Updated: July 30, 2020 3:04:27 pm
NBA, the hugely popular American men’s professional basketball league, returns on Thursday (July 30). But long before they assembled inside the bio-bubble in Orlando, Florida, to play out the remainder of the season, the stars of NBA burst the bubble of the ‘stick-to-basketball’ crowd.
In the season of Black Lives Matter, popular athletes have turned their focus to reform of both police and society. Such was the strength of convictions that it drove a wedge among the players on the question of resumption. A coalition led by Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley believed that basketball would distract from the movement; others, mainly megastar LeBron James, argued that a return to sports could serve as an even stronger vehicle for their message.
The league, meanwhile, embraced social justice in an unprecedented fashion. Here’s a look at how events unfolded.
‘NBA a distraction’: Irving’s rallying cry
Brooklyn Nets guard and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) vice-president Kyrie Irving led a conference call last month with about 80 players from both the NBA and WNBA. He was quoted as having said: “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”
The Black Lives Matter movement is still going strong in the aftermath of the killing of African-Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among others, and several athletes have joined the cause. There were concerns that the return of the NBA could distract people from real-world issues and nationwide reforms.
Irving’s sentiments were echoed by Los Angeles Lakers’ centre Dwight Howard and guard Avery Bradley, with the latter reportedly saying that the players should “play chess, not checkers.”
Howard too released a statement via his agent, saying: “I agree with Kyrie. Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction. Sure it might not distract us the players, but we have resources at hand [the] majority of our community don’t have. And the smallest distraction for them, can start a trickle-down effect that may never stop.”
But Irving already has an NBA Championship to his name, for Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 along with LeBron James. And Howard, who is with the team and putting on a show, can earn his first in Orlando.
That J.R. Smith x Dwight Howard connection🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/7vVxu6mPtQ
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) July 25, 2020
It is LeBron and Howard’s teammate Bradley who have the most to lose if the Lakers go all the way. The 29-year-old — who stayed true to his word and opted out (in no small part due to his 6-year-old son who has respiratory problems) — hasn’t won a championship ring, though the team management assured him one will be offered if Lakers win.
“Will I accept the ring? I’m neither here nor there about it,” Bradley told Yahoo Sports.
‘If LeBron plays, we play’
LA Clippers’ guard Patrick Beverley summed it up best with the tweet: “Hoopers say what y’all want. If @King James said he hooping. We all hooping. Not personal only BUSINESS.”
LeBron James, the league’s biggest superstar, holds the key to the restart battle, and he has seemingly placed himself against former Cleveland co-star Irving. LeBron, who was not on the NBPA Zoom call, is believed to be in favour of the league resuming.
“Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us,” LeBron told the New York Times. “We feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door. How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”
Others were openly critical of Irving.
Utah Jazz veteran Ed Davis said: “It’s easy for a guy like Kyrie to say that he’ll give everything back ([for social reform), but would he really give everything back? It’s easy for Dwight Howard to say that we don’t need to play when he’s in Atlanta in his $20 million mansion.”
The shortening of the season has already caused the paycheques to be reduced dramatically, including those of several players who make less than Irving’s salary if $33.3 million. Cancellation would have triggered the NBA’s economic structure to collapse.
Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers said players getting paid will only aid their fight against racial injustice.
“With this money you could help out even more people and continue to give more importantly your time and energy towards the BLM movement. Which I’m 100% on board with. Because change needs to happen and injustice has been going on too long,” Rivers posted on Instagram. “But also… Not to mention there are plenty of NBA players I know who need them paychecks…99% of the NBA hasn’t made the money a guy like Kyrie has.”
Irving is also recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in March, and many believe he would have been sitting out the season in any case.
The moves NBA made
The writing was on the floor for anyone who wanted the NBA to stick to basketball.
In addition to a socially distanced bench with spacing between chairs and plexiglass in front of the announcers, the new court in Orlando features a ‘Black Lives Matter’ logo.
The league spent weeks leading up to the restart pondering ways to use the spotlight to help get their message out. The NBPA and the NBA agreed to a list of statements, which will be printed on the back of the jerseys for the first four days, replacing last names. Chosen phrases include Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, Vote, I Can’t Breathe, Justice, Peace, Equality etc.
The messages that weren’t on the NBA’s approved list will still make their way onto the apparel, as NBPA partnered with Russell Westbrook’s clothing line ‘Honor the Gift’ to design shirts with names of hate crime victims as well as phrases such as ‘Systemic Racism’.
Honor the Gift is extremely proud to collaborate with the NBPA to create a collection of shirts that allow us players to shed light on social injustice, and honor the victims and families of those who continue to inspire us. pic.twitter.com/drf2f7NocD
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 20, 2020
Lakers star Anthony Davis was among those who ruled out wearing a message on his back.
“Just holding my family name and representing the name on the back to go through this process and my name and people who’ve been with me through my entire career to help me get to this point,” Davis was quoted by The Los Angeles Times.
“While still kind of bringing up things that we can do for social injustice. Some guys chose to, some guys chose not. We’ll have a ton of ways to kind of represent what we stand for.”
But the biggest name who chose not to sport a social justice jersey again is LeBron, who felt that none of the NBA-approved, politically-softer messages “resonate with my mission, with my goal.”
“It was no disrespect to the list that was handed down to all the players,” LeBron told reporters earlier this month. “I commend anyone that decides to put something on the back of their jersey. It’s just something that didn’t seriously resonate with my mission, with my goal.”
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Two stars, both making a mark
While they may have disagreed on the way to go about it, both LeBron and Irving have continued to be focussed on social reforms.
In a video conference on Tuesday, LeBron also imagined Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who was shot by three Louisville police officers on March 13 in her own apartment, as his sister or mother.
“I kinda put myself in that household, with them (police officers) coming into the house, a place where they shouldn’t have been in the first place, and then open firing and killing an innocent woman who had a bright future. So I think about if it was a sister of mine. If it was my mother. If it was an auntie of mine. If it was a friend of mine,” LeBron spoke of Taylor.
Irving meanwhile produced a one-hour special entitled ‘#SAYHERNAME: BREONNA TAYLOR’ earlier this month. The show examined police brutality, specifically as it relates to Black women, and called for action. Irving is also contributing $1.5mn to help cover the salaries of WNBA players who forgo playing during the 2020 season.
During a Instagram live session, Irving warned those questioning his passion for the game: “Don’t play with me.”
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“It’s about on the court, look at my resume, look at the classics, look at my art,” he said. “I created it for going on 10-plus years now. Don’t play with me. Don’t play with what I do on a day in and day out basis to provide and go out there and create,” he said.
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