Faith, Social Justice, and the NBA Bubble: Coaches & Players Speak Up

Writer: Charlie Lapastora

Phoenix Suns’ Head Coach Monty Williams

With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting operations down across the world, impacting people’s jobs, health, well-being — it also included professional sports in the United States. Leagues like the NBA came to a sudden halt, as they were the first of the four major sports leagues in the U.S. to put their sport on hold after Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020. That was until months later negotiations between league commissioners, owners, and players started to ramp up, along with conversations with medical professionals, in how to get back to the field or in the NBA’s case — the court — safely.

After months, and a lot of life lessons during quarantine, a plan was put in place for basketball to start its season back up with all eyes on Orlando. Play in a bubble, with testing, masks, social distanced chairs instead of a regular “bench-type” set-up on the court, disinfecting, ZOOM calls with the press, and then the catch — there’d be only 22 of the 30 NBA teams participating for a shot at the playoffs.

Enter the Phoenix Suns. If you were a bettin’ man or woman, you wouldn’t bet our bottom dollar on the Suns entering the playoffs. They were the last team possible that barely snuck in to be the 22nd team, coming into the bubble with a 26-39 record. They were counted out like there was no tomorrow. Yet, if you were the Phoenix Suns and the man behind the helm, head coach Monty Williams, you weren’t listening to all that. As a matter of fact, his team wanted to make some noise and Williams thought this to be a perfect setup for them. Teams all in one location. Extra training camp time. Weeks for his team to bond and develop even more chemistry off the court.

Risen talked with Coach Williams about those topics and more including his All-Star Phoenix Suns player Devin Booker and his FIBA gold-medalist with Spain point guard Ricky Rubio about playing in the bubble. We also talk to Suns’ GM and former teammate of LeBron James, James Jones, who addresses Black Lives Matter, being implemented in the bubble, and the social unrest. Coach Williams shares faith and the team shocking the world. The Suns went undefeated with eight wins and zero losses, proving the doubters wrong. Coach Williams showed his players a documentary to educate what’s going on in our society with all the racial unrest, and most importantly, he shined the light on Jesus Christ.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Sports brings people together. What could this quarantine time do for teams playing in this bubble, and for our society to still be able to have sports during a crazy time.

Monty Williams: The one thing that’s been on my mind is just being here. I’ve watched the people in the hotels, I’ve watched the security people, I’ve watched the people that are preparing our food, and people that are behind the scenes. They get a chance to work. And I think that the players have to realize that they get a chance to be a part of that process. Yes, sports is healing and unifying. But, sports also provides jobs for more than just players and coaches. And there’s a ton of people behind the scenes that could sustain their financial situation, could pull themselves out of debt, could hold on to their medical insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance just because they get a chance to work. And I think that’s a special thing when you get to be a part of that process that allows other people to hold on to their jobs. So, we’re blessed, and we say it all the time… this is a get to and not a got to. One of the get to’s is we get to be a part of that process. Not just the healing that goes along with families who get together and watch sports. We get to be a part of the process whereby many people behind the scenes, in the media, in service industries that are related to sports get a chance to work and take care of their families.

RM: What an amazing perspective. After your first regular game vs. the Wizards, you said you were looking forward to some teaching moments. What do you mean by this?

Monty Williams: There’s always things that you can use. It’s always best to be able to teach off of a win. We fouled jump shooters and there were times when we didn’t communicate well on defense but we played so hard we covered up that mistake. There were a few possessions that the ball got a bit stagnant in our primary make offense and the body movement wasn’t where we hoped it would be but that was over short lapses. When I looked at the film it wasn’t nearly as poor as I thought it looked, or thought it felt in the game. So, that’s why film study is so important. We showed our guys. We talked to them about that and we quickly moved on to preparations for Dallas.

RM: Monty, you have FAITH on your mask (see video, wearing a mask that says “faith over fear”). What does faith mean to you?

