Naomi Osaka is one of the top tennis players in the world, having won two Grand Slam titles in the past three years. Mikey Williams, a rising high school sophomore, is one of the top-ranked basketball prospects in the country and made waves recently for expressing an interest in attending a historically Black college or university (HBCU), as opposed to a traditional NCAA powerhouse. They met on Zoom to discuss being shaped by the protests this year and their long-term goals off the court.
Mikey Williams: You beat your favorite tennis player, Serena Williams. I’m not in that position yet—to where I can compete against the players I look up to. How did it feel?
Naomi Osaka: It feels really crazy because you grow up watching them. Just for them to be seeing you as an opponent is very surreal. I feel like I dreamed of the moment—and for it to happen in real life was definitely an out-of-body experience.
Whatever sport you play, you’re compared to the person that’s most similar to you—and for me it was always Serena.
I want to be a good enough player to stand on my own. I want to carve my own legacy.
MW: Someone I’ve always looked up to is LeBron James: I used to wear his jersey. After me and his son Bronny started playing together, I got to know him— and it’s dope I can now take notes from him in different ways. How he handles himself off the court is huge for me: he created a school, has all these foundations and is speaking up against injustice. Did the protests this summer inspire you to become more outspoken about inequality?
NO: Personally, because of COVID and the quarantine, I was able to stay in one place for the longest amount of time I have in my life. But I actually flew to Minneapolis with my boyfriend, and we saw everything. That was a life-changing moment. I think athletes are scared of losing sponsors whenever they speak out. For me, that was really true, because most of my sponsors are Japanese. They probably have no idea what I’m talking about, and they might have been upset. But there comes a time where you feel like you gotta speak on what’s right and what’s important.
MW: Yeah. As young athletes, we’re being controlled a lot. But last month, I cut down my list of colleges I want to attend down to five HBCUs and five PWIs [predominantly white institutions]. I hope I can make a change in college sports. A lot of people think they have to go to Duke, Kentucky or UCLA to get to where they want to go.
I don’t have anything against those schools or coaches. But we don’t realize that the only reason we look at those schools is because we’re the ones going. If certain players take the HBCU route, it can change sports forever.
NO: The day you posted that, my boyfriend showed it to me, and he was so excited. You definitely made an impact.
MW: What is it like representing Blackness on an international scale?
NO: Because tennis is a majority-white sport, I do feel like I’m a representative—and because of that, I feel like I shouldn’t lose, sometimes. But it’s a very big source of pride. I feel like it gives me a lot of power, and I always feel more welcomed in certain cities.
MW: We’re young Black athletes. We have spotlights on us. I want to be that role model for somebody. Hopefully I’m going to be fortunate to do things like build schools, help out kids in need and put more people on to HBCUs. It’s really important we understand our power.
NO: I want to keep growing and not just be referred to as “the tennis player.” Hopefully I’ll be able to do some more cool things in the future.
MW: Do you have any advice for becoming an entrepreneur as an athlete?
NO: I feel like I’m still learning a lot. Thankfully, I learned for a short while from Kobe [Bryant]. But everything that you’re interested in is an opportunity, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question when you’re in meetings. Most of the time, people don’t expect athletes to really get involved in the product. They just expect you to be a figurehead. But the newer generation is really becoming involved, trying to be investors.
MW: I think it’s dope. Living in this world right now is all about creativity. Instagram and YouTube are huge: I see a lot of athletes doing it. But NCAA currently has restrictions on student athletes getting paid, so I think it’s helpful that the NBA did put in that G League option [to allow players to skip college and join a developmental league]. Now you can have a backup, or you can multitask: you can play in the league and be an influencer on top of that and get paid a different way. Do you have any general advice for young athletes?
NO: There’s gonna be times it gets really hard. But what makes you a champion is how you push through those moments. As long as you keep going, at the end of the day, you’ll be proud of what you did.
Moderated by Andrew R. Chow