Why this matters
Basketball players can be an avatar for progress. But two years after taking to the streets and going on strike in the name of racial justice, the young thought-leaders of America's most liberal leagues still wonder how they can make a lasting impact on politics, gun violence, and police reform.
When 11-year-old Tyrese Haliburton’s father first talked to him about a 17-year-old Miami Heat fan named Trayvon Martin, young Ty was confused. Racists and White supremacists on TV and on Facebook were insisting that the neighborhood watchman had been right to kill the innocent Black teenager, who’d been headed home to watch the 2012 National Basketball Association All-Star Game. Tyrese looked at the boy who looked like him, and he looked at his dad: “Why is this happening? Did he do something? Why?” But his dad didn’t have much of an answer. Even the players on the Heat felt a limited influence, quietly offering to pay the funeral costs and publicly posing in solidarity, in hoodies, for the Twitter account of Ty’s childhood hero, LeBron James. This had been happening for 400 years, and it still was.
Two summers ago, Haliburton drove from a pre-draft workout to his predominantly White hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to join his father for a protest. He saw people taking a knee like Colin Kaepernick, and he sat on the steps of the police department with his fist in the air for eight minutes and 46 seconds, for George Floyd. He was still asking his dad, “Why?” But Haliburton was eager to join a progressive league that might help to provide some answers — or at least a better example. And the players of the NBA did just that, later that summer, when the Milwaukee Bucks began a sports-world strike for racial justice and for Jacob Blake, a Wisconsin father whose three sons watched in the back seat of their car as a cop shot him seven times in the back of his body.
Alas, there was Haliburton on Jan. 6, 2021, six games into his professional basketball career, speaking out on the lack of charges against that cop and on the riot at the U.S. Capitol, as the games went on. “This is as American as it gets,” he said then. “Today, of my lifetime, was probably the biggest flex of White power and White privilege that there is.”
Now, on the brink of an election and a new basketball season in which he is projected to become a breakout star with the Indiana Pacers, Haliburton and his contemporaries have found some time away from the game — a little space between the headlines and beyond those history-book years — to wonder whether the basketball-powered protests of 2020 answered much of anything at all.
“The LeBrons, the Kaeps — those people have laid the groundwork of not being afraid to speak your mind,” Haliburton, 22, explained to me from training camp this month. “Where we are now as a generation, we just have more young people that have seen that and are prepared to take it to the next level, whatever that is.”
To a multi-generational collection of contemplative and frustrated hoopers, the next level of athlete activism — the policies beyond “our platform,” the real-world solutions after “speaking out” — has yet to be climbed. Haliburton can tell his 85,000 followers on Twitter about the shame of Indiana legislators banning abortion. Breanna Stewart can post demands aimed at President Joe Biden every other day to bring home her Olympic teammate, Brittney Griner, from Russia. James can tweet about the weak punishment of the toxic Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver while the likes of Chris Paul and Stephen Curry work NBA commissioner Adam Silver behind the scenes. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can hate on Kyrie Irving’s conspiratorial Instagram memes from his newsletter. “But me making a tweet might not be doing anything,” Haliburton said. “If I get asked a question, I’m gonna answer it truthfully to how I feel. Or if I can wear a T-shirt to a game with a meaning or a message to it, I’ll do that. I just feel like tweeting every day about something going on in our world, I don’t know how productive that is to moving forward.”
NBA players connect over politics and protest in group chats and in locker rooms — and, for more of the league’s stars than their fans often know, in conversations with elected officials and activists. Community service and philanthropy abound. The NBA’s two-year-old Social Justice Coalition, having seen little success lobbying for police reform in intransigent Washington, has pivoted toward endorsing local legislation for criminal-justice reform, according to a person with knowledge of the advocacy organization. But there is a day job to be had, despite the expectations of some Americans for basketball players to be avatars for liberalism. And so America’s hoopers, who for so long and for a fleeting historic moment partook in revolution, will hoop. And the horrors will continue. And it may take the worst among us to bring out the best in our heroes.
