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Pitino, UNM say education on race, social issues will be prominent

UNM basketball coach Richard Pitino talks with Lobo players at a press conference in March. He coached at Minnesota, just five miles from where George Floyd was murdered last year, and says there is a long way to go after Tuesday’s conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Richard Pitino doesn’t pretend to know the answers.

He didn’t last June, when his University of Minnesota men’s basketball team – composed primarily of young Black men – gathered on a Zoom call a week after the murder of George Floyd happened five miles from their Minneapolis campus.

And now as the head coach of a UNM Lobos roster comprised primarily of young Black men, he has the same opinion.

“I’m a 38 year-old white man. I want to listen to them,” Pitino said Wednesday when the Journal asked him about his experience as the leader of a team so close to the tragedy a year ago and now as the leader of one of the most visible teams in the state of New Mexico.

His stance is anything but a punt on the topic.

Pitino and his team went to the site of the murder last summer – what he called Wednesday a “surreal” and “difficult” experience – and he had his team take part in regular talks with guest speakers while also just trying to listen to his player’s stories.

He told the Star Tribune in June: “How am I as a white male and coach going to support Black athletes who come into my program and who I recruit? Let them have a voice, explain and teach us, and help us learn how to make change. Making sure I’m empowering them moving forward is so important.”

Now, as Pitino was coincidently back at his home in Minnesota when Tuesday’s guilty verdict for former police officer Derek Chauvin was read, he vows to continue the same approach – one that starts with an admission he is far from an expert on the matter.

He said his Lobos team, with the help of others in the athletic department, will continue to keep an open dialogue about race and inclusion and make regular education – including for coaches – a part of the program.

“(The program will be) constantly trying to educate people who just don’t know,” Pitino said, “And, certainly, I’m one of those people.”

Frankly, even if he or anyone else at UNM wanted to back off on the education, DaDa Willis-Gregory isn’t having it. Already a presence around the men’s basketball program as Assistant Director in the Lobo Center for Student-Athlete Success (she is one of the academic advisors for Lobo basketball and other sports), Willis-Gregory has taken an active role in advocacy for student involvement and empowerment in social issues for some time. Last summer, she took on the additional title of Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Director.

“Our Social Justice Student Action Committee (SJSAC) has been busy presenting at conferences, mentoring other student organizations, developing weekly content for social media, creating community connections, and most importantly educating themselves and learning from each others’ experiences,” Willis-Gregory said, noting a four-part video series titled “Social Justice Talks” will be released by the group later this week.

“… This work isn’t and should not be a one-time deal. It will continue to be embedded in our culture.”

As for Pitino, who called Minnesota home for eight years and had two children born there, this week had significant impact – even if he’s still very openly seeking more understanding of it all.

“I don’t know if (Tuesday) – if you can celebrate because you lost a life in George Floyd,” Pitino said Wednesday. “But it certainly seems like maybe this is a step in some healing. I know the state needs it. The Twin Cities need it badly – to be able to somewhat heal together. And obviously the country does.”

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