5 things we learned about Draymond Green from his talk at the Harvard Kennedy School

Draymond Green Harvard
The Institute of Politics (IOP), Harvard Kennedy School hosts NBA Champion Draymond Green for a discussion about athletes as leaders. –Barry Chin/Globe Staff

It’s not often that a player will take time out of a game day to go speak, or frankly, do anything besides get ready to play basketball, according to Golden State forward Draymond Green.

“I think everyone sees you on the basketball court, and they think that you just popped up on the court,” Green said. “Game day is an entire day process. From the time you wake up, everything you do should be beneficial to that game.”

But prior to last week’s Celtics-Warriors contest, the NBA All-Star broke his pregame routine to participate in a discussion, “Taking a Knee: Athletes & Activism,” at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

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“I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard,” he told the overflowing crowd of students. “It’s like a dream come true.”

The hour-long conversation with assistant professor of public policy Leah Wright Rigueur touched on Green’s philanthropy efforts off the court, as well as his perspective on many of the social issues the country faces today. Known for the largest donation ($3.1 million) from an athlete to his alma mater, Michigan State, Green is on a mission to spark change where he sees fit.

Here’s what we learned about the 27-year-old from his remarks:

He doesn’t think the current racial climate is the worst it’s ever been, but rather, the most ‘noticeable’ it’s ever been.

Green is on the board of the Ross Initiative in Sports and Equality (RISE) — a non-profit organization, founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, that is dedicated to improving race relations through the unifying elements of sports. Calling Ross “a mentor,” Green said they’ve frequently spoken about the country’s current state and what they can do to make a difference.

“In today’s day in age, the climate right now is probably — I wouldn’t say it’s worse than it’s ever been because this country has come a long way — but with social media and all these different tools that we have, it’s as noticeable as it’s ever been,” he said.

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Understanding the platform and voice that professional sports gives athletes, Green is an active member of RISE and “trying to do all the things” he can to help. But he understands these efforts are not a one-man show. And changes aren’t going to happen overnight.

“At the end of the day, none of us can change it,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand that. I can’t change it, you can’t change it, someone else can’t change it. But together, we can make strides into changing it. If we all just do our part, then we’ll help inspire smart change.”

He thinks athletes have a responsibility to engage only when they are passionate about the matter at hand.

Although Green sees value in the platform leagues provide their athletes, he doesn’t think they are obligated to utilize it if their efforts aren’t self-inspired or authentic.

“I think so many times people say, ‘Oh, you have this platform,’ and then they want you to do what they think you should do,” he said. “But if you don’t believe in it, if it doesn’t hit you, then it’s not your responsibility.”

Instead, Green preached that athletes should only engage when “it’s genuinely what [they] want to do,” for that will make their endeavors more worthwhile and impactful. The two-time NBA champion analogized the situation to going to class.

“If you go to class because you want to be there, you’re paying much more attention, you’re taking notes, you’re just much more involved than if someone made you do it. I think it’s the same thing when we talk about the responsibility for athletes,” he said. “If someone said, ‘Hey Draymond, you need to go talk about race.’ It’s like, ‘I don’t care about race, what am I going to go talk about it for?’ It won’t be as heartfelt. If it’s not as heartfelt, you don’t touch as many people as you possibly could.”

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For Green, however, race relations is most definitely a subject he cares about and wants to be involved with.

“I want to speak out about race, I want to speak out about social injustice, I want to speak out about all those different things, and I’m telling you that because it’s coming from my heart. It’s touching me,” he said.

He credits his general manager, Bob Myers, for helping shape Golden State’s culture.

According to Green, walking into the Warriors locker room is a unique experience.

“It all starts with our general manager, Bob, bringing in the type of people he’s brought in,” Green said. “He went out and got a coach, [Steve Kerr,] who has a pulse and is not afraid to say what he’s thinking. We all have pulses, but I just mean he’s not afraid to speak out on things that touch him. And that’s the way this team is built.”

Calling his teammates “all thoughtful guys,” Green said that they are a group of people who try to educate themselves in different areas; thus, conversations will frequently turn to politics, tech, real estate, and other topics outside of basketball. While he understands the sport is their job, he also wants others to know that it doesn’t define who they are as people.

“We’re much broader than that. Like I said, we educate ourselves on different topics and if we feel a certain way about certain topics, then we’ll use our platform to speak out on those topics,” he said. “That’s pretty much all that it is. Educating ourselves and using that platform to help educate others.”

Green recounted a few experiences with the team off the court that have continued to stick with him. While some are recurring traditions, others are as recent as a couple of weeks ago.

