It’s still early in the 2017–18 season and, as we approach December, there are a plethora of interesting storylines developing around the association. We’ve gathered some of our staff writers and contributors to answer 10 questions pertaining to the league as a whole. Have at it, team.
1. Who was your preseason MVP pick and how’s that looking?
Andrew Miller: Kawhi Leonard. It’s not looking great right now because he hasn’t suited up yet for the Spurs, but give it time! He’s still one of the best best two-way players in the league.
Ivan Mora: Giannis. It’s looking good despite their drop in the rankings. If Westbrook with a sixth-seeded Thunder did it, Giannis can easily achieve it as well with the stat line he’s averaging. Let’s just hope Bledsoe can help bring the Bucks into the fold as a top five team in the East.
Julian McKenzie: LeBron James. With Kyrie Irving gone to Boston, and no Isaiah Thomas until the new year, it was clear that LeBron James would have to shoulder a larger load than usual for the first few months of the season. In a sport where the wear and tear on knees and legs should slow players down once they reach double-digit seasons, LeBron is having his best scoring season since 2010, in which he won the second of his four MVP titles. In his 15th NBA season, LeBron is top 10 in points per game, assists per game, field goal percentage, and player efficiency rating. I still expect him to be in the MVP conversation at season’s end, along with current clubhouse leaders in Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.
Brandon Anderson: My preseason MVP was Kawhi Leonard. That’s going… not great. But my sleeper pick was Giannis so I’m feeling pretty okay with that one.
Will Strickland: LeBron Raymone James is my easy bake default choice almost every year, so I was looking to lean toward him again.
But I thought James Edward Harden, Jr., The Ultimate NBA MVP Bridesmade over the past couple seasons, finally gets married to his first Maurice Podoloff.
So far so good on that front.
Phil Boileau: Mine was Giannis… His numbers are making it happen, but the losses keep piling up. I also didn’t see Kyrie doing what he is doing or Harden getting his team back when CP3 was out. I have to feel that the Bucks will bounce back so I still feel okay with it.
2. The Celtics currently have a 16-game winning streak despite dealing with injuries to key players like Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Are they the team to finally knock off LeBron James’ Cavs in the playoffs?
Miller: I think this is the year that we see a Finals without LeBron. Getting Isaiah Thomas back will be a huge boost for the Cavs but they just haven’t shown an ability to really turn up the heat when they need to. JR and Wade have to get themselves going at some point.
Mora: I really think they can. Even when Cavs get IT back, they won’t stop a more balanced offense in the Celtics. With Kyrie now playing with a greater sense of purpose, he will keep up his intensity through the season. I’m calling it: The Celtics will be Eastern Conference champs.
McKenzie: We can pencil in a Celtics-Cavaliers Conference Finals from now, barring anything catastrophic taking place with either team. The Cavaliers are expected to figure it all out come playoff time and the Celtics are built for a deep playoff run of their own. On paper, the Celtics should be good enough to beat LeBron, even if they get IT. But it’s so hard to make these takes in November.
Anderson: I guess for this one we are supposed to assume the Cavs actually make the playoffs? Kidding, kind of, but it does feel like these Cavs are in some trouble. Still, I’m sticking with the Wizards. They’re the one team that seems to really believe they can take down Cleveland, and the one team the Cavs seem to fear a bit too. LeBron still thinks he can just brush off the Celtics anytime he feels like it.
Strickland: The preamble to the question was cute, but in reviewing the variables in the Celtics’ new equation, a couple things stood out: Hayward led a team to a playoff series win, but it was a 35-year-old Joe Johnson who took and made the winning shots. Horford anchored a 60–win team who was unceremoniously swept in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving has yet to see, play or win a playoff game without LeBron James.
While all early signs point to GangGreen reigning supreme once again in the East, it is a daunting task to beat LeBron James-led squads in the Eastern Conference four times as the past decade has shown us.
