It’s been six months since the death of George Floyd.
Many Americans have used the days since to advocate for social justice, including Duke men’s basketball players, coaches and others in the program.
There are a million reasons to talk about the talent of the 2020-21 Blue Devils. But this offseason, none of those storylines have been what first comes to mind when people think of Duke men’s basketball.
Take Henry Coleman III, the No. 54 recruit in the incoming class. His Blue Devil teammates liken his athleticism and towering physical stature to former Duke phenom Zion Williamson, but Coleman has become better known for being powerful in a completely different sense.
The Virginia native approached a single microphone during an August Black Lives Matter protest in Krzyzewskiville. He sported a black T-shirt with the words “Black Lives Matter” across the front, accompanied by Duke basketball and Nike logos.
In the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Coleman made himself a Duke legend before he had even notched a minute of playing time in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“This country has had its knee on the necks of African-Americans for too long,” Coleman said at the protest. “This country has put a dagger in our backs and is yet to even acknowledge the dagger, let alone try to pull it out.”
As Coleman continued, the entire Duke men’s basketball team came up behind him. When the raw emotion caused Coleman to get choked up, fellow freshmen Jaemyn Brakefield and Mark Williams placed a hand on each of his shoulders, a sign that even though this team had been together for less than a month at the time, unbreakable bonds had already formed.
“When those guys came up behind me, it was almost like a security blanket,” Coleman said in an August press conference. “I just felt like those guys around me—they felt the message with me.”
Coleman wrote his speech the night before the rally, the same night the NBA opted to not play its scheduled playoff games in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting. As the professional sports world assessed the best steps to take for social justice, Nolan Smith, Duke men’s basketball’s director of operations, was doing the same.
Coleman’s platform for the speech was possible due to the work of Smith in setting up the Krzyzewskiville protest. At the protest, Smith took the microphone first and talked about the importance of making sure that “this is not a moment, this is a movement.”
While that August afternoon may have been Smith’s most visible act of social justice, he made himself busy over the following few months as well.
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Since that day, Smith has been on numerous talk shows spreading his message, organized additional protests in the community and was at the forefront of voter registration efforts.
“We have a lot of amazing fans that get it, that see it, that want the same thing that we all want as a country. We love y’all,” Smith said on an @DukeNBA Twitter live. “And to the people that don’t get it, guess what? We still love y’all. We just hope that you listen sooner rather than later, because love wins.”
Smith’s activism is showing no signs of stopping. At the beginning of November, he partnered with Vote Riders to issue a Twitter video educating North Carolina residents how to make sure their votes were counted.
He earned the nickname “People’s Champ” during his playing days at Duke, but ironically the nickname fits him even better in this new chapter of his life.
He’s been recognized two separate times for his community leadership, being named the Tar Heel of the Month for October by the Raleigh News and Observer and a George H.W. Bush Point of Lights Inspiration recipient.
But Smith surely isn’t the only Duke coach to put a spotlight on the social justice movement.
In June, Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski put out a Twitter video that caught the attention of the entire country. Krzyzewski stood in a dimly lit room, wearing a United States Olympic team polo, as he spoke.
“Black Lives Matter. Say it. Can’t you say it? Black Lives Matter. We should be saying it everyday,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not political. This is not a political statement. It’s a human right’s statement.”
That short video blew up not just on social media but across national news outlets, becoming the official Duke men’s basketball Twitter account’s most-viewed video ever.
The 73-year-old even partook in a growing social media trend, as Boston Celtics forward and former Duke star Jayson Tatum challenged Krzyzewski to be a part of his “starting five,” a movement started by When We All Vote. The premise of the challenge was that once Krzyzewski registered to vote, he would be a part of Tatum’s starting five, but then Krzyzewski had to get five other people to be a part of his own.
The West Point graduate bent the rules for the greater good, challenging the entire Duke Brotherhood to be a part of his starting five.
In addition to Coleman, Smith and Krzyzewski, a number of other players and coaches on the roster have been outspoken in advocating for racial equality, leading to one new addition to Duke’s jerseys. Below the number on every players’ jersey is the word “Equality,” and it will remain there for the entire season.
“I believe [equality is] what we all are striving for,” associate head coach Nate James said in a recent press conference. “We want to live the American dream, have an opportunity to achieve whatever amount of success and opportunities that the next man has.”
“Equality—I think everyone will understand it, and I think if you don’t understand someone’s acts [supporting] equality you have to take a long look in the mirror and do some self-reflection.”
It’s been a true team effort pushing for equality, with other players such as senior Mike Buckmire and sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. taking on significant roles as social justice advocates as well.
Although the start of the college basketball season is less than two weeks away, it’s clear that social justice will still be on the forefront for every member of the Duke men’s basketball program. But that’s nothing new in the world of sports.
Professional athletes have long been at the forefront of social justice movements, but this latest chapter is seeing college athletes be more vocal than ever before.
My parents told me always just to use my platform,” Coleman said. “I built this platform. They always tell me, 'You wouldn't build a house and not sleep in it,' and so I just have to use this platform to continue to talk."
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.