Monty Williams: I’m a Christian. That’s who I am. I just happen to coach. Unfortunately for the people watching, I’m on TV. But, my faith in Christ is something that is the essence of who I am. But, it’s not in the way that you would think. It’s not because I have it together or it’s not because I dot my ‘i’s’ and cross my ‘t’s. It’s because I’m what the Bible says I am. In Jeremiah 17:9, it says the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things. Well, that’s who I am. Romans 3:23 says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Well, that’s me. Genesis 6:5 explains the same. So, that’s who I am. I’m a Christian. But, I’m also somebody that’s a regular dude that’s jacked up and I have this hope in Christ. I know that I can trust God with any situation that I have. That doesn’t make it easy. I’ve been through some really rough things in my life. But, I’m Exhibit A that God can do anything with any life, any time. Because I don’t deserve the job I have. I’m certainly not what people think I am. God makes me look better than I deserve. I’ve said this about my life since I can remember — God knocks it out of the park and I get to run the bases. So, that’s what it’s about for me. When people look at me and they think of our faith, I hope that they see, ‘Man, if God can do that in his life, he can do it in mine’ because I know how jacked up I am.

RM: Ricky, I know before this whole bubble, you were an encourager. With the experience you have, and the leadership you bring, what might you be saying as encouragement to the guys in the locker room now?

Ricky Rubio: You can compare it to a World Cup or a European Championship, I guess, but actually it’s totally different — it’s the NBA. It’s true that you’re in the same hotel as other teams you share 24/7. Everybody’s different but what I miss most is, of course, the family, and it’s hard not being able [to see them] and mentally it gets into your mind. And everyday it gets harder and harder. So, it’s going to be more than physical, it’s mentally tough for teams who advance to rounds to be focused on what it takes to win (a) championship.

RM: Devin, there was such a layoff and now to be able to play the game you love, what does that mean to you?

Devin Booker: Bubble’s been cool, man. I’ve really just been postin’, honestly, just sitting in the room, playing video games, man, watching a couple TV shows. Not much brewing over here. But…getting a chance to compete, getting back out there, even if it’s practices getting up and down, it’s been very refreshing for me for the past few months that we’ve had off.

RM: James, with so much social unrest right now and being a General Manager of an NBA team while there is Black Lives Matter being painted on courts, debates between players, jerseys even coming into play — how are you processing everything?

James Jones: I think this has been an exercise in growth for everyone. What it has exposed is that people, we kind of batch ourselves and put ourselves in buckets. Am I a GM? Am I African-American? Am I a player? Am I an ex-player? Where do I stand [politically], Democrat or Republican? It’s not about that. I’m human. We’re all human. We’re all dealing with these challenges that we’re facing. How do we respond in our professional lives, our personal lives? That’s truly how we enact and effect change. So, for me, I’m humbled by the opportunity to be a General Manager and to work closely with players and coaches who have huge voices and tremendous platforms to actually bring issues to light. So, I support everyone’s views and I’m just trying to more importantly, refocus our guys on basketball. Because at the end of the day, this is how they define themselves. This is what they’ve worked for their entire lives. And throughout this pandemic, throughout all these struggles, I just want to make sure that they’re able to maximize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of being NBA players.

RM: Devin, what’s it been like to play under Coach Monty’s leadership both off-the-court?

Devin Booker: Coach Monty’s amazing, man. Very respectful guy. I knew that before my organization even hired him. The relationship, it’s just continued to build day-by-day. Real person. I’ve always used the word real when it comes to Monty. You can feel his presence when he’s in the room. And you can feel his presence through honest conversations. So, kind of like an uncle-like figure, father-like figure…can come talk to him about anything on-and-off the court. He’s been a real advocate for our society for a long time.

As Coach Williams said to the team in the locker room after the Suns went undefeated in the bubble–a speech that the Suns posted on Twitter: “It’s just been an unreal ride…this was therapeutic for me to be around a group like this…you’ve been through a lot…God knows I hope we get a chance to keep shocking the world, because that’s what you did, nobody believed we’d come here and go 8-0 and beat the teams we beat but just know, men, this is special..I don’t care what happens, this is special…now, we got to build on it.”



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