Atlanta Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce On Playing On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, And The Georgia Innocence Project

The Atlanta Hawks will host the Toronto Raptors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a day that has turned into one of the marquee slates for the NBA, and with King being a born and bred Atlantan, the Hawks are often featured prominently — their game against the defending champs will tip at 2:30 p.m. on NBA TV.

Prior to the game, Dime spoke with Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce. Currently in his second year at the helm of the Hawks, Pierce has used his platform to team up with the Georgia Innocence Project, an organization that looks to assist those who are wrongfully imprisoned and spend time behind bars for crimes they did not commit. With Monday’s slate of games serving as a way to recognize a person whose work sought to fight and topple all forms of injustice, we spoke with Pierce about his charity work, Dr. King, and how he encourages his players to use their platforms to help those less fortunate.

I want to know the backstory of your partnership with the Georgia Innocence Project. How’d you learn about it and why is this a cause that you wanted to get on board with?

Well, the backstory is, as coaches, you’re introduced to it through the NBA Coaches Association. It’s one of the organizations that the Coaches Association has allotted opportunities to give the, I think it’s the global, the national level of the Innocence Project. They’re always educating us on why and filling us in on some of the work that they’ve done, the Innocence Project, and what their organization is all about. And so, because of that, they’ve invited coaches to speak every year, depending upon what city they’re hosting their annual convention [in], they’ve asked the coach that’s in that city to speak as a guest speaker at one of their events, and two years prior I was in Memphis, and last year was here in Atlanta. So coincidentally, I was asked to speak and went down to the event.

My individual passion with the Innocence Project basically started that night. Just being in the room, being a part of the event, meeting a lot of the exonerees, hearing their stories, seeing how they celebrate, and then hear more about the work that needs to be done. It was an instant no-brainer for my wife and I to partner with the Innocence Project here in Georgia, here in Atlanta, and just spread awareness, provide financial support, and engage with the people that are here and that are working with the exonerees in the state of Georgia.

I’m sure basically every story that you hear of people who’ve been helped by this project makes your jaw drop. Are there any that really resonated with you?

It’s unfortunate when you hear some of the stories, because a lot of them in a weird way, don’t seem real. If you haven’t been charged with some of the things that these people have been charged with in the manner in which they’ve been charged with them, it just doesn’t seem real. There are a lot of stories of false testimony or having someone get a lesser sentence and just picking out in a lineup — I think the one story I heard, and this was from the event, where a guy in Texas spent over 20 years and he worked at a fire station and they couldn’t even identify the suspects and they didn’t know what to do to use him, somehow he was involved in the lineup that they were choosing suspects. They had to go to the fire station and take a picture where he was employee of the month off the wall and that was the picture they used in the lineup.

Of course, someone said that he was the person, chose from that picture, the picture looked familiar. And they chose off a picture that they have from his work, and he had no idea of what the actual situation was or how he was involved. And that was the picture they ended up using because someone used his name and they found a picture to put in the lineup, and next thing you know, he’s 20 years behind bars. Some of it’s just unreal to think that this happens to people. It’s unfortunate, a lot of these guys, girls that have been falsely imprisoned, it happens at late-teens, early-20s and they spend upwards — this person I met, and she has since passed this year, she had spent 41 years in prison and just passed away this year.

To lose that amount of time for a false accusation — a major part of your life, whether its five years, or 20 years, or 40 years — to lose that part of your life that you can’t get back is tough to stomach. And that’s really the area where I’ve been focused, just what can we do to help, how can we help get people back on their feet that don’t deserve to be in prison or don’t deserve to not have a chance to fight for their cases to be overturned or heard in a lot of situations.

You hear that stuff and anyone I feel like would be compelled to help. What are some things that you’ve done in your partnership with them to use your platform to further this cause?

For me, it’s anything that we can do. Obviously, my social media accounts are small in comparison. But I think when you speak to people that work with the different Innocence Projects, what they say is most important is connecting the rest of the world with the awareness that there’s so many people that have been falsely imprisoned and don’t have an opportunity to fight for themselves. The more awareness there is about the Innocence Project and the work they do, whether it’s me talking to you and you have a cousin that’s a lawyer that looking for pro bono work or looking to get involved with something, or you have a cousin that’s a marketing specialist and they know how to get the information out to a mass of people, or whether you just have a cousin that you know is financially well off and could provide additional economic resources so that they continue to do the work.

So for me, just having an audience and having a platform and having an organization supporting what I’m doing and what the Innocence Project is doing, we’re just spreading awareness and maybe one person finds out that, “Hey, the Atlanta Hawks and coach Pierce support the Georgia Innocence Project. I would love to assist in what they’re doing because I believe in the organization and coach, what he’s doing, he may have a connection that is bigger than my platform.” And so all of those things are the reasons why I’m getting behind it.

