‘It’s more than basketball’: Mohamed Kone, Benly Olizia kneeling as call for justice, unity

“The flag, to me, doesn’t represent the freedom that us colored people get,” said Mohamed Kone, a Black member of the Bemidji State men's basketball team.

Bemidji State basketball players, from left, Derek Thompson, Tyler Behrendt, Benly Olizia, Wyatt Olson and Mohamed Kone take a knee for the national anthem before a Jan. 23 game at the BSU Gymnasium. (BSU photo)
BSU photo
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The public address announcement is the same before every Bemidji State men’s basketball game, with a call to stand for the national anthem.

Like many fellow Black athletes across the country, Mohamed Kone and Benly Olizia kneel instead.

“Kneeling, it’s more than basketball, honestly,” Kone said. ”Hopefully they can see where me and Benly are coming from. It’s not easy for us colored people. I’m taking a stand and Benly’s taking a stand because we want change.”

Both Kone and Olizia cited the protests and riots that swept up the nation’s attention last summer as motivation for kneeling during the anthem. One of the biggest reasons for that movement is Olizia’s main focus.

“(Kneeling) was a point of emphasis for me to show respect to George Floyd and his family,” he said, “and everything that’s going on with the United States.”


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BSU senior Benly Olizia dribbles with the ball during a Jan. 9 game against Northern State at the BSU Gymnasium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

This abbreviated season began in January and will already end in late February. But the final half of the schedule is all the more meaningful for Kone and Olizia, as February is Black History Month. Kone hopes his call to action during this month will shed a greater light on racial injustice.

“The flag, to me, doesn’t represent the freedom that us colored people get,” he said. “I feel like the freedom was really meant for basically white people. … We want equal rights. For me, kneeling represents unity. I feel like we should all come as one and be strong together.”

A number of teammates have shown their support for Kone and Olizia this season. In particular, three white teammates -- Tyler Behrendt, Wyatt Olson and Derek Thompson -- have often been kneeling beside them during the anthem.

“That means a lot. That really does mean a lot,” Olizia said. “That means they understand what’s going on in the United States, that they show respect and that they love us.”

“In the beginning, I didn’t really know how they were going to take it, whether they were going to continue to stand,” Kone added. “At the end of the day, it’s their choice. I appreciate all teammates who have kneeled with me. … That just lets you know how close we are, together as a team. We stick together.”


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Bemidji State junior Mohamed Kone (3) flies to the hoop in the first half against Northern State on Jan. 8 at the BSU Gymnasium. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Kone and Olizia have helped embolden each other to make their stand, as well. They’ve had conversations with one another about the significance of their actions, and that’s allowed them to develop mutual support in the moment.

“It’s hard for one person to stand up by themselves and say they’re going to make a mark,” Kone said. “But if there’s another person with you, you can get more comfortable with that. … With us two (kneeling), it definitely shows a lot to a lot of people.”

The two plan to continue kneeling throughout the season. It’s a rush of emotions, to be sure -- taking a stand for something off the court while simultaneously preparing to play a college basketball game -- but it’s a cause worth fighting for to them.

“As I’m kneeling, I’m feeling good about myself, that we’re showing respect to the Black community and preparing to be ready for a game,” Olizia said. “I feel like doing that shows that we’re trying to make a change.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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