It began as a normal conversation. Rasir Bolton, the freshman starting point guard for Penn State’s basketball team, was working out with the shooting machine on an off day. The gym was mostly empty. Head coach Pat Chambers called Bolton over to talk.
It was January 2019, and the team was in a troubled state. Four days earlier, during a loss at Michigan, Chambers became enraged during a timeout and shoved one of his players in the chest. The moment was caught on national television. Chambers apologized and was suspended for the next game, a 19-point home loss to Wisconsin. Bolton shot poorly against Wisconsin and finished with seven points, five assists and two turnovers.
The day after the Wisconsin game, Chambers told Bolton he knew the freshman was under a lot of pressure and wanted to help him. Bolton recalls Chambers, who was on the hot seat due to the suspension and a 7-8 record at that point in the season, saying, “I want to be a stress reliever for you. You can talk to me about anything. I need to get some of this pressure off you.
“I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck.”
This happened what feels like a lifetime ago — before the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery ignited protests that shook America. Before the protests emboldened athletes at Clemson, Iowa, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas State to reveal troubling racial interactions with their coaches, and encouraged Texas football players to demand a more inclusive campus culture. Before NASCAR banned the Confederate flag and was immediately rocked by a noose impersonating a door pulldown in the garage of its only Black driver. Before four Black people were found hanging from trees across the country, supposedly all suicides, in less than a month.