When Pascal Siakam watched the video of a distressed George Floyd pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer pleading for his life, he was lost for words.
“I’m speechless just thinking about it. Seeing someone take someone else’s life just like that, that’s heartbreaking. I think about the families and the people – you know, he was crying out for his mom,” Siakam said. “I know how big I am on family. I can just connect to that, and I’m a Black man. It hurts.”
The continuing global conversation about racial injustice sparked by Floyd’s death was a major topic of discussion, as the Toronto Raptors forward joined reporters on a video call Wednesday. Acknowledging that racism actually exists would be a huge first step in today’s world, said the Cameroonian NBA star.
“I think a lot of people don’t do that and we tend to act like it’s not happening or ‘I’m not seeing it where I’m from or where I live,’” Siakam said. “I feel like the way the world is now it’s impossible not to see it. This is something that exists and I’m sorry to say it, but if you don’t see it then you must be blind or something.”
Siakam said he had no stories to share of what he would call “blatant racism.” However, he did look back on what it was like to be a minority for the first time when he moved to Texas for high school after growing up in Cameroon, a country of predominantly Black people. He noticed people keeping a close eye on him sometimes when he went into stores, and he just accepted it.
“People are looking at you a little different and wondering if you’re gonna buy something, or they’re watching you a little bit. I think that was different, because that definitely wouldn’t happen where I’m from,” Siakam said. “I felt like, ‘Okay, that’s just what happens when you’re that colour and you go into [a store] that seems to be fancy.’
"I have to just accept the fact that people are going to look at me a little weird, and they’re gonna watch me a little bit. … It’s sad that I have to program my mind to be able to think like that.”
Siakam has three older brothers who all went to play basketball in the United States before he did. He said racism wasn’t something he can recall really discussing with them. Just recently, though, one of his brothers shared a story with him.
“He worked at Enterprise, and some lady came in and was like, ‘Oh, I want to talk to an American,'” Siakam recalled of his brother’s story. “I don’t know what that means. Maybe because he is African, or maybe his accent, or maybe because he was Black? Like, what was it?”
Siakam was asked what white people can do to help eradicate racism. He said acknowledging that racism exists and learning about other races and cultures.
“Moving forward, we have to learn about each other, communicate, learn about different races and different places and things that you are not used to learning about,” Siakam said. “Talk about it. If you see it, say it and don’t be scared to say it and find ways to do that.”
Siakam has been at home in Toronto during the COVID-19 shutdown. He’s learning piano, reading, trying to stay in basketball shape and appreciating spending more time with his brothers than he would normally get to during a busy season.
“I think this time is important to share love and be around people that you care about. That’s the main thing for me,” he said. “We can definitely lose sight of that with everything going on, while we’re just running around going from city to city, that can get lost a little bit.”
What has been the most challenge-riddled season in NBA history is set to finally resume this summer. According to ESPN on Wednesday, the NBA’s board of governors is expected to vote Thursday in approval of a return-to-play plan.
It includes 22 of the NBA’s 30 teams being invited to play at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando – 13 clubs from the Western Conference and nine from the East. The season will tip off July 31 with eight regular-season games a team, then possible play-in action to settle the eighth seeds in both conferences if the races are close. The playoffs are expected to begin in August and stretch into October.
The Raptors had already clinched a playoff spot when the NBA suspended the season on March 11. They had a 46-18 record, the third-best record in the league behind the Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) and the Los Angeles Lakers (49-14).
Siakam said he’s eager to hear more about the logistical details of a restart.
“I feel like there’s chemistry there, we’ve been playing for a while, we’ve been winning championships together – things you don’t really forget,” Siakam said. “We’ll get to have some type of training camp, and if anything was lost we’ll find it back. But I feel like we have a pretty solid group and the way we play, we can always find it back once we get out on the floor.”