Former Canadian basketball captain campaigning against police brutality

TORONTO — Barely a week before Chris Egi arrived at Harvard for his freshman basketball season, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Egi and Brown were both 18. They were both black. They were both about to begin college, and the teen’s death — and too many more that would follow — became woven into Egi’s experience at Harvard.

When the 22-year-old from Toronto was selected out of more than 100 applicants to speak at Harvard’s convocation last May, the Crimson’s team captain with the gap-toothed grin talked about Brown.

And on Friday, the organization No More Names, of which Egi is a founder, will launch its “10,000 Voices” social media campaign, a virtual protest to remember the people behind the names, and combat the issues of criminal justice reform and police brutality.

“I’ve been privileged to be given this platform as a Harvard alum, as a Harvard student, as a basketball player at that school, to have a voice,” Egi said. “I try to use my voice to give that voice to people who, given different structures in society like a Michael Brown, might not have a voice.”

The six-foot-nine forward was one of Canada’s most talented young players, captaining Canada’s U18 and U19 teams in 2014-15 that included first-round NBA draft pick Dillion Brooks. He also teamed up with first-round picks Tyler Ennis and Trey Lyles at the U19 world championships in 2013.

In 2014, he helped a Montverde Academy team that featured Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell win a coveted U.S. high school title.

But Egi would rather talk about Brown. And Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after an officer put him in a chokehold. And Stephon Clark, shot and killed by police in Sacramento last March.

Egi and a teammate were headed back to their dorm after practice in his first semester at Harvard when they came upon a protest march. Knowing it was something they wanted to be a part of they joined in. The group marched to a common area where they laid on the ground in a “die-in.”

“It symbolizes what happened with Michael Brown, the body lays on the ground, symbolizing the death of black bodies. So we laid on the ground, and that was an extremely powerful moment for me,” Egi said. “It was one of those moments where I felt good to be involved and contribute somehow. But I also felt there had to be ways to do more. I felt a little bit of a feeling of longing in terms of wanting to contribute in a more tangible way.”

That spirit of contribution was learned early. Egi’s parents — dad Anthony and mom Christiana — were Nigerian immigrants. His dad, who died earlier this month, was a compassionate outspoken man who came to Canada alone at age 16. He delivered pizzas to fund his way through college. His mom operates a nursing home for people with Alzheimers.

“I just grew up in an environment where my parents were both people who were the change that they wanted to see, and when they wanted something done they would just get after it themselves. And while doing that, putting the emphasis on people, and loving each other, and that was just a big big emphasis in my family growing up.”

In between basketball and working toward his economics degree, Egi was involved in several campaigns at Harvard. One of them — .ThankYouBlackWomen — became the impetus for No More Names. The campaign included a video and photos highlighting black women on campus. Egi wrote a poem. The campaign was “kind of a love letter, or a thank-you note to the black women in our community,” he said.

But the feedback wasn’t entirely positive.

“In terms of actions are a lot louder than words, and you can say a lot in a video, and present yourself as someone you’re not, and are you really backing that up? We had to re-evaluate how we truly treat the black women in our lives,” Egi said. “Are we these social media people who post content in one way, and aren’t necessarily backing it up in our real actions?”

So they held a small benefit on campus to support black women living with breast cancer.

Then Clark was shot dead weeks before Egi’s final semester ended. The deaths of Brown, Clark and others whose dreams had been “deferred and denied” formed the framework for his convocation speech.

“At Harvard graduation, Michael Brown was spoken about … for his spirit to be evoked at our graduation, that meant a lot to me, and hopefully that message resonated with the people at the event,” Egi said.

He also wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune, “Finding Michael Brown at Harvard.”

And within three weeks of Clark’s death, Egi and some friends had organized No More Names, what started as a benefit concert featuring Chicago-based rapper Vic Mensa that raised over $7,000. Dr. Harry Edwards — the architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights that led to the famous black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics — sent a video message. Atlanta Hawks guard and Harvard alum Jeremy Lin made a donation.

“I had been trying my best to contribute to the black community with the skillset that I have,” Egi said. “That’s kind of how No More Names began.”

No More Names has grown to include all eight Ivy League schools this year. They’ll all participate in Friday’s 10,000 Voices initiative, which Egi described as a tech-infused campaign to empower voices and allow people to share stories and names across social media platforms.

“We can document live all the stories about the different people who have been victims of this issue,” he said.

But don’t call Egi an activist.

“There are people who are doing so much more than what I’m doing, and maybe to label me an activist might be a discredit to the great work they’re doing,” he said. “I think of myself as a contentious citizen, and in doing that it’s just about caring about people. If you see something, if you see that there are people’s voices are being silenced, or people who are being marginalized, it’s just taking the time to do whatever you can.”

Egi chose not to pursue a pro basketball career after Harvard.

“I’m a quote-unquote men’s league all-star now,” he said with a laugh.

He lives in New York and works for Goldman Sachs’ private capital investing group. But he’ll carry the lessons learned from the game through life.

“All the lessons (Harvard coach Tommy Amaker) imparted on us, just the idea of what it takes to play at an elite level, that competitiveness, that drive to be the best, to not be outworked,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that really matter and differentiate people once you step beyond the coddled environment of school.”

Still months removed from his competitive career, watching basketball remains a “love/hate” thing.

“I love to watch it, but there are times that are hard, I overanalyze it and I just know all the guys,” he said. “Also the circumstances around the fact I want to be playing, so sometimes I can’t stand to watch it.”

He cheers on the Canadian players, though, who are enjoying unparalleled success.

“I’m just really proud of so many of these guys here, they’re really killing it.”

Tip-ins: Harvard has three Canadians on this year’s roster: Noah Kirkwood and Corey Johnson of Ottawa, and Danilo Djuricic of Brampton, Ont.

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