MISSOULA -- As the national news of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers concludes its second week of dominating the headlines in a pandemic-wrecked nation, few in Montana feel the pain like Travis DeCuire.
After all, DeCuire is one of very few black men or women who calls Montana home. But unlike most, DeCuire holds a position of leadership and stature not many African Americans in the Treasure State come to see. But such is life in a state that is 86 percent white.
In fact, it’s rarely noted how DeCuire’s hiring in 2014 as the men’s basketball coach at Montana marked the first time a black head coach, male or female, took the reins of an athletic program at either Montana or Montana State. With it, the Griz program, one DeCuire himself graduated from in the 1990s, is once again the crown jewel of the Big Sky Conference and arguably a better draw than some low-end Pac-12 schools.
DeCuire often keeps things close to the vest, especially on controversial issues, and who can blame him? But lately DeCuire has used his platform as a NCAA Division I basketball coach to express his anger, frustration and opinions on the subject of racial inequalities in America after Floyd’s death.
Speaking to MTN Sports on Friday, DeCuire talked about a multitude of subjects pertaining to this issue, starting with his reaction to Floyd's death.
"It's hard to explain because I've been seeing it my entire life," DeCuire said. "I think that's the perspective that a lot of people just don't understand. They see the two or three videos over a three- or four-year period that they just happen to catch on their timeline, and it's a lot easier to move on when you think it's a couple incidents here or there. But for us it's a reality to our life.
"When we talk about our fears growing up and the fears that we're taught as young black men growing up in an African American community, they're real, and it's just unfortunate that it's hard to express or explain in enough conversations when there probably aren't enough open ears."
DeCuire has used his Twitter account to call those to action for change. He’s called for change and criticized verbiage from President Donald Trump’s response to the protesters.
There are a lot of long-term changes DeCuire wants to see, starting with the education of younger people about these issues. Using himself as an example, DeCuire, who grew up in Seattle, began going to school outside of his community when he was 14.
"You look at Missoula, Great Falls, Bozeman, Billings and Helena as metropolitan cities of Montana, and you really look at the numbers, it's very easy for a student to grow up, preschool, kindergarten, first through eighth grade, get through high school and not sit in a classroom with a black student," he said. "And so there's a perspective that they'll never get because they're not walking the halls, spending the night, playing sports and they're not having normal day-to-day activities take place that allow them to get comfortable and hear perspective in casual conversation.
"So most of the time when they get their education, it's on CNN when it's an explosion."
DeCuire wants to see students educated so that if and when they ultimately leave their communities, they have a better understanding of life outside of their comfort zones. That way, when tragedies like Floyd's occur, people will be more comfortable in trying to figure out how to solve the issue going forward.
"A lot of that comes from being uncomfortable because they didn't have someone put their arm around them and explain to them about black, brown or yellow communities and how different they are and it's OK that they're different," DeCuire said. "It's OK that we can all operate together. And one day, you're going to be in a situation where you are going to share your community with them, you're going to have to. So let's look into what it is that you're including when you move on and leave Montana."
Here is a hypothetical DeCuire offered: If a community was split into thirds -- 33 percent is white and racist, 33 percent white and understanding, and the remaining 33 percent is minorities. If you combine the minorities with the non-racist white community, then the racist community is now in the minority.
"Now you can impact change because there's a majority that might not be based on color, but it's based on views," DeCuire said. "To me, that's as important as anything we can put on the table in terms of trying to create a change."
But that's where education comes in, and that is needed when kids are younger.
And DeCuire has experience as an educator and coach of 30 years. His energy is spent in teaching. When he was coaching AAU ball in Seattle, DeCuire mixed players from Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue and Mercer Island, so each kid could bring a different background to the table and share those experiences while just being kids together. Then, their viewpoints might change of preconceived biases because they've met someone with a certain type of background.
But metropolitan areas offer those opportunities while rural states like Montana don't. So now, people who think outside of the box are now required to teach their kids or students about what is going on.
Even then, it's tricky. DeCuire mentioned speaking with a friend whose sister is a teacher who brought up the ongoing events in America with her class, and she received an email from a parent saying it's not her job and the classroom isn't the place for these things to be presented.
"If that's your view, you don't want change," DeCuire said. "If your kid can't learn what we're going through as a country, your kid is never going to help us change and evolve as a country, and that's a major part of the problem."
People who speak out and post on social media and make statements in front of cameras are "huge" and "positive," according to DeCuire. But he wants to see solutions, as well.
"We can say we need reform. Well, you're not going to get it and you're not going to get what you want out of changing policies if the people you're trying to get to help you change the policies don't understand why," DeCuire said. "We need enough people to admit what the why is, what the issue and the problem is to continue to move forward.
"We need to make sure more people understand why."
This is where the percentage example DeCuire used comes in. There are some who are not open to this conversation. There are others who are open but don't know how to start the conversation, because they don't have the information but are listening. They just need the education to make a difference.