Boileau: Tough to say without Hayward this year. As a general comment I’d have to say yes (depending on how quickly the Bucks and 76ers can grow). Even though the Celtics are cruising like a Snoop Dogg video, LeBron is still the king and the throne is still spoken for.
3. Who has been your favourite player to watch so far?
Miller: That’s possibly the hardest question of all. Guys like Giannis and Porzingis are mesmerizing at times, but for me it’s probably been Ben Simmons. I was a huge critic of his when he played at LSU and didn’t quite expect him to adjust to the NBA this quickly.
Mora: Ben Simmons, hands down. I was excited for him to come back and compete for Rookie of the Year since he was out all last year and he has NOT disappointed. While the 76ers are still figuring some things out, expect great things from Simmons. Possibly an eighth seed playoff berth with him behind the wheel.
McKenzie: Giannis. The size, the strength, the ability to practically Eurostep his way to the basket in three strides from mid-court (only a slight exaggeration). He might be MVP one year before I said he would (I predicted he’d win in 2019).
Anderson: It’s gotta be Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It’s just a joy to see them both healthy on the court together and I hope they stay healthy forever. Obvious honorable mention to Giannis. Those are the three guys I’ll stop the channel on every time.
Strickland: Joel Embiid.
The possibilities are tantalizing.
The storyline is compelling.
And his social media life is the stuff of millennial gold.
Live Life, Young Lion and #DoWork!
Boileau: Honestly… Ben Simmons. He plays the game with a patience that I can only relate to LeVeon Bell with the Pittsburg Steelers. High level IQ and maturity for his age.
4. Lonzo Ball has had a mostly poor start to his NBA career after playing very well in college. Is it just confidence that’s killing his game?
Miller: There are a million miles between the level of collegiate basketball and the NBA. His defensive problems, from what I’ve seen so far, appear to be effort problems rather than confidence. If an attacking player gets the better of him, rarely will he try to recover and turn the play around. In terms of his horrible shooting, I think that’s a mix of confidence and pressure. Playing off the bench against second-unit guards is something Luke Walton should take a good look at if Ball can’t shoot his way out of the slump.
Mora: Not at all. He’s a good player. It’s the unnecessary added pressure from his dad that’s probably getting to his head. He’s not a leader, but that’s okay because he’s a great player. Just needs more time to get his groove back. He’ll be fine as long as these unrealistic expectations for him drop a bit.
McKenzie: I think it’s a combination of confidence and adjusting to the NBA as a whole. While he has ways to go, it’s not like he’s been totally awful. For what it’s worth, Lonzo has two triple-doubles to his tally, and is the youngest player in league history to do so.
Anderson: Lonzo has had a “mostly poor start” because of perception and unfair expectations. How many 19-year-old point guards come in and dominate the NBA their first 10 games? The answer you’re looking for is zero. Point guards have the longest learning curve of any position, and Lonzo has done a lot of good things on a bad team, including being the youngest player in history to record a triple-double. The shooting is a problem, particularly near the rim, but if he gets that figured out he’s still going to be very good.
Strickland: Nothing is killing this kid’s game. He’s 20. Yes, I know his boss won a title without the Association’s MVP in arguably the greatest NBA Finals performance history in 1980, but he’s an outlier in an entirely different strata. Ball is a rookie playing in what could be the league’s Golden Era of point guards, still learning the game on a bad team. Refusing to give his paterfamilias oxygen as a contributing factor in his shaky start is optional over here.
Boileau: I’ve been saying it for a while. The kid doesn’t bend. Sounds stupid but he’s too straight up and gets killed on defensive assignments because he can’t use that height and length well enough. His shot is fine but he needs more “dog” in him. Some angry yoga would be his salvation… but it’s not a real thing.
5. As things stand, the Grizzlies have the eighth seed in the West. Will that stay the same? Who’s going to end up with it?
Miller: Both conferences are basically wide open at this point (other than a few certainties) but things can change in a heartbeat. The Clippers went from the first seed to the 13th in a matter of 10 games.