“Basketball is back,” the 25-year-old Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo told me this month. “The No. 1 question is: What can we do to make a difference?” He couldn’t help but notice the public silence of himself and his peers when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shipped unwitting immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts — and a relative chill in the feeds of the famous over recent, lower-profile shootings by police. “We take strides, and then the social media world, it’s very up and down. When it’s hot and stuff is going off, that’s when bringing awareness is at its highest — that’s when everybody’s hyperactive about it,” Adebayo said. “We’re gonna have to speak more.”
As Abdul-Jabbar wrote to me recently, the electricity of athlete activism remains urgent right now: “We have many professional athletes out there doing everything they can to promote and protect their communities. Their voice is even more important in those times when public commitment to social justice wanes. That’s when they can actively remind everyone that our work is far from done.”
When 27-year-old Bill Russell learned, before a Boston Celtics preseason game in October 1961, that two of his four Black colleagues had been refused breakfast service at the team hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, he did not head-fake: Russell booked five flights out of town. “We’ve got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail,” he told reporters the next day. “I hope we never have to go through this abuse again. But if it happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same action again.”
The great champion and civil rights activist died this summer, knowing full well that deep-seated racism persisted in and around his game, as basketball enmeshed deeply with our politics — over the past decade especially — and as Russell’s successors moved with a more deliberative approach.
Over the course of the 2019-2020 NBA season, I spoke with hundreds of hoopers about the recent path of basketball activism — how the off-court stars of America’s new pastime took on violence against Black bodies and “ownership” by billionaires and trolling from a fake billionaire president — for my book, Can’t Knock the Hustle. Some of their previously unpublished perspectives herein reveal both a playbook for political speech by athletes and, with the passage of time, hamstrung steps toward the promises of progress.
In April 2014, recordings of the racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sparked a scandal. But it was the playoffs, and the team stopped short of a full-on boycott of their soon-to-be-former boss. “We definitely talked about not playing,” recalled Matt Barnes, the Clippers’ locker-room leader turned popular podcaster. “In hindsight, we probably should have just sat that game out.” But Silver, then new to his role as NBA commissioner, had just banned Sterling for life and forced him to sell the franchise. “You gotta give Commissioner Silver a lot of credit,” Jamal Crawford, then the Clippers’ sixth man, told me. “Because if he doesn’t, then I’m sure we end up boycotting one of those next games, and it became something where the whole league was behind what we wanted to do.” Barnes had an idea for the Clippers to wear their warm-up shirts inside-out instead — a gesture repeated by James and the Heat in solidarity.
Eight months later, James and stars like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Kyrie Irving warmed up in T-shirts that read I CAN’T BREATHE — the final words of Eric Garner, the New York City man killed by police for selling loose cigarettes outside a beauty-supply store. James had equivocated when asked about the death that fall of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by police for carrying a toy gun in a playground five miles from where James’ Cleveland Cavaliers played ball. “Shame on him,” the boy’s mother, Samaria, told me. But Barnes and other veterans saw a trickle-down value to T-shirts and tweets, at least when the A-list was involved. “He wasn’t informed on it, and he vowed to educate himself on stuff before he spoke,” Barnes said. “You gotta credit LeBron a lot for just being so vocal — because when superstars use their platform, it allows other guys to be just as vocal. So I think that was the beginning of something.”
In the summer of 2016, as Donald Trump was becoming a legitimate threat as a presidential candidate, a string of police killings of unarmed Black men — and the killings of police officers at an ensuing protest — set off a nation. James, Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony famously made a tuxedoed call to action at the ESPY Awards. But it was players in the Women’s National Basketball Association, as they so often do without due credit, who led the athlete activists. The Minnesota Lynx warmed up in T-shirts with the names of the dead and got fined $500 each by the league. “We knew that it was such a sensitive topic that we put a police shield on the back of our shirts,” said Renee Montgomery, then the Lynx point guard, in another previously unpublished interview from my book. “But having so many like-minded athletes, it really made me feel more powerful.” Natasha Cloud, the Washington Mystics superstar and gun-violence activist who plans to enter politics after her basketball career, pioneered a new method of celebrity protest: “A media blackout is one of my favorite things,” she told me in 2020. “We have to sit in the locker room for media. Well, we’re not talking about s*** besides what we wanna talk about. So I let ’em know: ‘Don’t ask me about basketball.’”
