 minutes’. I was like there’s no way possible. I just got out of the shower, so that’s probably why I was sweating crazy on the show, but I’m thankful that he asked me. I ran over there.
What was I thinking? I didn’t know what to think because I was just getting information and I was listening to the segment before with Chuck and Shaquille and those guys talking. So I was really just getting information piece by piece. I knew that the guys were gonna be criticized and I understand the game of narration in the sporting era, I’ve been part of it so long. I knew they weren’t gonna have any allies at the time. My parents have been involved in helping their communities, so we’ve had these conversations in my family for a long time. I understood that nobody ever plans an outburst. An outburst always comes out of pain. I just wanted to encourage them. They should use their passion to organize and hopefully there’s change.
I just felt that this was an important moment in history and after all things that were going on, this was a perfect storm, and I just wanted to encourage them.
What were you feeling as you were speaking?
I was just trying to hold back tears because a couple of times when you’re talking you think about what you’ve seen on TV and that’s the knee on George Floyd’s neck, and how long it was there. I thought about how grateful I was just to be alive. Growing up in Detroit, it was a milestone to make the age of 18. So there were just a lot of thoughts going through my head and I had to make sure I spit out every thought because you don’t want to turn anyone off or alienate anyone. I was frustrated and I’m glad people took time to listen.
At the beginning of it you say, ”I wanted to have a voice in here because I feel like we always only have a couple of voices talking during these times.” What did you mean by that?
I think it needed more context. That’s why I’m so thankful Turner gave me the opportunity because the conversation can’t be had just throwing out old remedies. Those days are over. Educated people know it. So-called uneducated people know it. Rich people know it. Poor people know it. People in salons getting thousand dollar haircuts, people at the barbershop getting $5 haircuts. Everybody is tired of the bullshit. And so I wanted to speak for those people. My son right now is 3 years old and he’s bigger than he should be, and I’m scared for him. Something has to change.
We’re talking on a day where we found out that none of the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor will be charged in her killing. I’m wondering what your reaction is to the country’s ongoing strife as it attempts to right itself?
I think the country is speaking out. I’m encouraged because I think more people are coming together than have been divided. One of the things I was frustrated with that first night was people saying ‘it’s not gonna happen overnight, it’s not gonna happen overnight!’ Well if you go on a diet you know it’s not gonna happen overnight. Is that gonna stop you from trying to lose weight? What does that mean? What I was very happy about is what happens today and tomorrow is gonna be the same for a long time. But the kid in history that will remember what [the Bucks] did, it just puts the onus on the next individual. We don’t know who it’ll inspire.
Even in the midst of all of this pain I think what guys showed the most is no matter how much money you have you feel the same pain. Hopefully that inspires empathy and sympathy in the future.
I’m very sad about the death of Breonna Taylor. I’m just turning on the news now so I don’t really know what the charges are. I want to understand more before I speak on that. I am happy with the actions from people all around the world letting others know that we need more love. It’s really that simple.
You have a platform now, but if you were a 25-year-old NBA All-Star today, how would you be using the resources they have to draw attention to this cause or affect change in any way?
I’m not sure. Everyone has the platform of Instagram and Twitter which we didn’t have then. Back then we would go into communities and do food drives. The media wouldn’t follow because it wasn’t popular then. Or we’d go and partner with churches in communities, synagogues in communities. We’d partner in the Latino community, in the Black community.
Rasheed Wallace is blowing up my phone because he needs a place to stay in Detroit and have my family cook for him. He’s just there doing things in the community. No one’s hearing about it and he’s long gone retired, but I’d just stay active in the community. I don’t know specifically, but hopefully I would listen to whatever my gut was telling me and then act on it.
If you were a player would you sit out?
Yeah. Of course. Especially because I think a majority of the players were together in that decision and I’m glad cooler heads prevailed and they came back and played. So yeah I definitely would’ve been up for it, I definitely would’ve listened, and I definitely would've come back and played like these guys are playing, to use their platform. I think they made the right decision and I just think that goes to the great leadership of the player’s union. Of course LeBron, who’s a player but more of an ambassador to basketball. And Adam Silver.
Have you rewatched your clip at all?
