MISSOULA — From the beginning of the season and even into the summer, the Montana men's basketball team has been committed to being an example of activism through actions and a consistent message.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this week, the Grizzlies again showed why they're one of the most active programs in the state and country for carrying that message of racial equality when they officially opened and welcomed Montana's Diversity Education Library on campus.
By partnering with non-profit Little Free Library, the library is a wooden box that was installed and provides free access to books. The box is filled by donated books, and people are allowed to freely check books out and are also encouraged to add more. Per UM, more that 40 Little Free Library locations are registered in the Missoula area.
The one created by the UM basketball team has a specific message, as players and coaches filled the library with anti-racism and minority-themed literature aimed at educating the community.
The campaign was spearheaded by UM assistant coach Zach Payne who came up with the idea after conversations with head coach Travis DeCuire and the rest of the team.
"For me at least, my daughter is 2 years old, she’s biracial," Payne told MTN Sports. "It’s really important to me that she grows up and feels represented, not just in her own community, but in what she reads, what she watches on TV, dolls she plays with."
Ever since June and July, the Grizzlies have met consistently for discussions on how to carry their message. The idea for the library came up in the fall and comes hand-in-hand with Montana wearing the word "solidarity" on the backs of player's uniforms while also having 100% voter registration and turnout within the program. Sophomore forward Kyle Owens and associate head coach Chris Cobb are also men's basketball representatives on Montana's Athletics Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
"One of the things we talked about was we didn't want this to be a deal where we just did one thing and no one ever heard from us again," Payne said. "One of the things we talked about was we didn't want to be the team that took a knee for the national anthem, which we haven't, and then no one ever heard about us or we weren't doing anything in our community.
"Basically the theme was let’s not talk about it, let’s be about it. And so we all kind of challenged ourselves like let’s put something into action."
Payne, a Bay Area native, said he saw libraries like this popping up back home and thought it would fit well in Missoula.
"I think it’s so important for minorities as they grow up, the more that they can have those type of experiences where the books they do read have people that look like them," Payne explained. "And then I think it’s so important for people that don’t grow up or don’t live around Black and Brown people that they get the chance to read books and watch shows and stuff like that with Black and Brown people in it and so that’s kind of where the idea came from."
In meeting with UM president Seth Bodnar and receiving support from the school, the team opted to go forth with the library. Players, coaches and staff, including Bodnar as well, all purchased books or donated from their own collections in the first wave that went into the library on Monday.
The options range from children's to adult books. Being a father of a young girl, Payne said seeing options around Missoula in children's literature was one of the most important parts, because it coincides with the team message that equality and understanding comes from education, a point driven by DeCuire.
But from a coach's standpoint, seeing Montana's group of young athletes, most of whom are minorities, continue to use their platform has been one of the most important parts, Payne said.
"Their willingness to put themselves out there and get behind something has been phenomenal," Payne said, while also crediting DeCuire for beginning it all and opening himself up publicly on social issues as well. "Our biggest responsibility (as coaches) is to help groom these guys into young men.
"We have such good guys and they have such high character and I think they care about the right stuff. I've just been really impressed by them. They’ve been willing to stand up, and I think the hardest thing is to put yourself out there especially when you’re a minority and you’re in a community where a lot of people don’t look like you, and so I’ve just been so impressed by our guys' willingness to stand up and put themselves out there and then take some action."
While the library is new, Payne said the program has gotten positive feedback for its activism from the campus community as well as around Missoula.
In the end, their goal is simple.
"It's important. Racism didn't go away in our country over the summer, and it's not going to go away for a long time," Payne said. "It's a continuous fight. There’s the preschool right there in the education building that the library is pretty much right in front of. If there’s one kid in the preschool that gets a book read to them that has somebody, and they feel more represented because somebody in the book looks like them, or they’re able to feel differently about somebody else, because that person looks different from them, then we did our job."