I was standing in the lunch line at school when it started, just like it started every single day. This brother and sister in my class, they were inseparable. You would literally never see them apart. The sister would always hold onto the brother’s arm, even when they were out at recess. They’d always be standing by the wall wearing the same clothes and the same dusty shoes.
When they got in the lunch line, the laughing started.
“Yo, what’s that smell? Smells like somebody died.”
“Hey, is that your girlfriend?”
“Why you always stink so bad?”
It was terrible. I would never join in, but I never said anything. Sometimes I’d laugh along with everybody else. They would just stand there and take it, never saying anything. The sister would put her head down and hold onto her brother, and he would stand there stonefaced.
That was way back in elementary school. For the last 20 years, I completely forgot about them. But this summer I was lying in bed flipping through the channels when I stumbled on a documentary calledBully. The film shows you real-life examples of five different kids who are put through hell by their peers.
Now I’m a grown 33-year-old man with my own family, and so at first my thoughts go right to my children. I’m thinking, How could anyone do this? These kids are monsters. But then my mind starts to drift back to my own childhood. I remember standing in that lunch line with the brother and sister and how everybody laughed. How I did nothing. Then my heart started racing. I had to get up out of bed and walk around. It really shook me up.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER LARSEN/GETTY IMAGES FOR UNICEF
How could I have done that? I mean, think about it: We were growing up in the projects. And we were laughing at these kids for wearing the same clothes? Every single one of us was disadvantaged. I’d play football, baseball and basketball and then go to school in the same pair of shoes all year. How in the world could I be laughing at anyone?
Now that I’m a grown man, it’s so clear to me these kids were going through some terrible trauma at home. That’s why the sister would never leave her brother’s side. She looked to him for protection at all times. Who knows what was happening in their home. But at the time, we all just looked at anything different as “weird.”
What they went through wasn’t dramatic. Nobody was walking up to them and pushing them or dumping their lunch tray. It was mundane. It was every day. It was psychological. So nobody stepped in to stop it. I was a big kid. I played sports. Maybe all it would have taken for it to stop was for me to say, “Hey, shut up.”
A thought crossed my mind: I wonder what those kids do now? I wonder if they ever made it out? I started getting really emotional.
Nobody stepped in to stop it. I was a big kid. I played sports. Maybe all it would have taken for it to stop was for me to say, “Hey, shut up.”
I don’t think you can fully understand this until you have children. When I think about the prospect of them feeling sad or lonely, it just tears me up inside. It makes me crazy.
Now with technology there’s so much access to anyone at all times. There’s no hiding. For us back then, it mercifully stopped after school. When the brother and sister left school, they didn’t have to face our dumb comments anymore. Now that kind of bullying can continue when they get home on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter.
I see it in my own life. People say the craziest things to me online. People will follow me and post nothing but negative comments on my page. Every guy in the NBA will tell you, “I don’t read that stuff,” but the truth is that you can’t escape it. Some of the things people say are really malicious and over the line.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP IMAGES
Whenever I shake my head at these people, I have to look in the mirror at myself. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my younger days this summer, and there’s a lot of stuff I wish I could take back. But one thing I realized is that a lot of the bullying we did stemmed from our own insecurities. We all came from a tough neighborhood. We were all sensitive. We were all hurting in some way. But instead of coming together, we looked for those weaker than us to pick on.
It’s not right. We need more leaders. Not “captain of the football team” leaders. True leaders. We need more kids who are willing to stand up for what’s right. I want to make it my mission to get involved with schools to talk to kids about bullying, not because I’m an NBA player or because I always did things the right way. No. I want to get involved because of what I didn’t do. If that brother and sister happen to be reading this, I just want to say that I’m sorry, and that you are a hell of a lot stronger than me.