Mora: Probably not. The Thunder just have too much star power not to be in the playoffs. Expect a swift change with the Thunder in possibly at six or seven, leaving the Grizzlies out of the playoffs.
McKenzie: I can tell you this: The Blazers should be better than eighth, but perhaps not better than fifth or sixth.
Anderson: I had the Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Clippers, and Pelicans fighting for the last two playoff spots in approximately that order, but it was always going to come down to a couple key injuries. Portland is the most durable team of the five, and already the Jazz and Clippers have suffered some big injuries. I’d probably pick Portland and Memphis for the final two spots if I chose today.
Strickland: The bottom of the playoff seedings rung, regardless of conference, generally isn’t decided in November… and it’s not going to be now. Case in point? At the time of writing this, Memphis is ensconced in eighth, though seeing a first-round series between presumptive top seed and current champ Golden State vs. the retooling Oklahoma City Thunder would be a ratings bonanza.
Boileau: Yeah, the Blazers were just in the eighth spot and now look at them. They will battle with a few teams but they have a solid rotation and one of the top coaches, in my opinion. Nurkic will continue to improve… and look at that defense!
6. What the heck is wrong with the Thunder? After amassing two more stars around Russell Westbrook, the club is off to a rocky 7–9 start.
Miller: What’s that old saying about too many cooks? For the record, I do think they’ll figure it out eventually, but when you glue three guys together who have always been the first option on a team (call Russ 1b when KD was still with the Thunder) you’re bound to have some teething issues. The closing of games has just been a confusing nightmare so far. I’m not convinced that Billy Donovan is the man to lead this team to where they need to be, but time will tell.
Mora: Team chemistry—especially after a solo dominant performance from Westbrook. He needs to adjust his game. He will, just needs time. It’s like a completely different ballgame. Going from a Big 3 to a leadership role back to acclimating with a Big 3. Too much talent for them not to fix it. They will. We just have to be patient.
McKenzie: OKC is still trying to figure out how three ball-dominant alpha males, including the reigning MVP, can co-exist. Their lack of depth hurts—especially when the notable pieces they gave up for Paul George (Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo) are thriving on a playoff team in Indiana.
George, a pending UFA, might be the biggest loser in all this: He leads the league in steals but in terms of scoring, he’s having a down year. You could argue this was to be expected because he has to share with Russell and Carmelo Anthony, but they’re not even a consistent .500 ball club yet.
Anderson: I’m not sure anything much is wrong with the Thunder other than that these things take time. They remind me a bit of a poor man’s 2011 Miami Heat where they just haven’t gotten comfortable playing together on offense yet. The underlying numbers are all good, and the defense has been strong outside of comically bad crunch-time numbers. OKC has the fourth-best point differential in the NBA. They’re fine.
Once the new guys in Paul George and Carmelo Kyam Anthony stop seeing themselves as guests, actually become furniture in the house that Christopher Emmanuel Paul built and accent what the MVP does for this team, the final result can be scary.
There is a lot of professional courtesy going on in that locker room right now. Someone’s feelings (Hi, Hoodie Melo) may have to be hurt as they resign themselves to the role of primary scorer off the bench to find some sort of cohesion while giving the Thunder an opportunity to compete at the top of the conference.
Boileau: One word: Melo. He lost games for the Knicks. They traded him. They got better, Thunder got worse. In an ideal world they trade him for Kevin Love, but I can’t see the Cavs doing that…
7. Does losing Rudy Gobert (for a while) kill any chance the Jazz had of making the playoffs?
Miller: I’d say so. Gordon Hayward’s departure left their playoff future up in the air, and without Rudy Gobert the team just doesn’t have the talent to make it in an insanely loaded Western Conference.
Mora: Unfortunately, yes it does. They’ll be back stronger than ever.
McKenzie: Losing Gordon to free agency. Both Rudy and Joe Johnson are out for the rest of November at least. But as long as Gobert isn’t lost for the season, their year isn’t lost. They can still salvage a spot.
