Civil unrest, not buckets and boards, at the forefront for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Tad Boyle looks to guide his mostly-black squad through turbulent times

Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – Jan. 2, 2020: University of Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV is congratulated by a teammate after scoring in the second half during a PAC 12 game against the University of Oregon on Thursday at the Coors Event Center on the CU campus in Boulder. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

There is absolutely nothing in the coaching playbook that prepared Tad Boyle for the conversation he shared with an emotionally drained and distraught McKinley Wright IV earlier this week.

Wright might have been in Boulder, yet the heart of the Colorado’s standout point guard remained back in his hometown of North Robbinsdale, Minn., less than 15 miles northwest of Minneapolis. That city has been the epicenter of the civil unrest erupting throughout the nation following last week’s killing of George Floyd, a black man whose life was extinguished when a white, now-former police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into the back of Floyd’s prone neck for nearly nine minutes.

On Wednesday, Minnesota officials increased the charges against Chauvin from third degree murder to second degree murder, while also announcing charges against the other three officers involved in the incident. Wright has used his Twitter account to express his grief and consternation, as has several of his teammates. Boyle said there was a team-wide Zoom meeting scheduled for Tuesday night, when the Buffaloes planned to not only vent their frustrations, but to start formulating ideas on how to address the social issues once the team has fully reconvened in Boulder later this month.

“McKinley is actually back in town here for a few days, and we actually got together (Monday) and we talked about it,” Boyle said. “It’s hit him hard obviously because he’s from Minneapolis and that’s his city. It’s hard when you’re apart to reach out to 15 guys when something like this happens, but (Zoom) is the best we have right now. So we’re going to do it and talk about it and let them speak to things and let them get some things off their chest.

“Most importantly for me, what I want to do is talk about what we can do as a group or a team or a program — whether it’s internally, whether it’s externally — to feel like we’re making a difference. And then just talk. I think that’s what you have to do when thing like this happen. You have to get things off your chest. I know our players are feeling a different range of emotions, as we all are.”

Boyle released an impassioned video statement through the team’s social media sites on Tuesday, as has prominent members of his team over the past week. Evan Battey, the son of a Los Angeles Police Department corrections officer, mentioned in one post his own badge-wielding father warned him while growing up to be wary of the police. Colorado Springs native D’Shawn Schwartz, the son of mixed race parents, posted an emotional thread on Monday that included the declaration, “I am more than proud to be black and hope to see the day where people of color will be treated with the utmost respect, equality, and justice.”

It has been a week that has put the Buffs’ disappointment at having their NCAA Tournament appearance canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic into a much different perspective.

“I just feel for every black person in America,” said Battey, who planned to attend a peaceful protest in Los Angeles on Monday. “You have to be black to understand it fully, but it’s a sad thing when we’re being murdered by people who are supposed to be protecting us. Where do we go? How do we win, in that sense, if we can’t be protected by them? As a black person in my community, I resonate with the protestors. I don’t agree with the looters, but I agree with the protestors. It’s something  to protest about. I side with them and there’s just so much built-up frustration.”

Battey also addressed the issue of being part of a popular, predominantly black team that plays in a predominantly white city. Following the cancellation of the basketball season in March, Battey went home to attend the funeral of a close friend’s mother and has been in southern California ever since. When Battey returns to Boulder in two weeks, these simmering social issues are likely to be a bigger topic of conversation and action than beginning the team’s drive toward a 2021 NCAA tourney berth.

Colorado’s Evan Battey returns to the game after returning from the locker room after the collision with Stanford’s Oscar Da Silva during the February 8, 2020 Pac-12 game in Boulder.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“I’ve always felt comfortable on campus because of all the love I get,” Battey said. “At the same time, not every black person is me. Not every black athlete is me. A lot of black athletes, they’re not known as much as they should, for whatever reason. That fact is a little bit worrying for me now, because if you don’t recognize them as an athlete in the Boulder community, they might be recognized as a criminal. There’s a lot of us. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s all a scary thought.”

Boyle weathered a similar issue with his club years ago when the kneeling-during-the national anthem protests of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick against police brutality toward minorities reached a peak. The killing of Floyd has touched off a much more fervent powder keg of emotions across the country, and many of the CU players who were youngsters when the Kaepernick protests climaxed will be seniors in 2020-21. Boyle believes their world view has expanded accordingly.

“When the Colin Kaepernick situation happened, those guys — McKinley and D’Shawn and Dallas (Walton) — they were all freshmen,” Boyle said. “Freshmen might react differently or think differently, or may be less likely to speak out, than when they’re juniors and seniors. And my conversation with McKinley (on Monday) was heartwarming because it was on a different level than it was three years ago when he was a freshman. That’s one of the reasons I love coaching. You see young men like that develop in more ways than just in the weight room or on the basketball court.”