We’ve invited exonerees down to the games really to help acclimate them back into society, help acclimate them back into their home state and their home city. But to continue to spread the awareness of what the Innocence Project has done and show the examples of the exonerees that are out there and how one life being affected can provide hope for others.

So you talk about using your platform to raise awareness and the importance of that. Is that something that you talk about with your players and try to encourage them to do? Not necessarily even with the Innocence Project, just with any cause that is close to them — the importance of having that platform and using it to spread good?

I’ve explained to them a few of the organizations that I’ve partnered with, Georgia Innocence Project being one, but it’s more about the bigger picture. Not everyone has to be involved with the Georgia Innocence Project, nor do I have to be involved in every project. It’s more about, because we have a platform and because we’re looked at as role models and because we have people that look up to us because of what we do, that’s probably the best opportunity for us to impact and help others. Whatever you may be passionate about, whatever may you may be curious about, or some story or organization or whatever it takes, if you have an opportunity to get involved with helping others, this is the greatest time to do it.

This is, in a lot of ways, the best way to truly develop your character as a player, as an athlete, as a person, is by helping others. And when you have that platform, there’s no greater way to do it than using your platform to spread whatever work you’re doing to others because you can get additional support. There’s so many ways. There’s a lot that’s going on with our guys and they all do it in their own fashion, whether it’s in their hometowns or in the city of Atlanta. But I just encourage them to get out and be involved, not only in our community, but be involved in things that they’re passionate about.

So you guys have a game against Toronto on Martin Luther King Day. Does the organization have anything special in the cards to honor the life and legacy of one of the most prominent Atlantans?

I know the team does. I don’t know specifically what we’re doing as an organization on that day. Obviously, I think it goes without saying, you have to have the Atlanta Hawks playing on MLK Day and specifically hoping that it’s always here in the city of Atlanta. I coached in Memphis and I think there was one year after I left where there wasn’t a game on MLK Day in the city of Memphis and it didn’t go over well. So I think it’s important that there’s always a game here in the city of Atlanta and I think it’s important and I think it goes without saying that we’ll do something to honor Dr. King and his legacy, and the works of many others in the city of Atlanta and the civil rights movement and everything that has come from that, because it’s more than just celebrating Dr. King, it’s really celebrating the work and the impact his work has had on others.

As a team, we’re going to go down to the MLK Center the day after that game, on the 21st, Tuesday, we’re taking the team on a city trip. We’re going to visit a couple of areas in the city of Atlanta, but the main and the most important part is that we’re going to spend some time down at the King Center and learn about Dr. King and where he was raised in the church and the home and the burial site and what they do at the King Center to honor his legacy as well.

The Georgia Innocence Project, it’s something that seeks to fight injustice and in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King said, “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In your own words, because I think everyone can speak to this in their own words, what is the importance of Martin Luther King in this big grand fight against all forms of injustice?

Well, to me it’s, I think he fought for injustice, but I think the message that I try and have with our guys that’s similar to what Dr. King stood for and similar to what the Georgia Innocence Project does, it’s really fighting for others that are either less fortunate, don’t have an opportunity to fight for themselves, or just fighting for others because you have an opportunity. I spent time with John Lewis and Ambassador [Andrew] Young and Reverend JosephE. Lowery and they all speak of Dr. King and they speak of the work that they all did in the civil rights movement, and they were just paving the way for future generations, whether it was because of the injustice, because they were providing hope. There were a lot of young men and they were all young, relatively speaking, but their fight wasn’t for them. Their fight was for others and it was for generations to come.

I think the Georgia Innocence Project does the same thing. They’re fighting for others that don’t have the opportunity to fight for themselves and so for us, it’s provide hope. Our players are in the NBA and they’re full of hope. They’re showing young kids what they can become, and I encourage our guys to use their platform to not only show that, but to get out to show that there’s more that they can do with their platform, whether it’s provide hope, fight for others that can’t fight for themselves.

But it’s all under the same theme. We have an opportunity to provide. I have an opportunity as a coach to provide for my family and for myself, but that’s not enough. For me it’s more about helping others, as an organization I encourage our organization to get behind some of the things that I’m doing. So as an organization we have that same obligation to help others, to provide for others to be a part of different opportunities in our community, because we represent our community and we want to represent it well.

I know you mentioned going to Dr. King’s museum. What do you hope your guys are able to take away from going, getting to see that, and seeing just the breadth of the work that he did?

I think the biggest thing, because we have a bunch of young guys and we have a bunch of people that on our team that aren’t from Atlanta. It’s a staple, it’s mainstay. You’re in the city of Atlanta, you have to understand, you have to know that the King Center is there. It’s important to visit, it’s important to learn about the legacy, about the work that Dr. King did. This is a big part of the city of Atlanta and we want to be the example of what Atlanta is about on the court. We also want to be the example of what Atlanta is about off the court as well. There are so many people here that have impacted this city and impacted our country that are from Atlanta, that represent Atlanta. We want to be a part of that.