August 29, 2020 

Tianna Hawkins’ son is a visible reminder of what the Washington Mystics are fighting for

Five-year-old Emanuel knelt with the Mystics and three other teams Wednesday after they decided not to play

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When the Washington Mystics donned t-shirts on Wednesday that had seven holes in the back to pay tribute to Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin who was shot seven times by police on Sunday, Tianna Hawkins was emotional. Like all of her teammates, she was “tired,” “frustrated,” and “pissed off,” but as the mother of Emanuel, a 5-year-old Black boy, the t-shirt design carried particular weight.

“I was emotional because [I] put on that shirt with seven bullet holes in my back, raising a soon-to-be young man … knowing that that could be him in the next 12 to 13 years,” Hawkins told the media on Friday. “… We wanted to find another way to make a statement and we felt like that was our best option for our voice to be heard.”

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Hawkins has had Emanuel with her in the WNBA bubble all season, and he has been a ubiquitous presence around the team. He sits courtside at games, hangs out with the team at the pool, beats them handily at Jenga, and went on the team’s recent trip to the beach.

“He loves being around everybody. His favorite thing to do right now is golf and the pool,” Hawkins said earlier this month. “So, as long as he’s doing those two things, he’s happy, so it’s making my job easy.”

Hawkins is not the only mother on the team—Leilani Mitchell is mom to 2-year-old son Kash—but she is the only Mystics player who brought her child to the bubble. On Friday, she said that having him in the bubble has been “kind of good and a little emotionally overwhelming” in a season that is dedicated to social justice. “He’s gonna grow into a young man, and I just want the best for his future,” she said.

On Wednesday, Emanuel participated in WNBA teams’ display of unity after the Mystics were the first team to decide not to play in light of Blake’s shooting. The rest of the teams scheduled to play that day quickly followed the Mystics’ lead, and the four teams that were at the arena at the time gathered on the court, took a knee, and locked arms to show their solidarity. Kneeling next to his mother, Emanuel—in the red jersey in the picture below—ended up literally in the center of the group, representing an entire generation of Black and Brown children for whom the teams are trying to effect change.

The Washington Mystics, Atlanta Dream, Minnesota Lynx, and Los Angeles Sparks take a knee together at the Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida, on August 26, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Asked how she felt about her son being included in such a powerful gesture, Hawkins said, “I think my feelings are the same feelings that my grandparents had when they were raising my parents, the same feeling that my parents had when they were raising me. You always want to be in a position where you’re able to protect your child, and this is just what I’m doing … to protect him. And so just having him here to get my message across—to get our message across—it’s pivotal, and I know that when he gets older, he’s gonna look back and see all of the marching, all of the statements being made, [and] that he was a part of that.”

The entire Mystics team has also been inspired by Emanuel and pointed to him as a reason why they put their collective foot down on Wednesday night. Flanked by her teammates, Ariel Atkins told ESPN’s Holly Rowe, “We got this little guy [Emanuel] right here that we see every day. His life matters. He needs to know that he can do what he wants to do whenever he leaves his house when he grows up, within reason … He matters.” When she finished her emotional interview, she turned to Emanuel and wordlessly placed her hands on his head.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins talks to ESPN reporter Holly Rowe about her team’s decision not to play on August 26, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mystics left the court soon after that, Emma Meesseman holding Emanuel’s hand as they strode side-by-side. A short while later, head coach and general manager Mike Thibault told the media that he had seen lots of demonstrations in his lifetime and that it’s past time for change.

“I look at Tianna Hawkins’ son Emanuel, and I sit here and wonder what his life will be as he grows up, whether he’ll be in a safe environment, whether he’ll get equal opportunities,” Thibault said. “And I think our players and our staff feel that we need to ensure his future somehow.”

He added, “She sits there and worries about what life is going to be for him growing up. I don’t come from that background, but I’ve witnessed it, [and] I want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Though he is just five years old, social justice and racism have already affected Emanuel’s life. Hawkins recalled a trip to a grocery store near her Maryland home before the WNBA season started. Emanuel saw “a kid—a white kid, of course—with a ski mask and a Nerf gun,” she explained. “And the first thing Emanuel says is, ‘Hey, Mommy, I want one of those [Nerf guns]. Can I get one of those?’ And I had to tell him, ‘No, we can’t play with guns. … You should only have them to protect yourself and not just because.’ Of course, he didn’t understand that … but now I have to have a conversation with him so he’ll grow up knowing.”

The WNBA players decided to resume the season on Friday night, and they will redouble their efforts to get justice for people such as Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor, whose murder by police has been a major focus for the league as part of the Say Her Name campaign. “Our priority is to play for social justice,” Hawkins said on Friday. “It’s not even playing for the WNBA right now. … We’re playing to make a statement.”

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One point that players across professional sports have consistently tried to convey is that they are more than athletes, and they cannot be expected to ignore the racism and police brutality that is crippling this country. “We feel the pain,” Hawkins said. “We are human, we are African-American, we are tired. We want that justice. …

“We have to figure out what to do next and not just talk about it, not just put the names on our shirt, not just put the names on our shoes. What can we actually physically do being here in the bubble, whether it’s reaching out to our fans, reaching out on different platforms to get more people involved and to use their voice.”

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who is sitting out the entire season to focus on social justice, published an op-ed in The Athletic on Thursday that addressed the same theme. She wrote, “I’m so proud of these leagues because instead of being expected to just be athletes … they stood up and said that we’re human beings. Not just athletes, we are human beings.”

For the Washington Mystics, Emanuel Hawkins embodies that human element of their activism. “Our families matter,” Atkins told Rowe. Several Black players around the league have said that they, or a family member, could have been Breonna Taylor. And the Mystics are fighting for change because they don’t want Black and Brown children like Emanuel to feel the racism that they have experienced, that nearly killed Jacob Blake, and that Black and Brown families have endured for generations.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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