Rebekkah Brunson: 'The important thing is, we're talking about it'

MINNEAPOLIS -- The whole point was to create conversation. In that regard, the Minnesota Lynx succeeded.

In the six days since Lynx players donned black warm-up shirts memorializing Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five slain Dallas police officers while asking for dialogue and healing, their message has been applauded, denounced, misconstrued and debated from coast to coast.

Subsequent news that four Minneapolis police officers on security detail Saturday night at the Target Center left the building in protest gave national legs to a story that might have fizzled by Monday afternoon.

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau criticized the officers for walking off the job, and Mayor Betsy Hodges lambasted Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Minneapolis police union, on Facebook for "jackass remarks" about the Lynx, including a condescending, inaccurate putdown of their attendance.

"The silver lining in that is, it got people talking," Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson said of the police walkout. "That's the most important thing right now. It maybe kept a conversation going that may have gotten stunted.

"Regardless of how we feel about that, the important thing is, we're talking about it. And by talking about it, we have an opportunity to create change."

Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he supported the players speaking out. Then Wednesday night at the ESPYS, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade opened the show by calling for an end to racial profiling and retaliation -- exactly the message Brunson and Maya Moore conveyed in their news conference before Saturday's game with Dallas.

So Thursday, Brunson and Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve beamed over the way the discussion took off.

"Their expressions on Saturday were very thoughtful, very measured, in hopes of creating change, having conversation, having dialogue," said Reeve, whose Lynx (17-4) have the second-best record in the WNBA and have won their last two games by a combined 61 points. "I'm really, really proud we're moving this thing forward, shining the light on a problem, and creating the dialogue."

The Lynx play the New York Liberty here Friday night, and Kroll told the Minneapolis Star Tribune his officers might refuse to work future games if the players wore the shirts again. The Lynx donned standard team warm-up tops Tuesday afternoon in San Antonio, and Brunson hinted the players have moved on.

"The shirts are where we started, where we began to speak and use our voice," Brunson said. "Now we're trying to figure out what's next. How can we do things that are going to be more impactful beyond the shirts to help throughout this time?"

Last Sunday the Liberty wore their own black warm-up shirts supporting the Lynx , with #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 on the front. Thursday, the Liberty announced plans to switch to plain black warm-up tops.

"It's really important that you don't fall into 'pick a side.' We're not trying to create sides. We're trying to create dialogue. You can't have dialogue unless you listen." Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve

The biggest loser in all this appeared to be Kroll. He told several Twin Cities media outlets he was unaware of what Brunson and Moore said Saturday before commenting about the walkout and the Lynx.

And Kroll's claim that he needed only four detail officers at Target Center because the Lynx were a "pathetic draw" was especially off base. The Lynx finished second in the WNBA in attendance the past four years, drew more than 13,000 to a game three weeks ago and 18,933 to Game 5 of last year's WNBA Finals.

Kroll later blamed that comment on a "pushy reporter" he was trying to get off the phone. Randy Furst, the Star Tribune reporter in question, is known for his doggedness and tenacity; Kroll isn't the first public official to turn snarky under Furst's questioning.

Reeve and Brunson declined to criticize Kroll, though Reeve teetered around the edges. "We draw well ... biting tongue here," said Reeve, who praised Harteau and Hodges for their leadership.

It's not clear what the four Minneapolis officers, who have never been identified, objected to, or whether they heard Brunson's and Moore's pregame remarks. Brunson cited racial profiling and senseless violence as problems, and Moore noted the tragic irony of the killings in Dallas, a city where de-escalation training dramatically reduced shootings by and complaints against police.

"This is a human issue, and we need to speak out for change together," Moore said that night.

"The important thing is, we're talking about it. And by talking about it, we have an opportunity to create change." Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson

The shirts, ubiquitous now, featured the phrases "Change Starts With Us -- Justice and Accountability" on the front, and four elements on the back: The names of Castile and Sterling; the Dallas Police Department shield; and, at the bottom, Black Lives Matter. The shield was particularly hard to identify in some photos circulating on social media. The officers left quietly more than 45 minutes after the news conference and less than an hour before the opening tip.

Some critics of the Lynx accused them of siding with Black Lives Matter against the police, which Reeve said wasn't the case at all.

"More than anything, the inclusionary aspect of this is so important," Reeve said. "It's really important that you don't fall into 'pick a side.' We're not trying to create sides. We're trying to create dialogue. You can't have dialogue unless you listen.

"Our players have done a great job of handling all that's gone with this. It's courageous. And you can't have change without challenge, and our players have been exemplary examples of how to lead through times like these."

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis is organizing a group outing to Minnesota's July 22 game against Seattle, the last before the Olympic break, in gratitude for the team's support. On the group's Facebook page, more than 280 people indicated they planned to go out of almost 1,500 interested.

"Before this, we've always been a team and an organization that wants to get out in the community that we're involved in and do the best that we can to leave them better than before we got there," Brunson said. "So this is no different. We're happy that we have this opportunity and platform to try to start some change on something that's positive."