Anderson: Losing Rudy definitely hurts the Jazz. The question is how much. It looks like he’ll miss 15 to 20 games, but this next two week stretch before December is the key. The schedule is very soft here, so Utah needs to eke out wins however possible before an absolutely brutal December schedule. The Jazz can still be a strong defense around Ekpe Udoh, and maybe this injury will force a kick start to their anemic offense. If not, they’ll be out of it by year’s end.
Boileau: People like to sleep on Favors. His ideal position is center, so as long as he is healthy (a big if), they will be good. This team is also way deeper than people give them credit for. They will fight for eighth.
8. Is Joel Embiid the best trash talker in the NBA?
Miller: I’m not sure you can be the best trash talker in a league where you haven’t even played 50 games over the last three years. He’s definitely the one who spends too much time trying to talk shit, that’s for sure.
Mora: Probably not. That award goes to Draymond Green, but he is the most fun to watch on and off the court. He doesn’t back down nor should he. I trust The Process.
McKenzie: With regards to social media? Yes.
Anderson: Yes. Joel Embiid has mastered the era of social media in ways LeBron can only ever dream of doing. It’s Joel’s world now. We’re all just living in it.
Strickland: In a league where it is a lost art, perhaps.
Social media allows room for several layers of shade to aid in enhancing the garbation, as The King can, but won’t, attest.
Boileau: No… that is Charles Barkley. But to be fair, we also don’t hear half of what players say.
9. The Pistons have started the season 11–6. Are they for real?
Miller: Results speak for themselves. Andre Drummond looks rejuvenated and Tobias Harris has been quietly playing himself into All-Star consideration. Avery Bradley has been fantastic in Detroit so far, too—he’s scoring a mega-efficient 18 points per game and still being one of the top perimeter defenders.
Mora: As much as I hate to admit it, they are. I refused to believe it, but after really analyzing their roster and watching their games, they have a solid offense and roster. People forget they have Avery Bradley. Combine him with Reggie Jackson and you have an amazing, undervalued back court. Will they keep it up? I don’t know. Way too early to tell, but for now they’re a real threat in the East.
McKenzie: Considering how most of the Eastern Conference’s stars upped and left for the West, it’s nice to see a team like the Detroit Pistons surprise us with a winning record to start the year. Ask me this question again closer to the All-Star break.
Anderson: The Pistons are real enough. Andre Drummond is a different player when he’s making free throws, and Reggie Jackson is back. Detroit’s not 10–3 any longer but they look like a solid Eastern playoff team, for whatever that’s worth. Their ceiling is a home playoff series and a surprise first-round upset.
Strickland: When the Macho Man Stanley SVG adjusted the way they played the game offensively, not so much to match everyone else’s desire to match what the Warriors do, but to be more effective in how Andre Drummond is incorporated, the dynamic at the Hot -N-Ready Box changed dramatically.
The team was bound to be improved defensively by the addition of Avery Bradley, who brings a toughness and determination the Motor City had embraced already. But it seems that Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson have accepted their roles in the pecking order, Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith and Anthony Toliver are thriving off the bench and Drummond has actually shown a desire to improve his free throw shooting to limit his presence as a late-game on-court liability.
In short, the Pistons are playing harder, smarter and more together than they have in some time. In turn, the results have been favourable so far.
Season-long sustainability is the next question.
Detroit may answer it vociferously this year.
Boileau: Nope. Sell high, kids. There is not enough star power to maintain this.
10. We’ve already had one coach fired this season (Phoenix’s Earl Watson)—who’s the coach on the hottest seat right now?
Miller: That’s gotta go to one Mr. Glen “Doc” Rivers. The Clippers have had bad injury luck (again) this season, but even then, a team with two All-Stars and a decent supporting cast should be more than capable of at least treading water. A lot of the blame the last few seasons has been on CP3, or Blake, or DeAndre, but eventually the captain of the ship has to take responsibility for getting his crew in the best position to succeed.
Mora: Probably Carlisle. At 2–13, the Mavs are sinking fast. They need a change quickly and the coaching staff might be the first ones to bite the dust.