The week after the 2016 ESPYs, Silver moved the NBA All-Star Game out of Charlotte, in a pseudo-boycott of North Carolina’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill.” Jason Collins, who in 2014 became the first gay active male athlete in the four major American team sports, has told me he was impressed by the commissioner’s unapologetic progressivism: “States sometimes will drag their feet, but when it comes to basketball, it’s a huge impact because then once we move, other leagues move. The NBA and WNBA have been at the forefront.”
There was hemming — the league later moved the game back to Charlotte after a partial repeal of the bill — and there was hawing, like when Silver’s office refused to stop a 2018 Sacramento Kings game surrounded by protesters for Stephon Clark, who was holding his iPhone in his grandmother’s backyard when police fired 20 rounds at him. There was trolling, on the airwaves (Fox News host Laura Ingraham telling James to “shut up and dribble”) and at the White House (Trump “disinviting” the Golden State Warriors from a championship photo op). But the plays were set: T-shirts, media blackouts, and calls to action. Some activists still wondered: Where was the action?
A week after the murder of George Floyd, 27-year-old forward Juan Toscano-Anderson, then a member of the Golden State Warriors, organized a march near where the Black Panthers used to hand out free breakfast for the kids of North Oakland. His teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were in the crowd, but he “didn’t want them to become some type of celeb prop.” Looking back now, as he joins James and the Los Angeles Lakers, he values the megaphone more than the memories.
“I don’t think it’s about a protest,” Toscano-Anderson told me this summer. “The NBA enables us to use a platform to continue to bring attention and shed light on these things. A lotta s*** gets swept under the rug in America. There’s s*** that happens all over the country that we never hear about. … This s*** is bigger than Steph Curry.”
Players in the WNBA got busy putting their clout to use in 2020 by forcing out Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, the racist U.S. Senator from Georgia who trolled their peaceful protest — and by directly encouraging their fans to vote for her opponent on Election Day. “Some systems can be seen as new-age slavery,” Cloud told me before Loeffler’s ouster. “She should not be a f***ing owner in our league. She’s using our platforms for political gain.” Montgomery, who’d been fined for warming up in her Black Lives Matter T-shirt four years earlier in Minnesota, became a partial owner instead. Loeffler lost in a run-off that saw James rally athletes around voting rights; when she declined to run again this year, the ex-athlete and current two-face Herschel Walker took her place.
Like any big-time protest movement, the would-be activists of the NBA wasted a lot of 2020 on conflict among themselves. There was the notoriously ill-fated splinter effort, led by Irving and Avery Bradley of the Lakers, to boycott the league’s return to play in a COVID-19-proof bubble at Walt Disney World so that players might fight the good fight in the streets and communities instead. Adebayo was a believer in the Bubble, where he could say “Black lives matter, people!” at the end of every interview. “The thing about 2020 is nobody had anything to do, for real,” he told me this month. “When you brought attention to something, everybody was on their screens paying attention.”
The legacy of the Bubble, beyond the public-health experiment and the Lakers’ championship, will be the Bucks’ strike on the evening of Aug. 26. It was the boycott domino that never toppled along with Donald Sterling. It was a righteous act of real protest, in the raging shadow of Trump’s reelection convention. And it led to the hope of change: Veterans Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala worked the hotel suites of fellow veterans like LeBron James. “Once we stop playing, they’re gonna turn the TV off,” Iguodala told me this past August. His message to James, who listened intently, knowing full well that he could single-handedly shut down a return to play: “Everyone’s gonna turn it into, ‘No, you sold out. All dollars aren’t good dollars.’ And that wasn’t it. It was: Where can the most eyeballs be on us at one time, where we could spread this message?”
