BUTTE — Josh Huestis is a proud Montanan.
In the years since starring at Great Falls CMR, Huestis became a standout player for Stanford’s basketball program, was selected with the 29th overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder, played overseas and has continuously come back to host summer youth basketball camps and visit Montana.
Huestis’ love for Great Falls and the Treasure State is undeniable. However, the former Rustler also explains that he grew up in a unique situation.
“It was weird for me,” Huestis said. “I had a much different upbringing than a lot of people, being raised in a white family. My parents didn’t have the information to be able to teach me a lot of things about race relations and obviously what it’s like to grow up being black. They purely did not have the knowledge to pass it on to me, so a lot of it I had to learn on the fly.”
Huestis was adopted at a very young age, and the appreciation he has for his parents is vivid and plentiful. But their care and love could only help him so much in terms of understanding what it meant to grow up black in a predominantly white state.
“I love Montana, always will and I love the people, too,” Huestis said. “But obviously when you’re a state that has around 5,000 black people, you’re going to have a lot of folks who, purely out of ignorance and hate, will treat people of color with disrespect and racism.
“I can think back to when I was probably 8 or 10 years old,” Huestis said. “And my dad would take me fishing or we would go hunting or we would walk into a restaurant, anything like that, and I could just feel eyes on me. I could literally physically sense people staring at me. Whether they were like, ‘What’s the dynamic here?’ or ‘Why is there a black kid with this white male?’ or ‘Why is there a black person here at all?’ "
According to census.gov, Montana’s black community makes up 0.6 percent of the 1,068,778 people who live in the state. That comes out to about 6,412 black Montanans.
Huestis explains that the small population of black Montanans isn’t an inherently bad thing, but that it doesn’t create many opportunities for people of color to converse and confront their beliefs or issues.
“In [more diverse regions,]” Huestis said, “more often than not, any building you walk into, there’s going to be black people there. Therefore, people that may hold prejudiced or racist views have learned that they should at least hide how they feel. It’s not as overt because they’re surrounded by people of color.
“In Montana, more often than not, nine out of the 10 rooms I walk into, I’m the only black person. More often than not, people in Montana have never had that type of conversation about race with a black person, they’ve never had to confront those beliefs.”
As a youth in Montana, Huestis committed time to basketball. After winning back-to-back Class AA state championships with CMR, being selected as the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010, and averaging 17.3 points, 12.8 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game in his final year with the Rustlers, Stanford came calling.
So did education and understanding.
“It was huge for me,” Huestis said. “I had never spent time like that around people that looked like me. That was not something that ever happened to me. At most in my life, I had been around maybe four, five or six other black people, and they were always family. Going to Palo Alto and being in a classroom or dorm or whatever the case may be, and being surrounded by dozens of Asians, Latinos or blacks, so many different races surrounding me, it was nice because for the first time in my life I wasn’t the odd one out. I wasn’t different.”
Being in an environment that not only educated Huestis about black history but made him feel like he was normal was incredibly impactful, but it also made him aware to how dangerous it is to be a black man in America.
Six years after graduating from Stanford, the former two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year battles new hurdles both in basketball and in his identity as a black man.
Currently a free agent after a season with Bayern Munich in the EuroLeague, Huestis is grinding to be ready for his next team. He’s also trying to digest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
“I can’t get myself to watch the entire video,” Huestis said. “It’s not in me to be able to see something like that because it is so heartbreaking to me to see that. When I saw clips and I saw the transcript of what he was saying, begging to be able to breathe. What really got to me was when he called for his mother, like, it’s heartbreaking because you see a human being at his most fragile, vulnerable state right there.”
Huestis adds that the video is a constant reminder that he could’ve been in the same spot as George Floyd.
“That could easily be my birth father," Huestis said. "That could easily be my brothers. It could be one of my college teammates. It could be us, really easily. To see four people that have been appointed by taxpayers, that have gone through training and are supposed to be there to protect us be responsible for the death of someone and did not value his life in any way shape or form, it’s scary. Those are the people that you’re supposed to be able to rely on, and if you cannot rely on police to protect you, then who do you rely on?”
