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UNC women's basketball puts social justice issues front and center with Black History Month Celebration

Current and past players of the UNC women’s basketball team celebrate together at a home game in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2022.

The North Carolina women's basketball team looked a bit different when they trotted out onto the floor of Carmichael Arena for a shootaround ahead of Sunday's game versus Wake Forest.

Rather than their typical grey practice shirts, the team donned white tees emblazoned with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." The back of the shirt read "BLACK HISTORY MONTH" in bold letters.

The custom-made warmups were part of the team's Black History Month Celebration, which was a collaboration with the Carolina Black Caucus. Between quarters, the team honored three "outstanding community members" — former Carolina Union Director Crystal King, former player Camille Little and educator Lillian Lee.

"It means a lot to us as players," junior guard Deja Kelly said. "Sometimes there can be times where across the country, you know, some student-athletes don't feel seen, don't feel heard."

Kelly said that is not the case with the UNC women's basketball team, which frequently highlights issues of social justice during games and on its social media. Head coach Courtney Banghart has encouraged her players to use their voices for positive change since she took over the program in 2019.

Banghart dispels the myth that sports is no place for politics. In fact, she argues, women's basketball is the perfect platform for such activism.

"I'm uniquely positioned because I think we play a sport that has some of the best diversity across the board, not just racially, but socially, economically, interests and all that," Banghart said after Sunday's game. "We coach really unique people all the time from different parts of the country and whatnot, and if they are an example of what's to come in the future, then we're going to be alright."

On Sunday, those "future leaders" had a chance to honor the past.

Lillian Lee, who was honored before the start of the fourth quarter, dedicated her life to a career in education. She was one of the first teachers at UNC's Hospital School and later was an administrator in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School system. She knows how revered athletes are at UNC and said they "have an obligation to stand up for what's right."

Lee is old enough to remember a time when Black athletes at North Carolina were not allowed to compete on scholarship. Around the same time that Charlie Scott became UNC's first Black varsity men's basketball player, Lee's husband, Howard Lee, began campaigning to become the first Black mayor of Chapel Hill, which he later achieved.

"The little boys on the playground would be playing (basketball), and they would put up a shot and they'd say 'Charlie Scott!' if they made it," Lee said. "So they care a lot about that."

Scott found ways to positively impact the Black community through his visibility as a star athlete. More than 50 years later, some players on UNC's team are hoping to do the same.

Kelly, who has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers across several social media platforms, said that NIL has allowed her to reach a broader audience in pursuit of this goal.

"I don't want to be known as a person that doesn't speak up," Kelly said. "Like our quote says, there comes a time when silence is betrayal, and I think I feel I strongly feel that way. So, I feel like if as long as I use my voice there will be change in some way."


@dthsports |

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Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.