‘If I can change one life, then I’ve done my job’ — •
On June 11, Juan Toscano-Anderson, the Golden State Warriors’ 28-year-old second-year forward, was announced as one of the finalists for the NBA’s inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award, which will be given to a player that best embodies the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer’s lifelong work toward racial equality.
Of the five finalists – which also include Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday and Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris – Toscano-Anderson is likely the least known.
The former Marquette forward went unselected during the 2015 NBA draft, and bounced around professional leagues in Mexico and Venezuela over the next few years before landing a spot on the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Warriors’ G League affiliate, ahead of the 2018-19 season. Before last year’s regular season was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Toscano-Anderson was called up to the Warriors to play in the team’s final 13 games.
Through it all, the East Oakland, California, native has continued to advocate on behalf of Black Americans and Latinos (Toscano-Anderson’s mother is Mexican and his father is Black), both in the Golden State and in Mexico. He was nominated by the Warriors for the social justice award for his participation in the team’s Voters Win campaign during the 2020 election, which emphasized voting for Black and Latino communities, and for organizing two Walking in Unity protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd last spring. Toscano-Anderson also recently launched the Journey to Achieve Foundation, a vehicle to provide resources for young Black and brown children.
Toscano-Anderson spoke with • about being nominated for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award, how his mother influences his racial equality work, and what growing up in East Oakland taught him about being a Black and Mexican man in America.
How does it feel to be recognized as a finalist for an award named after someone like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
It’s really cool to be acknowledged for the good deeds that we try to do. And when I say ‘we,’ I’m speaking of all the guys who had the opportunity to be nominated and the finalists as well. The acknowledgment is cool. I’m sure none of those guys do it for the acknowledgment.
It is very gratifying to be in that conversation for an award by a Hall of Famer, a guy who is greatness in Kareem. That’s extremely exciting, but then just to be in that company of Carmelo [Anthony], Jrue Holiday, Tobias Harris … Harrison Barnes; that’s all great company. Even if I don’t win – I’m going to be pretty bummed if I don’t win – but even if I don’t, just to even be in that top five with that type of company is really cool.
All the nominees could choose an organization that they would want the NBA to donate the $100,000 grand prize to. Why did you choose Homies Empowerment?
Because they have a huge presence here in East Oakland, and that’s where I’m from. I know maybe people would hope or prefer that I branch out a little bit more within the Bay Area, in which I try to do from time to time, but I have a sentimental connection obviously to my community, but I also have a very experienced connection to this community. Sometimes we get the opportunity to donate money and resources to different places where we don’t really know what’s being done with the money – not saying that it’s not going to where it’s supposed to be going, but I just think it’s home, a little different when I can actually see the benefit of donations and philanthropy work in my own community.
And I’m in that community every day. My grandpa lives in that community still, the same house that I grew up in, he’s been living there for 60 years or 50 years. My mom still works in East Oakland, and I’m always going back and forth there to visit my family, to visit my mom at work. That’s why I chose Homies Empowerment, because I know my mom has a great connection with that group. I know them a little bit, and we know what they are doing. We can see what they’re doing, we can check on what they’re doing. I just think it’s a different approach for me this time around.
In East Oakland, there’s a lot of Black people, there’s a large Latino population. What kind of impact did growing up there teach you about becoming a Black and Mexican man living in America?
That question is deep, man. That question could be a whole conversation in itself. I was lucky enough to go to high school in the suburbs. And I’ve been lucky enough to live in better circumstances since living on 95th [Avenue in East Oakland]. People always talk about the struggle and the struggle making you, and this, that and the third. And that’s cool and all; I struggled in my life, but I don’t believe you have to struggle to appreciate life. I don’t believe you have to struggle in life to do great things. I want to remove that misconception from people’s minds.
These kids don’t have to be poor. These kids don’t have to get out of the mud. These kids don’t have to go take BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] all the way to San Francisco, or all the way to Berkeley, or all the way somewhere else to get the resources they need. I want to remove that misconception, and I want to remove that whole thing where we got to go elsewhere to get what we need. Why can’t we get it here in East Oakland, at home?
With being nominated for the award, they mentioned your work with the Journey to Achieve Foundation, the Warriors’ Voters Win campaign and the Walk in Unity events that you organized. What impact do you hope to have with this work?
I want to shoot for the stars. So if I can impact a hundred kids, that would be more than amazing, but if I can change one life, then I’ve done my job. That one life could have a snowball effect, and that one person that I’ve helped impact, it could impact another person or two people. That’s what I’m looking for, man. I shoot for the stars, but if I can just help one person change their lives, then I’ve done my job for the day. Tomorrow I will try to find somebody else to help.
Who influenced you to be more involved in this kind of work, wanting to help people who look like you?
My mom, first and foremost … because my mom is the greatest person who ever walked this earth in my life. My mom has helped people sometimes even before helping us. I can’t tell you how many people who have needed a place to stay and my mom has A) either allowed them to come stay with us for some time, B) helped them pay their bills or C) actually paying for them to live in a hotel until they got on their own feet and got their s— together. My mom is just dope. … I can admire it from afar now, but even as a kid, when I lived with my mom, it was very heartwarming to see.
My AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] coach Raymond Young. He’s a good dude. AAU’s messed up nowadays, and people do it for their own pockets. They do it for their own clout, their own reputation. And when I say ‘they,’ adults. But he’s been doing this for 30, 40 years, and he’s impacted so many lives. Dame Lillard played for him. I played for him. Johnnie Bryant, who’s on the coaching staff for the New York Knicks, played for him. It’s not a big number of NBA guys like some teams, like D.C. Assault and [New York] Gauchos and so forth, but he changed my life and he didn’t get a dollar for it. That was just him putting in time. He saw a young man who needed help, who needed some guidance, who needed some advice, who needed some molding, and he did that for me. I’m very appreciative and thankful for him helping me change my life.
You’re fairly new to the NBA, and for a long time players didn’t really speak out about these sorts of things, as it pertained to race. What has that freedom been like for you to be able to just openly speak about this and not really have to worry about any consequences?
It starts with the NBA, and it starts with the Warriors. It’s a safe space here for our team at Golden State, first and foremost, but shout-out to the NBA for being such a progressive league, for being so supportive of our needs, and being conscious enough to realize that this league is dominated by Black men. What’s going on in the world affects us. We are basketball players, but we’re humans first. After we leave this gym, we go home to a family, we go home to the real world.
When we’re in transition from the gym to our house, a lot of us are worried about, ‘Am I driving correctly? Do I have my driver’s license?’ I would hate to come in contact with the police just because I don’t know how that interaction is going to go. I don’t think all policemen are bad, but you never know. I could easily have been George Floyd. It’s really cool that the NBA’s supportive and progressive enough to allow us to have a platform to speak openly. And I think that’s very healthy and I think it’s very needed for the Black community right now.
When I speak with people, everyone kind of has that moment or that event that happens in America that opens their eyes to the racial inequality or inequities that we all face. For me, it was Trayvon Martin. I was 22 at the time and this was a 17-year-old. So you can kind of see yourself in that. For you, what was that moment, if there was one, that opened your eyes to what people who look like you face on an everyday basis?
I’ve been lucky enough because my mom was so involved in things like that. When I was a kid, my mom worked for a place called Catholic Charities in downtown Oakland, and every Saturday they did a juvenile delinquent program. I’ve always been conscious of the disparities because of color. The incarceration rates, the poverty rates, being on food stamps, all of that stuff. I’ve been conscious of that. I know people who were on food stamps. S—, at one point we were on food stamps. My stepfather was incarcerated for many years, for many different things, some not worthy of being incarcerated for. I lived in East Oakland, but then I ended up going to a school in the suburbs that was dominated by rich white kids, where there was a lot of racist stuff going on. Friends would get in trouble for certain things, but a kid walking around the school with a noose hanging on the back of his pocket was just taken so lightly.
I’ve had my fair share of experiences in life that have allowed me to be aware of what the real world is. Working in corporate America is dominated by white men. Sometimes it sucks that you got to change up your persona a little bit to fit in and things like that. I’ve been pretty aware my whole life. I’m thankful for my mom for not shunning me or hiding me from what the real world is.
You created the Journey to Achieve Foundation. What made you start the foundation and what do you hope to achieve with it?
I have a very good connection with the Latino community, with the African American community. I felt like I could orchestrate some things to connect the dots. Sometimes that’s all it is for people, connecting the dots. I don’t necessarily have a goal for the foundation, other than one thing I would love to do is to create a JTA Foundation scholarship every year. Maybe send a kid to college and hopefully try to pay for a real scholarship, try to pay for a kid to go to college and pursue their dreams and hopefully go out and maybe try to change the world. You never know who you could inspire, you could be inspiring the next president.
The previous four years, there’s been a lot of anti-Mexican, anti-Latino American sentiment in the country, most notably building a wall across the Mexican border. Your family is from Mexico, so for you, living in both of these worlds, what have these last five years been like for you on a personal level?
A lot of it makes me angry. But then again, I also have to realize that there are a lot of idiots in this world. And I stand firm on using that word. A lot of people are ridiculous people. A lot of people are evil people. I don’t understand how you could wake up and have hatred for a whole group of people. But then again, I grew up differently. I was raised differently. I was raised with a pure heart and by a pure person. I was never raised to hate anybody.
That causes some anger and resentment on my own part for what’s going on. But at the end of the day, it’s cliche, but you have to rise above that stuff. You have to go out and just prove people wrong. You have to go out and make a change. We have to go out and empower young African American, young Latino kids so that they can grow up and be great. When we have a Black president, what the hell are you going to say? When the best player in all the sports is African American or Latino, what the hell are you going to say? When you’re a vice president as a Black woman, what are you going to say? That’s how I look at it. We just gotta beat the odds and we gotta start to take over in places where they trying to keep us out of.