It happened nearly a half century ago, but Sedric Toney, a five-year NBA veteran who played for the Atlanta Hawks on two separate occasions, still hasn’t forgotten.
He was on the freshmen basketball team at Wilbur Wright High School in Dayton, Ohio, and for road games, it was customary for him and his teammates to pile into a couple teachers’ or coaches’ cars to get to the away gym while the JV and varsity teams rode the bus. On this particular afternoon, one that never escaped his memory, Toney and four other African American teammates were riding in a science teacher’s station wagon, en route to their opponent in a Dayton suburb.
As the vehicle, whose driver was neither speeding nor driving recklessly, passed through the tony suburb of Oakwood, it was pulled over by a policeman. Upon asking the teacher, who happened to be white, for his license and registration, the officer explained that there had been a series of break-ins in that neighborhood and the make-up of these student-athletes fit the descriptions of the profile of the people they were looking for. The teacher, according to Toney, fired back, decrying the injustice, reasoning that had the teens been white, there never would have been flashing blue sirens in his rearview mirror.
While the carload of teammates went on their way without further incident, the message was rather obvious that they were not welcome in the predominantly white neighborhood of Oakwood.
Just a few months ago, when Toney was invited by his good friend Eric Rubin, longtime nonprofit and financial services executive who is currently the president and CEO of Uncommon Charitable Impact, to serve on the advisory board of Project Max, a joint initiative of Maccabi World Union and Sighteer, which seeks to leverage sports to counter racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry, that humiliating winter afternoon was reason alone to come aboard.
“It resonated with me as a person and how I feel about life,” said Toney, who played point guard for Atlanta during portions of the 1985-86 and 1989-90 seasons and, in retirement, has traveled to Israel with other NBA veterans to speak to various groups of Muslims, Palestinians, and Ethiopian Jews about their religious differences.
“Growing up as a young black boy and a young black man, it resonated with me because of the things that I had to endure growing up. There were a lot of things that I had to deal with. It just kind of hit home with me because I didn’t like it [racism]. That’s not how I was raised. Racism is taught. Hate is taught. It’s like taking a class. You signed up to be like this. You’re not born like this, but you signed up to be like this.
“There are people now in this world that are still trying to rear their ugly head of racism, antisemitism, hate and intolerance. They’re still trying to do that and it’s not the majority, but it’s a group of people that still feel that way for no reason.”
Toney’s not the only former Atlanta Hawk whom Rubin recruited to be part of Project Max, which was launched in November in the wake of hateful remarks made by Kanye West and initial support from Kyrie Irving of a clearly antisemitic film. Joining Toney, along with other retired NBA players including Michael Sweetney, Eddy Curry, and Eddie Johnson, is Theo Ratliff, the imposing shot blocker who played for Atlanta during the early 2000s. Similar to Toney’s reaction, Ratliff didn’t blink when he was in Abu Dhabi earlier this fall for the Hawks’ exhibition games and was offered the opportunity to join Project Max.
“It was an easy choice for me because these are some things that have been embedded in my family and throughout life since I was in existence,” said Ratliff. “The awareness [of diversity] has always been there. I mean I grew up in a small town in Alabama. You know the history of the civil rights movement. My parents and family went through that entire movement right alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Ratliff made more than $100 million over the course of a lengthy and highly productive NBA career and has found great success in post-career business endeavors, most notably involving restaurant franchising. But he hasn’t forgotten that his grandparents were sharecroppers and even his parents had to grapple with the institution of segregation throughout much of their lives. He views the current culture of rampant antisemitism as an extension of racism and looks forward to using his advisory role on Project Max as a vehicle for providing his input and serving as a touchpoint for kids in the many communities in which he is involved.
“Anytime you get people in the room with sports, there are no enemies,” said Ratliff. “If you see a game, it doesn’t matter what the sport is, you understand that it’s sports and you can have a conversation by being in the presence of each other. There are always opportunities to continue to learn who people are, what they represent. At the end of the day, we’re all people. Hopefully, everybody has goodness in their heart.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Sedric Toney
- Atlanta Hawks
- Wilbur Wright High School
- Eric Rubin
- Uncommon Charitable Impact
- Project Max
- Maccabi World Union
- Ethiopian Jews
- Kanye West
- Kyrie Irving
- Michael Sweetney
- Eddy Curry
- Eddie Johnson
- Theo Ratliff