By Zaron Burnett III
In his senior year of high school, Kyle Kuzma wasn't the sort of basketball player who was scouted by big schools like Michigan or Michigan State — the two top choices for a basketball-loving kid raised in Michigan. Instead, Kuzma headed west to play for the University of Utah. He became a star and a team leader, averaging 10 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but ultimately wasn't invited to the NBA draft. Yet, with their 27th overall draft pick in 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Kuzma; since then he’s become one of the bright young stars of the NBA.
However, as Kuzma settled into his life and career out west, his hometown found itself in crisis. Kuzma is from Flint, Michigan, and for the last five years, residents of the predominantly Black town have had no clean water to drink, to wash with, to support life itself.
The crisis began on April 25, 2014, when the city, under the control of an emergency manager, decided to switch its source for drinking water and began to pump polluted water from the Flint River in an effort to save the bankrupt city $5 million dollars during the construction of a new pipeline. Due to persistent exposure to lead-poisoned water, it’s estimated that 200 pregnant women either had miscarriages or stillbirths. An additional 12 people died after contracting Legionnaires' disease from the toxic water. And now, a generation of children may exhibit lead-based behavioral problems, have diminished IQs, and suffer a lifetime of disabilities, all because their city wanted to save some cash. And that decision seems rationalized and motivated by systemic racism.
This is unacceptable to Kuzma, who has been banging the drum hard for his hometown, trying with all his might to keep attention on Flint’s water crisis. He sent up the flare again on April 16, of this year, after news broke that the United States would be donating funds to help rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris after an electric fire set it ablaze. “I’ll say this again,” he wrote on Twitter. “We got a city on our own soil without water.”
Kuzma cares about Flint — deeply. And part of that care involves forcing the nation to take a hard look at the people and places broken by its systems.
Though he's learning to navigate life as a pro athlete, as an NBA star, and as an outspoken advocate, Kuzma is still just a kid from Flint. He spoke with MTV News to discuss where he’s from, what he wants to do next, and how the young Laker finds a sense of hope in a world that would just as easily leave his hometown behind.
MTV News: You've been a very outspoken advocate for your home town and even took the ESPN cameras on a tour of where you grew up. You also spoke about what you're doing to help Flint get back on its feet. What was the community's response to that video?
Kuzma: You know, I'm not 100 percent sure. I definitely got feedback from family and friends that said it was good, but to me I think it portrayed a real ... not only just my life, but just a perspective of Flint. It showed people what the city looks like, and showed how basketball and sports really do play a huge role in the development of kids, and how sports can reflect, and it can help you get out of those type of situations that you're in.
Obviously, Flint hasn't had water since 2014. But that's why I'm not a politician. And I don't play a role in what they do. But that's definitely one of my goals: to maybe partner up with the state, the government, or any type of organization to really keep pushing this thing forward.
MTV News: Does it ever feel like people succumb to the idea that, "Of course a place like Flint is poor and has bad pipes," and in some ways those same people blame the ones who live in Flint for not moving away? Why are so many people willing to accept Flint the way it is rather than believing that it could and should be a life-affirming place?
Kuzma: You shouldn't have to move from where you're from. We live in a country where we fix things. You shouldn't have move. For one, some people can’t. Especially in that community, many people are very impoverished. Over 40 percent of the city is under the poverty line. So just “moving away” doesn't solve their problems. That's pretty much just quitting on the problem.
MTV News: After the Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire, and the Trump Administration promised to send money and aid to help rebuild the church, you tweeted about how Flint still needs help with recovery and the Trump administration neglects its responsibility to American citizens. What motivated that tweet?
Kuzma: I just tried to shed light on things that we do for other countries, and what we don't do for the people in communities in our country. When it's a serious thing or a disaster or catastrophe anywhere else in the world, as a country, we go out, we help the people in need. And that's very important to do, because at the end of the day, the United States is the most powerful country in the world. I just believe that we should take a look at what's in our communities and our states. Fix the problems that we have first, to make us a better country, and save the people here that aren't fortunate enough to have clean water, or have issues in their own communities as well, not even speaking of Flint, but speaking country-wide.
MTV News: What would you like people to know about where you come from, about your community, about Flint, that might help neglectful outsiders see and keep your city and its people in your thoughts?
Kuzma: I think the biggest thing is just knowing that Flint is a city in America. It’s no different than trying to fix a highway, or a street with potholes. We do that in our communities. Why? Because we're proud of where we live, and that's just what we should do for our whole country. To make sure to keep us the best country in the world.
MTV News: The NBA as an association has been largely supportive of social advocacy by players who are using their platforms to speak out on the issues of the day. This is obviously in contrast with other professional sports leagues, like the NFL. How much do you and other NBA players discuss social issues in the locker room?
Kuzma: A lot of times you have guys from the type of environments that I grew up in, poor places, African American communities. Not even just that, just being raised in America in general. And we all talk about things that we want to do. We have some of the biggest platforms to talk for those people that don't have a voice. We talk about a lot of different things, from government-based things to what you're doing in your own hometown or city to help your people out as well.
I do a lot of work with the NBPA, the Player's Association. They do a great job of backing us in the NBA and actually whatever we do within our foundations for charitable reasons. The NBA cares about where we come from, and what we want to do, and about our philanthropist goals and everything. That's one of the best things about our league, and why I believe that the NBA is the best league in all of sports. They really care. They really care about changing society, and a lot of the things that's bigger than basketball with the NBA.
MTV News: That support feels like a stark contrast to the response from NFL figureheads toward Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against police brutality. As a fellow pro athlete and as a man of color, what did his protest mean to you?
Kuzma: I mean, it means a lot. For Kaepernick to do that, it shows you that it's bigger than just money, it's bigger than just the love that you have for the game that you've been playing for your entire life. It's for what you stand for and your values in life. For a guy to literally risk it all for something that he believes in, that's very honorable, and many people in this world would not do that just because of how money and everything runs us. It means a lot to... obviously, not just any type of athlete, but any man of color.
MTV News: Your teammate, LeBron James, has been a powerful source for change in Ohio. He's helped rebuild schools and start community programs. Does he ever talk to you and other teammates about that?
Kuzma: LeBron does a great job of leading by example on and off the floor. Obviously, he's a great basketball player, but one of his best qualities is his philanthropy and what he does for his community back in Akron, and what he does on the whole for communities is very commendable. For a guy to have as much as he has, he still cares about the people and never lets a stone go unturned, in terms of being an activist and speaking on important things. As a young guy, and a young man of color, in this country, it's very important to see. He's an excellent north star to look at and try to get to.
MTV News: You launched a summer basketball program for children in Flint, which you said was intended to create hope, to spread positivity, to make the children feel important. Working with kids can have vast, unexpected rewards for the kids, for the community, and for you. So what have the kids taught you?
Kuzma: [Laughs] The kids taught me... that no matter what, you're always going to be a role model. People are looking up to you, so that means you have to hold your weight and also hold your character. What you do on a daily basis and what you stand for, what your reputation is, it matters. There are people out there in the world that really care about you, and what you do and look up to you.
MTV News: What is giving you hope for the future these days?
Kuzma: Just the constant awareness. The constant conversation. We are discussing what can be done and what we are doing to try to improve the world we live in. The society that we live in. That’s the biggest thing that gives me hope. You can't get nothing in this world without conversation. You don't know what one person is thinking, or what one group is thinking, then you're just going to be out of the mix, on everything. I want us to continue to have these conversations on the big, current event problems that we have. That’s my hope.
This interview has been edited for length.