INDIANAPOLIS — This earthquake started last month in San Francisco, but the aftershocks reached Indianapolis on Wednesday night when the Indiana Fever knelt in unison for the national anthem.
It was the first time an entire team has knelt for the anthem, a protest that began with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s solitary sit-down Aug. 26. After changing his protest from sitting to kneeling, Kaepernick has been joined by a handful of NFL players and professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe.
On Wednesday, the Fever upped the ante.
On a night already fraught with tension, the Fever didn’t tell anyone outside the locker room of their pregame plans, not even coach Stephanie White. This was their WNBA playoff opener against the Phoenix Mercury, a winner-take-all game to advance to the next round – or end the season. Which meant it could be the final game for the two biggest names in Fever history: superstar Tamika Catchings, retiring after the season; and White, leaving for Vanderbilt.
When it was over, after they had knelt as one, the Fever returned to the bench and wondered what awaited them there.
“When we got into the huddle,” Catchings said, “(White) looked at each one of us and said she was proud of us.”
The Fever did in fact lose this game 89-78, ending Catchings’ career and White’s Fever tenure, but those will be footnotes to the larger story that happened at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: An entire professional sports team knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice in this country.
All three Pacers sitting courtside – Myles Turner, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey – seemed energized by the Fever’s stance. Turner declined to comment, but he excitedly told the person seated next him what the Fever had done.
With NBA training camp starting next week, Miles and Stuckey said the Pacers hadn’t discussed the issue. But both said the conversation would take place.
“We’ll make that decision as a team,” Stuckey said, “just like the Fever did tonight.”
Miles called the Fever’s united stand “powerful.”
“There’s a lot of things going on, you know? And we only wear jerseys on the court,” Miles said. “We definitely understand what’s going on out there, and it’s something that could happen to us on the street as well. If we can help each other and make a difference, that’s what we should be doing. We should be supporting each other, trying to better the world.”
Nobody in the crowd booed, but many didn’t see it. The American flag is at one end of the court, and the Fever were standing at the other. Kids stood behind the kneeling players. Coaches were at either end of the row. The Fever weren’t hiding, but weren’t easily visible.
When I told Fever fan Gary Schooley what had happened, the 69-year-old Indianapolis resident said: “I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t agree with it, because it’s the national anthem, but I definitely understand it.”
Ginger Morgan of Greenwood loved it.
“I’m a mother, and I stand with all the mothers who have lost someone to violence,” said Morgan, 50. “(The Fever) have the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us.”
On Twitter, the reaction was more visceral.
“What the team did tonight is a disgrace to the USA and the state of Indiana,” Joan Heiden tweeted to me. “As a Fever season ticket holder, I am very disappointed and embarrassed (and) will no longer be a season ticket holder. After 17 years.”
Fever center Erlana Larkins told me what happened Wednesday night started in the Mercury locker room; Mercury players Mistie Bass and Kelsey Bone also knelt for the anthem. Bass, a 32-year-old forward from Duke, will be a graduate assistant this season at Indiana.
“We heard Phoenix wanted to do something,” Larkins said, “and we just joined in the decision and decided to stand as one.”
When I told her the reaction was getting ugly on social media, Larkins – still crying after this season-ending loss – talked softly but spat verbal daggers.
“At the end of the day, I don’t understand people being concerned about people not standing for the anthem,” she said, “but they don’t have the same fire for innocent people dying.”
Indeed, this movement started by Kaepernick and continued by the Fever didn’t cause a racial divide in this country – it exposed one. Nothing is black and white, but the people who care enough about this protest to support it tend to be African-American. And the people who care enough about this protest to blast it tend to be white.
But again, nothing is black and white. Rapinoe is white. An African-American usher at Bankers Life Fieldhouse asked me not to use his name but told me he doesn’t agree with what the Fever did.
And Stephanie White? She told the Fever she was proud of them. And she told the media why.
“Something like this creates conversation, and that’s how we create change,” she said. “We don’t create change by seeing it on the news and waiting until next time. People who have the platforms have the ability to affect change, and I’m proud of our group for using the platform in a respectful manner.”
The conversation continued across Indianapolis on Wednesday night. Before the Brebeuf Jesuit girls soccer team played Center Grove, Brebeuf goalkeeper Lauren Turner knelt for the anthem.
Turner learned bravery from her mom. Dying of cancer, Stephanie Turner lived long enough to watch Brebeuf win the 2015 state title; she died less than 48 hours later. Troy Turner, Lauren’s father and Stephanie’s husband, told me he was proud of his daughter for taking her stand – and deciding to kneel.
“I'm happy she felt strong enough to take a position,” he said. “The motto at Brebeuf is ‘Men and Women for others.’ I hope people can see her living that principle. We've talked at length about responsibility, citizenship and refusing to ignore injustice just because it's happening to someone else. She didn't fall far from the apple tree – and I know Stephanie is smiling for her too.”
Lots of people around Indianapolis are reading this story, and smiling.
And lots aren’t.