Ryan Saunders has spent a bulk of his life in the Twin Cities. He grew up while his dad, Flip, served as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team Ryan now finds himself leading in the same role.
For Saunders and his family, this is home. And that’s what has made the last few weeks even more difficult, yet extremely important, for the 34-year-old.
On Memorial Day, video was captured of George Floyd being apprehended by Minneapolis police. Nearly nine minutes later, Floyd died face down in the street at the hands of law enforcement.
Saunders, like many others around the country, was sickened by what he saw in the video. What was perhaps even more sickening for the Wolves head coach was that it was happening so close to home.
“You see that video and you are getting sick to your stomach as you watch a knee on another man’s neck. Then you see the cop car, you recognize that the uniforms look familiar and see Minneapolis PD. That hurts,” Saunders said Wednesday in a Zoom call with the media, where he and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas spent the first 50-plus minutes of the hour-and-a-half-long call talking about the death of Floyd.
“The aftermath of that, you see a lot of the community come together and there is a lot of goodness and fight in this community. Fight for each other, but also fight for what’s right,” Saunders continued. “We’ve seen that a lot over the last couple of weeks. Minnesota as a whole has shown its strength, but has also shown that we need to grow too. We need to grow and get better.”
Wolves players taking a stand
Since the death of Floyd, multiple Wolves players have stepped up to take a stand for social justice that has continued throughout the country, hitting the streets both in Minneapolis and in their hometowns to help spark change and initiate important conversations.
Players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie made an appearance at a rally at the Minneapolis City Hall a few days after Floyd’s death, and have continued to be a part of various protests in the Twin Cities since then. D’Angelo Russell has also been heavily involved in his hometown of Louisville while attending protests as well.
“It’s been incredible to see our young players grow up before our eyes. The character that Karl-Anthony Towns has shown, even in the midst of going through the darkest time in his life, to stand up for something that is incredibly important to him,” Rosas said. “To see Josh Okogie take this as personal as he has and show us how to be proactive and how to help our communities, and how to work to impact change. D’Angelo Russell in his hometown of Louisville. That’s something that has been powerful.
“This is an epidemic that involves all of us at different levels. We’re at the epicenter of it in Minneapolis and we really believe as an organization that the league and the country looks to us to see how we are going to respond and how we handle this. We take that responsibility incredibly personal.”
Immediately after the events in Minneapolis took place a few weeks ago, Rosas, Saunders and the rest of the organization began internal conversations to talk to the Minnesota players and staff about how they could use this to make an impact. It was clear that the players wanted to help in continuing the conversations of social justice and systematic racism, and the organization was in full support of those efforts.
“The NBA has always been an association that wants players and supports players to stand up for social justice and to stand up for what’s right. That’s one of the things our group has done such a great job in doing,” Saunders said. “Any initiatives and anything that has been done, for the most part has been initiated by the players. These guys are being open and honest about how they feel and how they felt. We give our players all the credit for being that open and honest and for really trying to educate each other on how we can be a part of change.”
While they are aware of the concerns surrounding COVID-19 and staying healthy while protesting, the Wolves organization has continued to stand with their players and community to support them in something they feel strongly about.
“Our city, our community and our organization are still in a tremendous amount of pain. We can’t not be sensitive to that fact,” Rosas said. “We want to be an organization that pushes positive change, and we are proud of our guys for stepping up in what they believe.”
Dedication to making a positive change
Outside of taking part in protests and rallies in recent weeks, the Wolves organization as a whole has dedicated itself to continuing the conversation to spark real positive change within the community and beyond.
The Wolves and Lynx announced shortly after Floyd’s death that it joined forces with the Minneapolis Foundation to pursue justice, equity and healing to fight racism and help unite the community moving forward. Saunders and Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve will serve as leaders on one of two advisory committees that will oversee the disbursement of the Fund for Safe Communities.
More recently, the organization also announced it is teaming up with the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks with the Team Up for Change partnership, standing in solidarity with communities across the nation to effect change in realms of social injustice, racial inequity and systemic racism.
“Through the Minneapolis Foundation, there will be a lot of conversations as to where the need is and where the most need is. Through that, we will talk to community leaders too. Developing those relationships is important to us,” Saunders said. “This isn’t something that has just happened in the last two weeks, this is something that has been happening for a long time. The shift needs to change. We will be in constant communication to help our communities. Being from here, it hits close to home because a lot of these people are who I love and have grown relationships with.”
Those are just a few of the ways the organization as a whole is committed and dedicated to trying to make a positive change both now and for years to come.
“For us, it’s keeping up the process of conversation,” Rosas said. “We need a lot of dialogue because this isn’t something you put a Band-Aid on. This is systematic change that needs to take place on all levels, because it’s unacceptable. The reality is, it’s not just about Minnesota but about our country and unfortunately our world. We have to make it a priority in our lives to make sure it’s something that is talked about and brought about and dealt with.
“For us, it’s understanding where our players are at, where our staff is at and recognizing that there’s a lot of work left ahead of us. It’s a conversation and topics that have to be dealt with. It’s not easy, it’s not a quick process, but it’s something we have to address day-to-day and come together as a country to make it a priority so we’re not back in this situation.”
For Rosas, who is the only Latino president of basketball operations in the NBA, he also hopes this tragedy will lead to more diverse front offices both in the league and in professional sports altogether.
“The opportunity to have equal opportunity for individuals is critical. Not only for representation sake, but for success,” Rosas said. “Our game of basketball is not an American game, it’s an international game and a global game. You’re cheating yourself if you don’t have diverse perspectives. I’ve been very humbled and blessed to have the opportunity I’ve been given, but I shouldn’t be the only one. I have to do my part in provide those opportunities and open those doors to help others. Not just Latinos, but people from any under-represented community.”
Like many around the country, the Wolves are dedicated to trying to make a lasting positive change within the community and in society as a whole. Although it’s unfortunate it has taken a tragic event like the death of Floyd to spark that change, it’s a start. And Minnesota wants to lead that charge moving forward.
“These tragedies, the pandemic and the tragic killing of George Floyd here in Minneapolis, they have forced our group into some real hard conversations, and they are coming together,” Rosas said. “It has rallied our group, has rallied our community and has rallied our league. That has brought us all together.
“I’m excited to see what that means once we are able to get together and work together, but to see our young guys grow up and show the leadership they are showing, and also the leadership that is coming because of it, it’s a small silver lining in a tough period and a hard time. You’re seeing the character of who our players are and what our organization is about.”