The note he wrote the other day began, “Dear Coach Linehan.” That’s who John Linehan is now, 42 years old, an assistant basketball coach at the University of Georgia. Linehan had previously worked at Brown, Drexel, Temple, Hartford, starting as a graduate assistant, climbing the ladder. Before that Linehan was a player, professionally overseas, after the Chester High product set an NCAA career steals record at Providence that still stands.
The note was from “John,” and the photo that went along with it in his note was of Linehan with the ball in his hands, in a Providence uniform.
“I was thinking about something and wanted to get your thoughts on it,’’ John started out to Coach Linehan.
These thoughts, Linehan said over the phone Monday from his apartment in Athens, Ga., had been in his head at different times over the years, but he never spoke out. “I always felt your image, it means a lot,’’ Linehan said. “You’re concerned, not about the backlash, but you try to portray a certain image.”
These past few days, Linehan said he felt he needed to do something -- “I have to say something.” He reached out to his head coach, Tom Crean, who said he’d support Linehan in whatever he said, but just asked him to speak from his heart. He didn’t mention the name George Floyd, but he didn’t have to.
“Sat on it, went for a bike ride,’’ Linehan said, then he got back and started typing into the notes page on his phone. “I actually wrote that in about 15 minutes. Just letting my frustrations out. What I was feeling, and a lot of people were feeling, especially young people, what young minorities were feeling in the country.”
That was the first part of the note, from younger John.
“With all that is happening in our country today and with violence against blacks and other minorities, I am feeling really uneasy and angry in a lot of ways. Our philosophy when it comes to basketball is to be the aggressor and always be in attack mode. Yes, I know it’s just in sports where we are praised for going out and taking what we want and always looking for a way to get the ‘edge.’
“Playing a sport is a way for young black boys like myself to go out and express themselves in a positive fashion. After the game is over, we must reserve our aggressive alter egos and become civilized. Well, it seems as if the policemen in this country can’t quite grasp and differentiate the reality from their alter egos. They somehow forget that all men are created equal no matter their race, creed, gender, etc. … What happened in Minnesota is just a microcosm of what is happening all across our nation in terms of race relations. These aren’t isolated events where young black boys and men are being assassinated, wrongly accused and persecuted, and discriminated against on a daily basis.”
Younger John wasn’t finished. He had questions for Coach Linehan.
“Coach, help me to understand why this is. Why are 93,000 and 11,000 fans screaming and cheering for me when I’m on the football field or basketball -- but then I exit the playing field, I become the hunted? I went from a place where I’m most comfortable and showcasing my God-given talent and being admired by fans from all ethnic backgrounds to leaving the field and being in a place where I’m afraid for my life and wondering if I’m going to make it to my 21st birthday.”
It used to be, Linehan said, he was more worried about getting hit by unintended bullets in a crossfire by rival gangs. “Now, I’m more likely to be aggressed or killed by the same people that are paid to protect and to serve the citizens of the United States. Please Coach, I am having a hard time with this. I don’t know whether to join the protestors and burn down the police station, loot or fight against the system.”
He signed it simply, “Sincerely, John.”
Then Coach Linehan answered it.
“Dear John, I completely understand your frustration and join you in the need to urge our leaders to find a solution to this issue of paramount importance facing our nation right now. I know it may seem like the only way for us to be heard is by acts of violence. But that only makes things worse and causes different problems for our people. We all have to lead from wherever we are.”
Linehan did not mention that he has always been considered a leader, back to his playing days.
“We have to think differently,’’ Coach Linehan told younger John. “We have to rise above this negative way of thinking and force change in a multitude of ways. Peaceful protests, getting out and voting for the right people to place in office, living your life with respect for yourself and others and demanding that others treat you with the respect that you deserve.”
When Linehan posted his note to his younger self on social media, he heard from current players and former players, part of the ongoing discussion of his life. All weekend was a discussion that included coaches checking in, “extensive conversations,’’ Linehan said, agreeing with the need for these conversations across ethnic lines, and for all coaches to speak out … like Crean said, from the heart.
He’s had personal experiences, Linehan said, but doesn’t want to share those publicly. This isn’t about him. Besides, younger John already knows about some of them already.