McKenzie: Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
Anderson: Tyronn Lue. Someone has to take the fall, and LeBron knows how this stuff works.
Strickland: Gonna reach a bit on this one, but there may be some merit to the thought that Glenn Rivers won’t survive this season unless the Clippers do something significant in the playoffs, providing that they even make it. Few believed the drop-off in productivity and wins would be THIS precipitous without Chris Paul, but an early season swoon due to losing eight of their last nine games doesn’t bode well for future fortunes.
Granted, injuries to starters Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverly and 30-year-old rookie PG Milos Teodosic aren’t helping. Yet a team that still fields Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the frontline, along with the presence and play of other relatively solid NBA veterans should be a bit more competitive than the Clippers are as currently comprised.
Boileau: Lue. Why he hasn’t been fired yet is beyond me.
You can find all of our roundtable contributors on Twitter:
Andrew Miller: @AndrewMillerNBA
Ivan Mora: @moraivan
Julian McKenzie: @jkamckenzie
Brandon Anderson: @wheatonbrando
Will Strickland: @WallStrizzle1
Phil Boileau: @SportingPhil
An Ode to the 2007-2008 Warriors
A reminder that joy and excellence are not foreign concepts to those living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sometimes messy can be better than perfect, right?
Well, no. Perfect is better than messy, but when it comes to sports, the picture gets murkier. Sports has a way of instantly anchoring in time, era and context – we’ll always remember where we were when Baron Davis yammed on Andrei Kirilenko. That sort of deal.
When you factor in context like that then yeah, messy can feel pretty damn perfect.
The “We Believe” Warriors, they of the 8-seed-playoff-upset and the sea of yellow towels and raucous Oracle Arena, were feted all of last season. It was a reminder that joy and excellence were not foreign concepts to those living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
However, the real peak of that iteration of the Warriors occurred the next season, this 2007-08 team that’s easy to forget now, was actually the first of the “We Believe” teams to play a full season together. That team has always been this Warriors fan’s favourite for the entirety of my life, that’s for sure, and it’s easy to understand why.
They didn’t make the playoffs. Let’s start there.
They didn’t make the playoffs, becoming the first team in NBA history to win 48 freaking games and not qualify, because, as you know, the 07-08 season happened sometime over the last 20 years while the Leastern (nice!) Conference couldn’t pull its head out of its own ass. They didn’t make it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. They finished two games behind the Denver Nuggets for ninth in the Western Conference, and three games ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the East.
These Warriors rode the previous season’s playoff high and played 82 games, or 3,936 minutes, at the league’s fastest pace and in front of an attendance that ranked sixth in the NBA while employing a motley crew of preposterously entertaining characters, each seemingly more insane than the previous one.
Seriously, just take in the following. Rookies Brandan Wright, C.J. Watson, and Marco Belinelli hadn’t become the mere expiring contracts they would eventually be, while Patrick O’Bryant wasn’t a full-on bust yet, but they were mere appetizers here. Matt Barnes played almost 20 minutes trying to drive all the way out to Temecula if that’s what it needed, Mickael Pietrus was a knockdown shooter, Austin Croshere was the token white guy, at the same time that Andris Biedrins lead the NBA (!!!!) with a 62.5 field goal percentage. (This Warriors fan called him Prom King back then. He would always don the same gelled hairdo you had for prom. Just look at this.)
Only Jason Richardson was missing from the previous year’s roster, but it didn’t matter. Al Harrington was the foremost irrational confidence guy in a team full of them, Stephen Jackson was the God personified, Monta Ellis had it all,and our point guard followed his all-time dunk over Kirilenko by turning in the best season of his career that ultimately, much like the team he so brilliantly led, fell short of notching him an All-Star berth (he still smiled though).
It had no reason to work the way that it did, but goddamn if it didn’t, and if it didn’t constitute the greatest thing in the world for us Warriors teens. They were a cartoon of a team, and we mean this in the best of ways. The 2007-08 Warriors played their NBA games like they played ball in NBA 2K, and if you can’t see the beauty in this then we probably can’t ever be friends.
