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Social protest movement hits home with Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn

Nets interim head coach Jacque Vaughn looks on

Nets interim head coach Jacque Vaughn looks on in the first half of an NBA game against the Bulls at Barclays Center on March 8. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the NBA hit pause on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn was only two games into his audition to replace Kenny Atkinson as the full-time head coach. His status has grown even more tenuous because of complications associated not only with the NBA’s plans to resume play but also because of widespread social unrest over questions about the need for police reform and racial justice.

For the first time since the season halted, Vaughn addressed some of those questions in an interview with YES Network, the Nets’ broadcast partner, that was scheduled to air Wednesday night. Vaughn especially has been moved by the protest movement stemming from the recent death of George Floyd as a result of police brutality in Minneapolis.

Questioned by YES reporter Michael Grady about his reaction to civil unrest, which has included repeated demonstrations and marches in Brooklyn, Vaughn said, “I have two teenage young men who are seeing this atmosphere for the first time, so it’s been interesting having conversations with them, discussing language with them, discussing movies, terminology, things that we did not discuss at the dinner table earlier. But now, we have been able to have those tough conversations.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Vaughn can draw on his own experience witnessing the riots that broke out in 1992 after a jury acquitted four policemen for beating Rodney King in an arrest that was videotaped. “Those memories are really still inside my head of the Rodney King verdict,” Vaughn said. “The week after that, a lot of places I had grown up walking to — stores, establishments that were really native to my upbringing — weren’t there anymore. That left a lasting impression on me, so I am definitely in a position where a lot of memories have been kind of regurgitated.”

Vaughn praised the actions of Nets owner Joseph Tsai, who was quick to issue a statement supporting peaceful demonstrations, many of which have taken place outside Barclays Center, where the Nets play. “It’s been huge to be associated with an organization that from Day One stepped up and was willing to have a tough conversation about what’s going on in our society,” Vaughn said, “condemn the actions of our society but also continue the dialogue of improving where we are as a society.”

When the season was interrupted, Vaughn had a 2-0 record, including a road win over the Lakers in the last game the Nets played. Point guard Kyrie Irving was out after undergoing shoulder surgery, but when Vaughn took over, their solid relationship was viewed as an asset to his head coaching candidacy.

Now, Irving reportedly is leading a group of players who oppose an NBA restart because it might take attention away from the protest movement. Asked for his thoughts on Irving, Vaughn said, “He’s a really special individual, really process the game in a different way, sees it more globally. Very intuitive to what’s going on at the moment but can make adjustments and, at the same time, is a good listener.”

Plans for the restart still are in flux, but the Nets are scheduled to return to Brooklyn on Monday for individual workouts on a voluntary basis. Attendance is mandatory starting on July 1, but there will be no full team practices until the Nets travel to Orlando on July 7 to enter the "bubble” at Disney World.

“I am excited about it,” Vaughn told YES. “I think it’s a combination of March Madness . . . [and] a little bit of the Summer League element, so you’re going to have to be very flexible in your thought process. We are getting back to competing, and I am definitely looking forward to that.”

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