It’s a question that has plagued black Americans across the country for decades if not centuries.
Huestis’ success as a professional athlete doesn’t exempt him from it, either. After buying a new house in Las Vegas this year, Huestis knows that he has to personally police himself and act accordingly just to ensure that other people don’t judge him based on the color of his skin and potentially lead him to harm or death.
“We’re in a new neighborhood, we’ll go on walks, and I have to tell my wife, ‘I need to be out and be visible and need to say hi to the neighborhood just so that they know that I live here.’ So, that one day, I’m not walking around in my backyard, and someone decides to call the police on me because they think I’m breaking in and that gets me killed.”
Huestis says these experiences are why the Black Lives Matter movement needs to be heard.
“What I say to people that don’t believe in the Black Lives Matter movement or what’s happening with race relations and police brutality is that they don’t know what it’s like to have an experience like that. To be afraid of people, to be afraid of police. To be afraid of someone assuming that you’re a criminal just because of the way you look.
“I talked to my wife on Wednesday,” Huestis said. “I told her, ‘If I am ever stopped by police and you’re not with me, I’m going to turn on my video or my audio, something to record the interaction.'"
On the other side of the coin, Huestis also advises people that ignoring someone’s skin color isn’t a solution either, due to the fact that it ignores the situation at hand and what people of color face as minorities in America.
“I think that’s something that people need to recognize,” Huestis said. “Is that this idea has been warped in people's minds for a long time. It’s not something that’s a new thing, it’s something that started a hundred years ago. The black man was seen as violent, intimidating, scary. It’s been instilled in people's minds for a long time.
“When I hear people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ and things like that, I get what they’re trying to say, but that’s not the right approach. You can see color, everyone has prejudices in their mind. It’s impossible to turn them off in your head, they’re there. But the important thing that you can do is recognize those and make the conscious decision not to act on them and understand they are wrong. You can see me as a black man and that’s fine, but you can also see that I’m not dangerous, I’m not intimidating, I’m not a criminal.”
Huestis’ words come from a place of pain, not anger. He isn’t looking for combat, he’s looking for understanding. Communication. Accountability.
However, for that to happen, it requires great growth and reflection from the people people in power and white people with a platform to make change. That hasn’t happened in many recent cases.
“I think, unfortunately, that there were plenty of opportunities prior to this for it to be addressed,” Huestis said. “Whether it was Mike Brown, Tamir Rice or it was Colin Kaepernick, we had plenty of opportunities to try and make a change and nothing happened. I think we’ve finally reached that breaking point, and as a country now, everyone is watching. It’s on the people in the positions of power to take this opportunity and make a change. And when I say people in power, not only is that politicians, police officers and the like, it’s white people.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who read this and will disagree with this, but the truth is that if you’re born white in this country, you have more power. Whether it’s economic power, social power, political power, whatever the case may be, you have more of it. Like I was saying about how to be an ally, it’s time to step up and to be that for all the people that are asking for your help, because America is supposed to be a land of united people, and right now it’s not. We can get there, but people have to realize that change needs to be made.”
Huestis knows that not everyone will take his advice positively, as some will see it as a direct criticism of themselves or the state of Montana. He’s OK with that, but don’t get it twisted: he believes people are and can be good.
But the fact that people can be good means they have to also put in effort to grow and understand experiences outside of their own.
“When I say these things, I don’t want anyone to ever think I don’t have love for Montana. I love Montana more than words can express and I did love my time growing up there. I go back as often as possible and I’m heartbroken I can’t do the camps this summer. I love going back to CMR.
"But what’s important to recognize is that while I think 99% of people in Montana have good intentions behind everything that they do, but everywhere you go, you have that smaller percentage that, in their heart, have hate, racism, whatever the case may be. The majority of it is based on ignorance and not having exposure to people of color. So, there’s no ill will or hate on my end toward those people at all, there’s just a lot of people that need to continuously educate.”
In the meantime, Huestis will do the same exact thing: learn. It’s how he chased the path of going pro and grew into the proud Montanan he is today.