As Armstrong boys basketball coach Darryl Watts began remarks to a gathering of his peers Saturday morning, he expressed that he stepped forward in front of them as a member of a new team.
The team is not about wins or losses on the basketball court.
It’s about change.
“That’s a team bigger than any other team that I’ve ever been a part of,” Watts said. “This team is dedicated to being a part of the healing process as we move forward. This team is also dedicated to educating our young people moving forward, in areas of police relations, trauma and other issues that they may face during the day.”
The new team is 804 Coaches for Change, an alliance that came together this week, spearheaded in part by Watts and by Stephen Lewis, a coach and athletics administrator at St. Christopher’s.
The group’s first event took place Saturday morning, in the form of a peaceful protest, spurred by the protests and activism against racism and police brutality taking place around the world in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
The protest began at the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue, with several speakers, addressing a crowd of at least 100 coaches and other supporters. Some 60 schools and other athletic organizations were represented, including college, high school and AAU — from around Virginia.
At the end, participants made the 1.3-mile walk down Monument Avenue to the Robert E. Lee statue.
“This is emotional for me. It’s huge, it’s huge,” Watts said. “And all the while, our work is not done. Just because we had this event today, we have work to finish. And so we will continue as we go forward.”
Speakers included Lewis, Watts, TPLS Christian Academy boys basketball coach Chuck Moore, Team Richmond AAU coach Ray Bolton, Collegiate boys basketball coach Del Harris, VCU men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades, UVA men’s basketball associate head coach Jason Williford, John Marshall boys basketball coach Ty White and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Watts and Lewis were a part of a Zoom meeting with more than a dozen other coaches on Tuesday afternoon, during which they discussed Saturday’s plan. From that sprouted Saturday’s result, with coaches from not just the Richmond area, but from all over — as far as Radford to the west and Phoebus High School (Hampton) to the east.
In their remarks to the crowd, the coaches who spoke discussed their important roles of influence, and also what must happen.
“We as coaches, we’re united now,” Moore said. “This is a coaching fraternity that can change the world, because we change lives each day with the players we get our hands on. And that’s what we want to do.”
Change, Harris said, is not found in their comfort zones. They’re going to have to have uncomfortable conversations, he said.
Rhoades said he has taken pride in taking care of his players — loving them, mentoring them, pushing them.
But he said he’s failed them.
“I got to do better. I got to do better,” Rhoades said. “I hear you, I’m listening to you. I hear my players, I’m listening to my players. And I’m arm in arm with all of you, fighting this cause.”
Most of the entire VCU men’s basketball staff attended Saturday, including assistant coaches J.D. Byers, Jamal Brunt and Brent Scott.
Byers said he didn’t think they could miss the occasion. The staff has had discussions with the players, including in the team’s weekly Zoom meeting this past weekend.
“Just an opportunity to listen to them, both as a team meeting but also individually,” he said. “And just hear their frustrations and their angers. And just listening to them open up. It’s been hard, but at the same time, it’s been good to hear how they’re feeling.”
UVA’s men’s basketball team also had a Zoom call about a week ago, which Williford said was therapeutic. Williford is a Richmond native who used to live up the block from a school named after Confederate cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, which was renamed Barack Obama Elementary School in 2018. A J.E.B. Stuart monument is one of the five Confederate statues set to be removed from Monument Avenue.
Williford, in his remarks to the crowd Saturday, challenged everyone to hold each other accountable and urged them to vote.
“We got to vote,” he said. “And if people don’t have our interests in mind, we vote them out. We vote people in who are about injustice and change and equality.”
Fairfax said to the group that this moment in history is an opportunity for a fresh start. He noted that last year marked 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia and 400 years since the first meeting of the General Assembly.
This moment in history, he said, marks the first year of the next 400 years of Virginia and of America.
“We now get to write a new chapter and a new story in Virginia,” he said. “We can get rid of the racism. We can get rid of the sexism. We can get rid of the inequality. We can get rid of the lack of educational opportunities, economic opportunities. The things that have held us down. We can get rid of the divisions that have kept us apart, and kept us from being who we can be.”
When coaches arrived Saturday, they were asked to sign two poster boards, and emails were collected, too. From here, Lewis will start a website for 804 Coaches for Change, and put together an email list.
The group plans regular Zoom meetings with the coaches’ athletes involved, which will then be posted to the 804 Coaches for Change site. Lewis would like to do one on police relations in particular, and have a police officer join.
Watts said he hopes the coaches will take whatever they gain in the unified efforts back to their communities and educate.
Saturday, upon arrival at the Lee statue, the coaches took group pictures in front of it, fists raised. A round of applause broke out.
For this new team, it’s just the beginning.
“Our opponent right now is racism,” Watts said. “And we will not lose. We will not lose.”