There would be no stops for food or bathroom breaks until they drove through Mississippi and Alabama.
Jaylon Hall remembers that directive he and his teammates – most of them fifth and sixth graders – got from their AAU coach and the chaperoning parents as they made their way from Houston to a basketball tournament in Florida.
“Those are two states in the South where you could run into a problem with 12 young African American boys running around just being kids,” Hall said. “It was the same once we got to the hotel. Now I understand why the parents kept an eye on us. They knew what could happen.”
Hall said he has several stories from childhood that he knows few, if any, of his Wright State teammates have.
He shared another tale – one he doesn’t want to go into detail here – about a time he and his brother, both of them 10 or 11, were walking through a neighborhood and were confronted in an Ahmaud Arbery situation by an adult, though harsh words, not a gun, were the weapon then.
In these times of nationwide social unrest, many people – black and white – are demanding that “Black Lives Matter” isn’t treated as just a slogan, but as a way of life and a human decency matter for everyone.
Hall’s stories have a special resonance now.
He grew up in Houston, the same city where George Floyd did a generation earlier. Floyd was a noted athlete as well and Hall said his father believes he played against Floyd in high school.
As the whole world now knows, the unarmed and handcuffed 46-year-old Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis policeman – since fired and charged with murder – who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he lay on his stomach, gasping for breath, pleading for his life and, in his final moments of consciousness, calling his mother’s name.
Once Hall reached high school – after his parents had divorced and life became especially difficult – he moved to Louisville to live with his cousin, Tony Williams, once a University of Louisville basketball star and longtime pro who was a high school coach.
As he became a hoops standout, Hall also became friends with the sister of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was killed by police as she slept in her home March 13. Cops in street clothes executed a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night and burst through the front door looking for drugs, although there were none.
Taylor’s boyfriend, thinking it was a home invasion, fired a registered weapon once and police responded with at least 20 rounds, eight hitting Taylor.
Once the unflinching video of Floyd’s murder stoked national outrage, Taylor’s death drew renewed interest and large protests began in Louisville. Within a few days a second person, 53-year-old David McAtee, was shot and killed at his popular BBQ shack by Kentucky National Guardsmen.
All this has weighed heavily on Hall and he brought it up to Wright State coach Scott Nagy when the two spoke recently.
“As we talked I could tell it was really bothering Coach like it was bothering me. He got real emotional,” said Hall. “Me and Coach had a real touching moment there.”
Hall said a day later the Raiders had one of their team meetings, via Zoom, they’ve been having during the COVID-19 outbreak:
“We all thought it was just going to be another meeting, but then Coach switched the whole situation and opened the floor for people to talk about (the unrest.)”
Thursday Nagy explained that decision: “I didn’t want to bury my head to the things going on. And they’re certainly relevant in our case. We have several different people, different cultures represented on our team.
“We need to listen to each other. I need to listen. I’m a 54-year-old guy with a lot of experiences and I’m not that teachable at this point in my life. But when it comes to this subject, my experiences have been different and I just needed to listen to someone else.”
When the floor was left open, Hall said no one spoke at first:
“I knew the white players weren’t going to start the conversation and none of the coaches were either, so I finally just felt I had to take the initiative and start the conversation.
“I didn’t feel ashamed or nervous or rattled. This was about my culture, my history, my bloodline. I didn’t feel I should hold anything back. It was a sensitive subject, but I was explaining my pain.”
‘You can’t turn it off’
A 6-foot-5 redshirt junior, Hall has had some stellar outings for the Raiders.
He scored 17 points and had seven rebounds against the Miami RedHawks at a Florida tournament last November. He has scored 16 against both Oakland and Youngstown State and had 15 a half dozen times more
But his Zoom performance eclipsed all those efforts.
He spoke from his heart…and his hurt.
“It just infuriates me,” he said of the continued killings of unarmed blacks by police. “There’s no reason for you to kill someone who is defenseless.”
The fear, the distrust, the hatred – some of the many tenets of racism – are something, in varying degrees, all blacks deal with, said Hall:
“In our daily lives it just never stops. It’s continuous and you can’t turn it off. But when you get to a point where you’re just about to break, you can’t.“
As he was growing up, he said his dad spoke to him about staying safe when racially profiled: “He talked to me about everything from wearing a hoodie to what to do if I was stopped when I was old enough to drive.”
Now that he’s a college student, he said he and other black athletes still feel challenges that white teammates don’t face: “We aren’t just dealing with our teachers and our coaches, we our fighting our way through society.
“I feel my teammates understand some aspects of it – and they do care – but they don’t understand the extent and severity of what we face. They don’t know the emotional aspect of it and how it makes us feel.”
‘You’ve just got to speak up’
While several big-time college coaches have gone on social media to make statements about their understanding and solidarity with the issues being raised, that’s as far as it gets for some of them.
“Some people feel they have to put out a statement, but I told my guys, ‘You’re not going to see much from me on social media,’” Nagy said. “I’d rather deal with people directly.
“Anybody can put out anything on social media and make it look like: ‘This is what I really believe.’ And I’m not saying that’s not what they think. But it’s how you really operate that says the most.”
Nagy’s more about action than public pronouncement. You see that when he and his team conduct their annual foot washings and shoe giveaways to the needy in Dayton or when he’s taken his teams on Good Samaritan trips to work alongside people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
But this situation was a little different for him:
“I wanted to talk to our guys who are struggling and let them know I’m listening. I told them, ‘There might be things we agree on and others we disagree on, but I don’t care at this point.’ I just wanted them to know I love them and support them.”
Hall sensed that when they spoke privately and he now hopes similar bonds develop all across our society:
“I think it’s finally a stand for us and it’s not going to stop. It’s hard for stuff to just go away now. Not when you wake up to it on Twitter every morning. You see how things are changing. And we deserve a change.”
For him, he believes it will start, in part, with his teammates, many of whom reached out to him after their meeting:
“When we were on Zoom, I could look into some of their eyes and see it was hitting them. And I take them at their word and believe if they see something wrong, they will say something. They have the power and the influence to help change things.
“You’ve just got to speak up.”
Just like he did.
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