No I haven’t watched the whole speech, no. I’ve done interviews and they’ve played a clip but no, no, no. I, I...no. I just hate my voice [laughs]. Honestly I’m just happy my mother and my father, they said ‘baby, we loved the work.’ That was it. If they’re good with it that’s really all that matters. That meant the world to me.
Over the past 25-plus years you’ve amassed an incredible collection of Black art and historical artifacts. I read that the first item you obtained was a pair of wooden handcuffs that were used to transport enslaved people through Mississippi. You were a rookie when you bought that. What drew you to starting a collection at such a young age?
My mother is a teacher. She really wanted to share our history, who we were, what we’ve been through, and what we’ve overcome. It was never out of anger, it was almost just to say this is your secret power. These ancestors are with you. They guide you. They give you strength. I went to a very diverse high school and as many times as it takes for you to listen to your mom, you have to see your friends doing it, so I went to their houses and got to witness their history, friends whose great-grandparents went through horrific things. They kept pieces from some of their most horrific memories, but it was a celebration of those who went through that. That really sat with me in high school, understanding and being part of their family. Those that were tortured share something in common. I really just started admiring their stories.
And after calling the timeout, and being drafted number one three months later, I was infatuated with the fact of stories, inspirational stories, and I started to speak to kids about overcoming. Where you’re born doesn’t define you, your zip code doesn’t define you, the building you grew up in doesn’t define you. How better to do that then to show them live pieces of history? So I talked about Frederick Douglass to them and the heights that he reached as a former slave.
In Washington D.C. I would have members of the NAACP over. I would have members of different unions, of all types, and we would have get-togethers and parties, whether someone would bring a book and speak about it or bring an artifact and speak about it. It was people from all different nations and I got to meet some people who knew how to acquire artifacts. And one of the first artifacts was wooden handcuffs. But it was also a neck brace with a bell on it. And it’s so funny, and I thought about this when I was speaking that night on TNT, but this wooden neck brace, they used to put on the strongest, or the slave that was telling people to stand up for yourself, the loudest one, the troublemaker in their eyes. And they would sit him on the side of the road with this bell, and his neck had to stay straight up. It was an example of, if you talk too much, if you think for yourself, this will be you on the side, so it deterred people. That was one of the first things that I got.
But my favorite piece is Phillis Wheatley. It’s the first book [of poetry] ever published by an African-American woman. It’s the second book [of poetry] ever published by a woman. I loved taking it to schools. I’d go to a class room and tell the story of Phillis Weatley, and how she had to read paragraphs to John Hancock because he didn’t believe a woman, especially a Black woman, had enough intelligence to write this. Then we’d talk to girls about how strong and how resilient this woman was. Then we’d talk with the boys about how messed up it was what she went through and how unfair it was. Her book and James Brown’s suits always impress when I take them out on exhibitions and speak.
Did you say James Brown suits?
Oh yeah. [laughs] His daughter Yamma Brown, actually we were at my charity event and they auctioned it off and I just had to have that. So I have the suit along with his handwritten song ““Staying Power.” And even something so simple as showing kids messy handwriting, Martin Luther King’s autograph, James Brown’s writing, it lets them know ‘oh they’re just like me.’
It’s really hard to be something if you can’t see it or just imagine it for a second. And when I take that book and the girl that is scared or that fella that’s scared to be a writer, they at least want to be writers for a little bit longer, or write raps, or they get into that type of thing. Or when we show other pieces about what people overcame, it just allows them to see themselves inside a story of overcoming, and that for me is the coolest thing.
How large is your collection today?
I don’t know if it’s that large. I would say maybe 25 pieces or so? Smaller pieces and things like that. Right now it’s at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit and [the Crocker Art Museum] in Sacramento. I’m actually donating a piece to the Smithsonian pretty soon. I used to store it at my house until friends encouraged me to take it out: ‘Maybe you should have an exhibit in a museum or take it out to schools and speak.’
Do you still add to it?
I’m in the rabbit hole right now researching the last few years. I’m sure I will [add to it] again but it's been more of a personal journey for me as of late. And it can be depressing, having a 100-pound ball of stone cemented in handcuffs at your house with two 3-year-olds running around, so I don’t know how much I’m gonna do for a while.