Annual trip to the San Quentin State Prison: Every year, the Warriors organization visits a local California prison. While some of the front office, coaching staff, and players take the court for a friendly pickup game with the inmates, Green said he prefers to play dominoes while he’s there.

“I love playing dominoes, so I sit down and play the entire day,” he explained.

But the board games aren’t what keep him coming back.

“The reason I wanted to go is I think in life we’re all just one mistake from being that guy,” Green explained. “It’s a balance of being thankful for the role of not being that guy and also wanting to go in there and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m no better than you are. Maybe you made one mistake that I didn’t make that landed you here. Maybe I made some mistake and didn’t get caught. Maybe someone’s wrongfully there, maybe he shouldn’t be there.'”

“I don’t know what their situation is, but just letting them know that you’re here and I’m here with you. I’m no better than you,” he continued.

Youth event at their practice facility: At a recent event at the Warriors practice facility, the team welcomed teenagers from the area along with some police officers. Following a panel discussion, they broke up into smaller groups, each with one or two police officers.

“It was interesting to hear a 15-year-old’s perspective on what he thought of the police,” Green said. “It was interesting for me because I remember being that 15-year-old who thought the same exact thing.”

Green said he felt the conversations illustrated the importance of “doing things like that to try and bridge the gap,” which he feels is a double-edged struggle. As he puts it, there needs to be an effort “to help law enforcement officers understand where [people are] coming from as citizens,” as well as an effort from citizens “to understand where they’re coming from as law enforcement officers.”

He thinks that the NBA should consider eliminating the word, “owner.”

While Green has a close relationship with his team owners, Joseph Lacob and Peter Guber, he is not a fan of the word that is used to denote their title.

“When you look at the word, ‘owner,’ it really dates back to slavery,” he said. “We just took those words and continued to put them to use.”

“Right and wrong in life usually dates back to God knows when because that was the thought then and we’ve just stuck with that,” Green continued. “It’s just a cycle, it’s an ongoing cycle. That’s where our knowledge comes from, and that’s where most of our ethics and morals and values come from, but very rarely do we take the time to re-think something and say, ‘Huh, maybe that’s not the way.’ Just because someone was taught that 100 years ago doesn’t make that the right thing today.”

Green emphasized that he understands what it means to own equity and a business, but he wants to others to understand the social implications of the word, too.

“When you say, ‘Here’s my owner,’ like think about that. Do they really own you as a person?” he said. “If someone says Golden State Warriors and you think Steph Curry, and I say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the owner,’ then do you own Steph? … When we look at businesses, nobody ever said Steve Jobs was the owner of Apple. Steve Jobs was the CEO … When we get to sports, it’s, ‘Hey, there’s the owner.’ Why is that?”

When Green previously voiced his opinions on the matter, he received heavy backlash from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for his remarks. The forward insists, however, his comments were not meant to be disrespectful, but rather to start a conversation that he feels needs to be had.

“Mark Cuban will never know, or understand, how it feels for me, a young black African-American, to turn on the TV and see what happened in Charlottesville. He’ll never have that feeling,” Green said. “So when I say, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t use that word,’ to be honest, I really don’t expect him to understand where I’m coming from because he’ll never feel what I feel.”

“He may try to understand it, but he’ll never understand quite to the degree that I do,” he continued. “It’s not trying to take a shot at the owners of these entities, but more so to help spark change … You can’t say I’m dead wrong because you really don’t know how I feel to turn on that TV and see a young black man shot by a police officer.”

He thinks it’s funny when people say, ‘Stick to sports.’

When asked by a student how he would respond to critics that say he should “stick to sports,” Green let out a laugh.

“That’s funny,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh athletes shouldn’t speak politics.’ Well, I find that funny because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.”

“We spend our entire lives working on our craft and then someone will come on Twitter saying, ‘Draymond, you suck,'” Green continued. “It’s like, ‘OK, you shot that shot thousands of times, and you know what I should be doing.” Everyone feels like they can talk sports, but then when it comes to politics, everyone feels like athletes shouldn’t talk.”

Green expressed that he feels it’s their right “as Americans” to speak out on whatever issues they want to speak out on. While their platform may generate more exposure and more attention surrounding their comments, he feels that athletes speaking out on politics is “no different than any other American saying, ‘Oh man, why did such-and-such have six turnovers last night?'”

“As an American, we’re all affected by politics, one way or another,” Green said. “I don’t see a problem with athletes speaking out on politics.”

If one were to engage in such conversations, however, the two-time NBA champion encourages seeking out the insights from those who understand politics well.

“Even if I had a tremendous feel for politics, there’s someone who knows more than me,” he said. “So why not consult with that person and see what their thoughts are? They may change your view a little bit or they may make your view a little bit stronger than it was before.”