John Riordan: NBA coach expresses the rage of a grieving nation

Tuesday's horrific US school shooting forced Golden State Warriors' Steve Kerr to take his eye off the ball before a playoff game in Texas
John Riordan: NBA coach expresses the rage of a grieving nation

UNITED IN GRIEF: Head coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors stands for a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 

I was back at Gleason's Gym in the DUMBO district of Brooklyn on Wednesday, almost ten years since the first time I got to visit the storied parish hall of New York boxing.

I visited in 2012 to interview legendary local boxer, Heather Hardy, who was embarking on a professional career that is, to this day, ongoing and undefeated. She was also training out of Gleason's, an entire borough away from her home in Gerritsen Beach.

Happily, I finally had reason to return there this week as press obligations ramp up for tomorrow night's pay-per-view World title fights at the Barclays Center, about 20 minutes deeper into Kings County.

Owner Bruce Silverglade was hosting fighters, entourages and promotional partners, each of whom were going through the final preparations for the main events.

Among those boxers was Cork's own Gary "Spike" O'Sullivan who diligently and without fuss took his turn with a light workout, working the gloves with his manager and trainer Packie Collins. There was a face off with his opponent, two division world champion Erislandy “The American Dream” Lara, the Cuban legend who will defend his WBA Middleweight Title against Spike in the co-main event tomorrow evening.

In spite of the fact that his duties were done and his allotted time was complete, Spike and Collins weren't exactly in a rush to leave. Gleason's is a tough place to abandon even though when you step back out into the natural sunlight, you are half a block away from one of New York City's most iconic tourist traps.

Walk 20 yards south on Water Street and you'll hit Washington Street and several dozen tourists and wannabe influencers who are ticking off a snap of themselves backgrounded by the admittedly perfectly framed view of the Manhattan Bridge. It's easy to miss Gleason's in this dramatically gentrified and renovated northwestern corner of Brooklyn.

As far as I could tell, nothing much had changed inside. Between the organised chaos of the rickety rings on the uneven floor and the wall hangings espousing decades of legacy, it felt familiar. Silverglade, entering his fourth decade of ownership of the gym, still strolls around happily, and the sheer diversity of the space is a perfect microcosm of Brooklyn's humanity as well as the US.

But there are rules here that belie the messy perception picked up on by my untrained eye. As with anywhere that works well as a community, everyone and their varied back stories needs to find their spot, fit in respectfully and operate cohesively. I'm not talking about falling in line with a lockstep lack of imagination. I'm talking about the very thing that makes boxing great: there are well regulated rules but there is room therein to create magic.

And there are the gym rules too, typed loud in all caps on at least two of those wall hanging. They are stern but necessary and they serve as a way of counteracting the impossibly cramped nature of this training set-up.

1. NO SHOUTING INSTRUCTIONS DURING ROUNDS. INSTRUCTIONS TO FIGHTERS TO BE GIVEN BETWEEN ROUNDS. 

2. NO INSTRUCTIONS TO OTHER TRAINERS FIGHTERS. 

3. SOLICITE [sic] NO FIGHTERS OR BEGINNERS. ALL ASSIGNMENTS WILL BE MADE BY MANAGEMENT. 

4. TRAINERS FIGHTERS CANNOT OCCUPY MORE THAN TWO BAGS AT ONE TIME AND NOT MORE THAN THREE ROUNDS PER EACH FIGHTER. 

5. NO EXCESSIVE NOISE - NO GLOVE SLAPPING. 

6. NO SELLING EQUIPMENT.

A Virgil quote from The Aeneid adorns the back wall, written large in font that might be as ancient as the source material itself: “Now, whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” 

Courage and a strong and collected spirit.

How do I write a column about US sport after a week like this? 

Truthfully, there have been several weeks where writing about sport feels inappropriate, struggling weekly to distract myself from one issue after another of which this nation should be ashamed.

And I want to include those issues in the paragraphs that I write but weekly I weigh that up against the fear that I'm overdoing it. I'm sure there are readers that probably long ago got bored and decided that the woke white lad should stick to sport.

Maybe. But how do I ignore a dark day like Tuesday? And a man like Steve Kerr who found the courage and strength of spirit to respond in the most appropriate way possible?

"You can tell things are out of whack when the coach of the Golden State Warriors (Kerr) shows more leadership than everyone in Congress," US television host Jimmy Kimmel stated during the opening monologue of his nightly show on Wednesday evening.

Just over 24 hours previously, after the massacre at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas ended the lives of 19 children and two teachers and created unimaginable trauma for countless others in their community, Warriors coach Kerr hijacked his own NBA Western Conference final pre-game press conference to deliver an impassioned plea for gun control.

It was a risky move, on the face of it. It demanded courage. This is a country where sporting personalities are told to shut up and play or, in this case, coach.

Kerr has never been one to operate by that mantra and after he heard about the atrocity at the same time as the rest of us, he knew instinctively to leverage a platform which right now is one of the most elevated in the country as the NBA playoffs reach a crescendo. It was a sadly opportune moment, right as fear and uncertainty grew across the country.

“I'm not going to talk about basketball,” he told the gathered media in Dallas three hours before tip-off and just after his team’s customary afternoon warm-up.

Like the rest of us he was digesting news reports 400 miles from where he sat in Texas. He referenced the Buffalo mass shooting just over a week prior and a shooting of church goers in California.

“When are we going to do something?” he shouted, slamming the table three times. “I'm tired… I'm so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there. I'm so tired... I'm tired of the moments of silence. Enough!” 

Kerr is fluent in the inner workings of gun control and on which aspects of America’s cursed gun policies he and we should focus. It’s partly due to the shooting death of his academic father in Lebanon in the 1980s but mostly due to his sense of justice and his hope for an improved society. 

As a well respected championship winning player with the Chicago Bulls and coach with the Warriors, he can make politicians listen and make them accountable. He can demand courage and a strong and collected spirit.

The Warriors lost their first game of the series on Tuesday evening, delaying the inevitable clinching of the Western Conference. If there was any fear that Kerr’s righteous indignation during the crucial pre-game hours served to take his eye off the ball or caused alarm amongst his players and assistants, the post-game reaction of his star performer Steph Curry displayed total unity.

Curry, speaking for his teammates, backed his coach, in spite of the reversal on the court. As one of the most popular athletes of an age group so horribly victimised in Uvalde, his words carried almost as much weight as those of his boss. The horror was widespread and multi-generational.

The Warriors will waltz to next month's Finals and there will be no cost to the team incurred by the courage of their coach to speak truth to power in Washington, DC.

It is now up to the rest of the majority of people occupying this messy society to fully act upon the collected spirit which has been riled up anew by an inexplicable atrocity. Gloves laced, hands raised.

@JohnWRiordan

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