Meanwhile, on the night of the strike, players pressured ownership for more diverse hiring practices, from the beer vendor to the boardroom. James wanted arenas opened up for voting on Election Day. And Barack Obama, on speakerphone after midnight, encouraged the formation of what is now the NBA Social Justice Coalition — an organized advocacy group to make sure players aren’t caught on their heels after the next sadly inevitable tragedy and injustice. “All the experiences that we’ve gone through — with Donald Sterling or going through the Bubble — are all the preparation to get us to be ready,” Iguodala says now. “For us not to be on call, like the National Guard, would be a huge disservice to our fan base and the communities that we come from.”
When I was reporting this month’s cover story for Rolling Stone, on Curry and the careful politics of sports superstardom, I asked him and his coach, Steve Kerr, a vocal longtime opponent of gun violence, a hypothetical: What if the reigning-champion Warriors simply refused to play this season, until the Senate held an up-or-down vote on an assault weapons ban? “It would take Steph Curry doing that, but that’s asking an awful lot,” Kerr told me. “Particularly when there’s so much inaction that happens after so much devastation. Is that gonna do anything?”
With cycles of shootings and the midterm elections looming, with DeSantis trolling and Trump likely announcing another presidential bid, some hoopers have expressed an eagerness to work together on monumental change. Curry told me that collaboration needs to happen more at the A-list influencer level, no matter how liberal the NBA at large: “There’s not division. I think there’s room for more collaboration on bigger items. Like, the league itself is pretty united on speaking from one voice on a lot of those types of issues. But does that actually equal the impact that we’re trying to find? We need to stay a couple steps ahead of whatever’s going on.”
Curry was able to back-channel with Silver last month to pressure the Suns into finding a new owner, and the NBA has not scheduled any games for Election Day, in favor of get-out-the-vote efforts with fans. But only a handful of arenas are able to serve as polling sites in 2022. And despite multiple planning calls between league officials and representatives from each team, many players expect to take Nov. 8 as an off-day, as their franchises organize community events and civic engagement by way of Jumbotron PSAs. The coalition formed at Obama’s urging was slow to get off the ground, including showing its support of the doomed George Floyd Policing Act, and will turn its focus this season to the statehouses, with official backing for legislation focused on policing, sentencing, and parole reform, said the person with knowledge of the group.
Adebayo says his newsy group chat with friends across the league remains warm, if not quite hot. “I feel like we have to collab in the NBA. That’s how you set differences aside,” he told me. “So having those private conversations, having those little five- to 10-minute private messages with certain people trying to get change, I feel like that does help, even though it’s not on the screen.”
Gun violence and voting have, in particular, rallied the retweets from hoopers young and old as issues that sensible people can agree upon. A 2020 Washington Post poll found that a majority of Americans felt that athletes should indeed express their views on national issues, despite a majority of conservatives and Americans over 65 feeling that they should not. And a survey of 2,210 Americans from Morning Consult this past August found that 60 percent of respondents who identified as conservatives were not fans of the NBA at all.
Haliburton, then, worries that his progressive league is preaching to the choir. “The people who are for gun laws staying the way they are don’t watch the NBA,” he said. “I just don’t think that they care.” When I asked him what issues he’d be putting his energy into, Haliburton got as fired up about school shootings as he was sick of donating to GoFundMe campaigns for the families of victims of police violence. He refused to use “I’m not educated enough” as an excuse, and he is not afraid of losing his Nike deal for being himself. But the third-year star respects the fine line: It’s still easier to retweet than to play politics.
“I don’t want to become, like, too extremist. As athletes, how do we out and say, ‘Banish the police’? We can’t say that,” Haliburton concluded. “Me saying ‘Defund the police’ isn’t saying ‘There are no good police officers in the world! Policemen suck!’ That’s never ever crossed my mind. Those things always bother me, that people twist your words. And you can’t go on social media and argue with people every day.”
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