By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI – Wayne Ellington is standing in a room filled with hundreds of high school students, all of them silent and hanging on every word that the new Miami Heat guard is saying.
He’s not there to tell basketball stories. He’s there to talk about his father – a victim of gun violence not even two years ago.
Ellington plays his first preseason game with the Heat on Tuesday night, an exhibition matchup in Washington against the Wizards that will soon be forgotten. But he’s already trying to make a much more lasting impact in Miami by sharing the story of the pain that continues to linger after his father was shot dead when an argument went very wrong.
“Still grieving and it’s still fresh,” Ellington said. “But I just realized I’ve got to do as much as I can to make a difference. Every day, it’s happening to a different family, to somebody’s son, to somebody’s father. So this stage I’m on, this platform I’m on, I want to make use of it as much as I can for as long as I’m on it to raise as much awareness as I can.”
Seeing athletes try to use their platform with hopes of sparking social change is commonplace right now, starting with San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem in a protest designed to bring new light on racial injustice – and countless other high school, college and pro athletes following suit since.
Ellington and some members of the Heat want to go farther, beyond symbolic acts that occur during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner.
“It’s important for us to bring awareness to the situation,” Heat forward Justise Winslow said. “But even more important is what we do with that awareness. We have to go out in the community, we have to figure things out … the right way to raise awareness. We all might not agree on everything, but we have to figure out some- thing.” All around the Heat locker room, there are players that can relate to what many in the U.S. are dealing with right now.
Winslow is from Houston, where the city dealt with a mass shooting just last week. Hassan Whiteside is from just outside of Charlotte, where the recent shooting death of a black man by a police officer sparked two nights of violent protests and added to the nation’s fury over a rash of such incidents. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson have mothers who have spent their adult lives serving in the military. Ellington’s father was killed by a gunshot.
“It affects all of us,”Whiteside said.
Ellington’s father was shot twice in the head on Nov. 9, 2014, found behind the wheel of his car in Philadelphia. A man pleaded guilty to a third-degree murder charge earlier this year for the shooting, and is serving a sentence of 30 to 60 years.
Ellington started what he calls the Peace Games earlier this year, an event designed to bring at-risk youth and young adults together to talk about gun violence prevention and other causes.
“I knew I had to do something to make a change,” Ellington said.
The protests and pleas by several athletes – Kaepernick included – have largely centered around the relationship between police and citizens. For Ellington, it goes far deeper.
And his new teammates already seem genuinely moved by his story.
“We all have to live together – Spanish people, black people, white people, all col- ors, all races,” Miami forward Derrick Williams said. “For us to survive, we have to stay together.”
Ellington doesn’t speak for long when he’s talking to schoolkids; in two recent appearances, his remarks lasted just a few minutes at each stop.
He didn’t need to say much more. His message is simple: There’s almost always a better way than violence.
“You don’t have to take that direction,” Ellington says, as dozens of kids stare right at him, many of them nodding. “There’s so many other opportunities out there for you. There’s so many other different ways to solve a problem, to solve a conflict. We need to come together as people. We need to love each other. We need to find ways to help each other. That’s what I’m here to do.”