You also have an original postcard that Malcolm X wrote to Alex Haley, right?
I know I said Phillis and James Brown, but that is my favorite piece just because growing up we saw shows like “Eyes On The Prize” and “Roots,” and things like that. What’s really cool about this postcard is when Malcolm X went to Mecca and Alex Haley was writing his autobiography, this is when he sent the postcard back. When Malcolm X came back from Mecca he was a changed man. He basically saw people of all colors worshipping, so it was an opening of his knowledge that he talks about. So that’s really cool, that this was sent during an awakening in his life. And it’s not funny, but it’s funny. Some of the saddest things are funny: It’s a monkey on the postcard clapping symbols and, I’m paraphrasing, it said ‘Alex, dear brother, it’s messed up after all these years this monkey gets more respect than a Black man in America’.
It’s really cool to have a personal, personal, personal, note from him. There’s nothing politically correct. It’s just the cold truth and humor. I love that piece so much. I took that to Ruby Dee’s house, the great actress, and I got to talk to her, shared that with her, and she shared stories of her with Malcolm. That’s a really cool piece and hopefully one day my son will appreciate it.
I want to quickly talk about the Western Conference Finals, which you’re calling. I spoke with Bill Walton recently about Nikola Jokic, and I’m also wondering, as a great passer yourself, what do you see and appreciate when you watch him that regular people might not be able to?
Man—couple of things. One, that he wants to do it. You have to want to be a good passer. If you’re not, if you’re a bad defender or something else, you know you get criticized for it, but if you’re not a good passer and a selfish player, you don't get criticized for that. And so one that he’s being selfless and he’s making his teammates better. And when I say making them better, he knows their cadence and their rhythm. So if a guy is 0-2 and he can’t get his own shot, then [Jokic] is thinking ‘I’m gonna get this guy a shot right where I want him to get it because I know he can make it from this spot.’
And what people don’t see is the wink he gets from a teammate that says ‘man, thank you so much because my game was off tonight.’ Or the fact that the team’s shooting percentage is better because of him. Or the fact that the locker room is better, because you can’t complain, because he’s gonna give you the ball. So if you go 0-for-4 or 0-for-5, you can’t blame the system. You can never blame a system with a guy like that. You can’t blame the system with LeBron or Nash or Magic.
I was recently doing some research about LeBron, and it took me back to the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals…
I’m sure people ask you about that series and that 48-point Game 5. When you saw that up close, did it feel like LeBron was going to own the league for as long as he has? Is there anything special from that night that sticks with you today?
I felt that way the first time I saw him play when I was in Sacramento. I was hurt and had a courtside seat. I knew the very first time I saw him that he was gonna be great. But he would be lying to you if he knew 17 years later he’d be this bad of a man, because we haven’t seen it before. I’ve really never seen anything like what he does and how great of a player he is. He’s Magic and Michael combined. The fact that he really knew the game, that’s what really impressed me the most. So I definitely knew it was something special. He scored 25 in a row. Of course you’re walking out of that game cussing him out, ‘that son of a….’ He’s real good. But what great player did anyone think would be great this long? 17 [seasons]? Come on. It’s ridiculous what he’s doing. I don’t even think it was fathomable at that time. I didn't know and I don’t think he did either.
How do you prepare for the games you call? What do you read? Who do you talk to? Are you looking up statistics? How much basketball do you watch?
I definitely watch games, especially with my time working with NBA TV. I have scouts send me their scouting reports. I have teams send me their scouting reports. I talk to players while I’m watching the game, ask them how they guard this guy, what the best move is this guy has, what most people don’t know about his game. I talk to high-school coaches. I just love the game of ball and I’m still part of it on a certain level. Most importantly, there's nothing like watching film to make your own evaluation. I mostly watch film.
I love the beat writers, they’re great. But you have to read through the fog sometime. I don’t get caught up in the PR that the team is trying to send. I just try to come from a place of innocence each time and basically all my research is not necessarily what their hype man or their flava flav is trying to get me to say. So I just try to keep it really simple and do as much research as I can.
Originally Appeared on GQ