By Antonio R. Harvey | Observer Staff Writer

Minnesota Timberwolves players Rick Rubio and Josh Okogie defend Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes at Golden 1 Center on April 21. (Observer Photo by Antonio Harvey)

The news of a Minnesota jury finding former cop Derek Chauvin guilty on three counts of murder and assault of George Floyd was met with relief to members of the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves, who play in Minneapolis, were in Sacramento to take on the Kings at Golden 1 Center in back-to-back games.  The reaction to the verdict came by virtual interviews, social media networks, and written statements.

“Today we have seen justice offered. This ruling should be a model for accountability, as it was not realistic in many other cases,” Sacramento Kings principal owner and CEO Vivek Ranadivé said in a statement shortly after the verdict.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to use our platform to combat systemic racism in our community and country to ensure more equitable future for Black people. Black Lives Matter. Black Futures Matter,” Ranadivé stated.

Sacramento Kings rookie Tyrese Haliburton was so elated that he posted on his Twitter account one word: “Guilty.”

Most of the players that spoke on the verdict in the two-game span admitted that they were paying close attention to the developments of the trial. Sacramento Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox was one of them.

Fox told The OBSERVER that he recalled when then U.S. Attorney General William Barr rejected a plea deal for Chauvin, who was set to plead guilty to third-degree murder.

Barr backed off such a deal because he was concerned that protesters would view it as an easy way to avoid a long prison sentence. A plea deal of 10 years was the offer from the defendant. But now Chauvin could serve up to 40 years.

“He tried to take a plea knowing that it was going to get bad,” Fox said of the former cop who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. “But it was bright as day. We all saw it on camera. We’re definitely glad that justice was served, though a man’s life was taken and didn’t need to be taken.” 

During Fox’s rookie season with the Sacramento Kings he witnessed how demonstrators shut down Golden 1 Center on March 22, 2018, in protest of two Sacramento police officers shooting and killing Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandparents’ home four days earlier.  

In the next home game at G1C, against the Boston Celtics, members from both team wore black t-shirts with “Accountability, We Are One” written on the front and “#StephonClark” on the backside.

The Kings, Celtics, and the NBA as whole wanted to make a difference and they did. Decades ago, professional athletes have been both applauded and met with disdain for using their platforms to bring awareness to injustice and inequality. 

 “That’s something a lot of people wish they could do,” Fox said in March 2018. “We are more than basketball players. A lot of people look up to us — young guys and older guys. So we know that we have an influence on people.”

Three years later, the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis had to endure the pain of injustice. Not only did the Timberwolves have to deal with the George Floyd case, the organization is now feeling the rippling effects caused by the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

A police officer fatally shot 20-year-old Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., about 10 miles from where Chauvin was on trial. The officer, Ann Potter, resigned from her job and was arrested for second-degree manslaughter. Wright had been pulled over for a traffic violation.

The Timberwolves cancelled one of its games after protests of Wright’s killing escalated. Chauvin’s verdict may have provided the Timberwolves with some sigh of relief.

“I know there was a lot of anxiety surrounding the team the last few days,” said Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch. “I think it’s been a lot harder than any of them would let you know. It’s something that’s weighing on them every day,” Finch added.

The league and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) formed the “Social Justice Coalition” in August 2020 while playing out its restarted 2019-20 season, committing to addressing issues such as voting access, civic engagement, and police and criminal justice reform.

“George Floyd’s murder was a flash point for how we look at race and justice in our country, and we are pleased that justice appears to have been served,” NBA Communications said in a writtent statement regarding the verdict. “But we also recognize that there is much work to be done and the National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Players Association, together with our newly-formed Social Justice Coalition, will redouble our efforts to advocate for meaningful change in the areas of criminal justice and policing.”