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The week sports didn’t make America look away

Before the big NBA game on Tuesday night, there was no talk of basketball, only frustration, anger and pain.

On Thursday, the sport took a back seat once again, as was appropriate, replaced by heartbreaking facts courtesy of two Major League Baseball teams and calls for action to end the carnage.

Something is wrong in America. We can’t figure out how to stop aggression and death.

The killing sprees in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas have once again shaken us to the core. We brace ourselves against the plague of gun violence that threatens every part of the country: grocery stores and churches, street corners and malls and schools full of elementary school children.

Daily life feels like it could turn into horror at any moment.

In the midst of all this, our games go on. Important games with remarkable teams. The Golden State Warriors played their familiar brand of beautiful basketball in the Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, division rivals and contenders to win this year’s World Series, played a key series in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Sport can be a pick-me-up during tough times. Games and great performances provide an opportunity to wash away terrible emotions. Carry on and even forget. But hours after 19 students and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr, a man who knows firsthand the suffering caused by gun violence, wasn’t about to let us get completely away from the avert torment.

And the Yankees and Rays would soon come together in a way that drew attention to what mattered — and what mattered most was not wins or losses or battling for first place in the American League East.

In the minutes leading up to Game 4 of his team’s playoff series, Kerr sat at a table in front of reporters and let loose powerfully. Nothing he said was written. Everything came from the heart, shaped by personal experience. And it had nothing to do with basketball or sports.

“In the past 10 days, older black people have been killed in Buffalo and Asian churchgoers in Southern California. And now we have kids who were murdered at school,” Kerr said, his words powerful enough to go viral almost immediately. His voice trembled. His eyes narrowed with burning embers.

He banged on the table as his voice grew louder.

“I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. We’re going to play the game tonight, but I want anyone who’s listening to this to think about their own child or grandchild or their mother or father, their sister, their brother How would you feel if this happened to you today?

“When do we do what?” he added.

“Enough!”

Kerr has long spoken at press conferences and elsewhere in favor of stricter gun laws and against our society’s appetite for violence. He did so again this week, denouncing the politicians who are doing nothing, and particularly railing against the Senate for not even passing legislation as simple as requiring universal background checks.

Watching him, at that moment, was watching a man struggling to make sense of a tragedy he is all too familiar with. In 1984, during Kerr’s senior year at the University of Arizona, his father, Malcolm, was shot dead by assassins outside his office at the American University in Beirut.

Expect no silence as the dark cloud of gun violence grows in America.

Political utterance is less common in baseball, still nominally our national pastime, though its dwindling audience has aged toward conservatism. Even the staid Yankees — a team so steeped in tradition they don’t even allow players to wear facial hair — and their division rival were working on a unique message. Rather than posting the usual stats and scores updates during their game on Thursday, both teams shared gun violence facts with millions of followers.

As they played on Thursday, their Twitter and Instagram posts focused solely on the gun death toll in that country.

“This can’t be normal” read another. “We must not be blunted. We can’t look away. We all know that if nothing changes, nothing changes.”

Other: “More than 110 Americans are killed every day with guns, and more than 200 are shot and injured.”

Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ vice president of communications, put the posts into perspective in a text message to my colleague David Waldstein this week. “As a citizen of the world, it’s difficult to process these shootings and just fall back into a normal routine,” Zillo said. “For one night we wanted to reflect and draw attention to stats that carry so much more meaning and weight than batting average.”

Well said. And well done.

I am one of the legions affected by gun violence: the suicide of a beloved great-uncle, the murder of a distant cousin, an infant, by a stray bullet in a gang shootout. My pain swims in the same deep currents that swell across America. We mourn together. Together we decide how to react.

This week, Steve Kerr and the Yankees and Rays were here to remind us not to delve too deeply into the sport’s easy distractions — and that action is needed to end this madness.

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