It is often the very first thing we are given. Moments after we are born, and our parents see us for the very first time, we are assigned a series of letters that will accompany most of us for the rest of our lives. From our initial breaths to our final moments, the syllables and spaces between become key aspects of our identities. Every person we meet, every thing we sign, every place we visit and live knows us by these characters that help build our character.
Our names. They’re all we have when all is lost. And because of that, they hold significant value.
So when the NBA announced that players would be able to replace their names on the backs of their jerseys in the Orlando bubble to help advance the Black Lives Matter movement, the importance of that choice was not lost on this writer. With every name comes a story - as personal a narrative as one can possibly carry. Most people trace their ancestry back generations - some more than others due to evils like the slave trade - finding their history intertwined with intense chapters of the American epic. Beyond this country, immigrants and emigrants find where they are from and who they are from thanks to that earliest gift from our mothers and/or fathers.
So what are NBA athletes choosing to do with this flexibility? Some have decided to stick with their names - representing those that came before them and their current family members means the world to them, understandably so. Others like Jimmy Butler are hopeful that they can make a definitive statement by not having anything in that space at the top of the back his jersey, with the message being that if he wasn’t an NBA player he would be just another black man. Another possible victim of police brutality, susceptible to the systemic racism that the Black Lives Matter is battling against.
As for the Memphis Grizzlies, there are varying thought processes. Grayson Allen has announced he will be having the word “equality” in place of his name - simple, yet powerful, as he himself stated. Anthony Tolliver is choosing to have “group economics” in place of “Tolliver” - the concept being that if players pooled their resources in underprivileged areas long-term improvements would have a better opportunity to be sustained. Justise Winslow has decided to put “speak up” on his back, while De’Anthony Melton is keeping his own name as a personal decision.
The replacement “names” also can show your history. For example, Grizzlies alum Mike Conley is going with the iconic “I am a man” from the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, showing how much of an impact the city and its history made on him. Don’t be surprised if you see more Memphis Grizzlies following suit - that phrase holds remarkable value and importance in the Memphis community, and the Grizzlies have become a civic tool in and of themselves in pursuit of social justice and education. These choices are a reflection of each player’s individuality and perspective on how to best continue the conversation nationally. From representing the work that was done to have the name they were given on their uniforms to a message to the nation and world that more must be remembered and the work is nowhere near done, the power of a name (or lack thereof) will only become more clear as the seeding games begin.
W.C. Fields once said “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” As the most impactful civil rights movement in a generation continues to grow and mature, something as simple as stitched letters are helping these men answer the call of history. Within the words and phrases placed above numbers on jerseys are threads of values and character that has been passed down from mother and father to son and daughter for decades, perhaps centuries. The moment isn’t too big, and the cause isn’t too complex for action. The time for furthering the pursuit of greater equality and opportunity for meaningful change is here - and the responses from the NBA and Grizzlies serves as inspiration that the platform will not be wasted. The risks of entering the bubble have not be taken in vain. The conversation - and spotlight’s shine on it - continues.
That is partly because the very first gift we are ever given has influence that stays with us, and those that will come after us, in more ways than we could ever imagine.