"But there is a group that has their ears plugged and it starts with the president of the United States," DeCuire said. "His ears are plugged. When he goes in front of a microphone, he has yet to address the issues. He's talking about the response and if we continue to only deal with the response, we'll never have change."
When it came to moving to Montana in the 90s as a student, DeCuire said he had no worries or reservations about coming into a state that was predominantly white because of his experiences of leaving his community as a teenager and attending Mercer Island High School. Mercer Island, a mostly white community, was similar to Missoula at the time, according to DeCuire.
"I went through my culture shock in high school," he said.
A lot of black athletes come to Montana, at all levels, to pursue a college career. UM has recruited well in the Seattle area, as well as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, so a lot of minorities from urban areas are now coming to Montana, which is completely different from where they grew up.
DeCuire said his athletes know those differences will be there, but the conversation he tells them typically praises how Montana has improved over the years.
"What I need to explain to them is that it's an open-armed community when you get there and that, as a student-athlete, you have a community that is looking forward to having you come and be a part of what the University of Montana is," DeCuire said. "I typically will explain will how Missoula has evolved since I went to school there because you'll get asked by parents, 'My son, is he safe?' And the answer is, 'Yes, and here's why.'"
DeCuire uses his family as an example.
"The fact that I've been there as a long as I have, I took a 4-year-old girl there (his daughter Tamia) and she's now 9 years old and we're still there," DeCuire said. "We've had opportunities to relocate and didn't do that, and so that alone is comforting to the parents of the young men that we're recruiting.
"It's a community that's grown and a community that's changed."
Some of that change stems from Montanans who leave for metropolitan areas and come back, whether they went to college at UM or MSU. But DeCuire said issues that maybe were present when he was a student, whether it be actions or words, are not as frequent now. He sees more inclusiveness.
"The conversation that takes place on airplanes when you have a recruit coming in and all of a sudden some fan that doesn't even know us is recruiting the kid before he gets off the plane," he said. "Maybe in 1989-90, there might've been a little stink-eye on that plane."
Another example used was fraternity parties. DeCuire said back in his playing days, he said there was no way he was ever getting into a frat party.
"Now, I'm trying to keep them out of them," he said, pausing and then letting out a big laugh. "But that's not enough. It's just an example of how far we've had to come."
But part of the issue on speaking out is the backlash. DeCuire’s role as a leader at one of Montana’s two largest universities puts him in a unique situation, especially as the lone African American who has the role of head coach in the Griz athletic department. Expressing raw opinions over subjects that invoke a lot of opinions and backlash is difficult for a coach, as the past few years have shown when sports coincide with issues outside of the lines.
"We say this is a free country, we say that our constitution is set up for us to be able to speak our mind and voice our opinions and not have that held against us," DeCuire said. "That's why change is stifled and growth is minimized.
"The fact that backlash takes place is the biggest reason there's no growth and no change."
That includes spinning something someone said in a negative way and using that to respond with their own view in a combative way.
"There's a lot of people who might have some really good ideas that might want to do something conducive to changing and growing as a country but don't because the way their treated after they make their statement," DeCuire said, using Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick as examples.
"It's hard for anyone to be honest about how they feel because it makes people uncomfortable," DeCuire said.
He believes that if the responses to the protests were calmer, less damage would've been done to private property and businesses that have been affected by the riots. But that comes as a result of people responding to the response instead of the issue.
DeCuire’s staff — Chris Cobb, Jay Flores and Zach Payne — have all used their social media accounts to express their desire for change on social media and showing support for Montana players — past and present — who have also spoken out.
Another long-term solution for DeCuire is seeing community members become police officers or firefighters in the communities they grew up because they have a better understanding of how things operate. He also used the NBA as the best example of pro sports where black players have a say in how things operate better than other leagues. Getting black voices in positions of power has helped the NBA in terms of decision-making within the league as well as profit margins.
Getting black men and women and other minorities "a seat at the table" in leadership and decision-making positions where they can speak for their communities and understand those perspectives is paramount in DeCuire's eyes. And that extends past sports to music and politics or down to the lower levels as policemen or firefighters who understand these communities.
In the short-term, DeCuire says voting is the best way to make change: "There's a lot of people out here that have a lot to say and want things to change that haven't voted."
At the end of the day, DeCuire, like all protesters, wants change. He wants the death of Floyd to mark America using tragedy to put injustice and inequality to bed for good. He wants names like Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many more to be more than just names whose causes disappear into the night sky, forgotten as the vicious cycle continues on as history has shown it does.
"Until we start dealing with the issues more than dealing with the responses, we'll start having some change and growth and we will become a country that might actually be great," DeCuire said. "Right now it doesn't feel that way because we're fighting each other. We're at war with each other right now. We have a president that just declared war on people that are crying for help.
"We turned our military on our own people. There's other fights out there for us to fight, and we should be fighting together."