This Warriors team that season were, ultimately, just like the young man I was a decade ago: frustratingly irregular, talented but lazy, and ultimately they fell short, much like we all do.
However, when they clicked, boy did that machine click. Golden State scored the most points per game in the NBA on the league’s fourth-ranked offense. Biedrins, as mentioned, had a career year and Ellis shot over 60 per cent from the field for the entire month of February. Seriously! Head coach Don Nelson’s system was ultimately player-proof as the numbers and successes of players like Corey Maggette, Reggie Williams, Corey Crawford, Cartier Martin or Anthony Morrow would attest in later years. But okay, sure, let’s keep this focused on our favs.
The Warriors didn’t play any real kind of defense, none whatsoever, let’s mention this too. That’s probably why they were doomed. “You need to play defence in the NBA to have success”, they said. However, we say “That’s what made them thrilling!”. In 2007-08, Golden State was the bastard stepbrother of Mike (No) D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns”, who somehow never changed as he grew up and graduated college—well, almost graduated. They didn’t make the playoffs, remember? It’s a loss in the penultimate game against big freaking brother, the Suns, that doomed them.
Over time, the Warriors and this writer grew up and cleaned their act up, and learned not to mess up as often as they used to. Regardless, this 07-08 team has maintained an alluring sense of awe and wonder, constantly pulling. us. back. in. These current Warriors, the supernova of supernovas, may have perfected basketball (or thereabout), but the messiness of a decade ago still appeals to this now adult fan: it’s comforting to know that you’re not alone in messing up, that those you look up to also do it.
Clean up they did. They drafted Steph Curry, because it was the smart thing to do and, when it had become clear it should be his team, when it was clear they believed in him and his faulty ankles, they traded away Ellis and our Lord Stephen Jackson and received Andrew Bogut in return. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing. Sometimes you need to study for the stats exam even if it’s fucking great to just play the PS4 all day long with the homies.
But then the Warriors went ahead and added Kevin Durant, whose legal name might as well have been Kevin Freaking Durant. Now all of a sudden, college doesn’t feel so bad.
You can’t ever front on KD.
Something Out of Nothing
It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.
We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.
Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.
It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.
We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.
I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.
Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.
The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).
Stay tuned, because it’s not over.
Progression is Power: On Social Justice in the NBA
The path to becoming the most progressive major sports league in the world hasn’t been a simple one.
Cyntoia Brown and Trayvon Martin. Two names that went viral on social media, two teens that were both failed by the American criminal justice system, two lives that ended far too young, and two people that gained the attention of NBA All-Star LeBron James. Trayvon Martin was tragically gunned down while returning from the corner store with a drink and candy in his hand. His killer was never brought to justice, but instead was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter. Cyntoia Brown was 16 when she shot and killed a man that had solicited her for sex after being forced into prostitution. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to 51 years to life for first degree murder. James chose to reach out to his roughly 30 million followers across his social media platforms to demand justice for these individuals. But this story doesn’t start with Martin and won’t end with Brown. This story is more about the social justice movement in the NBA that has been in the making for decades, inspired by individuals just like these.
Earlier this year the NBA placed itself into a category of its own in an unprecedented move across the sports community. Commissioner Adam Silver and Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts co-signed a letter for players encouraging their social awareness and pledged their full support. In an excerpt obtained by ESPN, part of the letter reads:
None of us operates in a vacuum. Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world’s greatest basketball players — you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you to know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.
To the public the NBA might look like a leader in the industry, but it has never been a short or easy journey. To understand how far the league has come we have to look back at its controversial past.
I’ll start with the more recent history of the Chicago Bulls NBA championship visit to the White House in 1992. A dashiki-donned Craig Hodges showed up with a handwritten letter to former United States President George H. W. Bush opposing the administration’s treatment of the poor and minority communities. That same year Hodges was then waived by the Bulls and failed to receive an offer or tryout from any of the other 29 teams. Hodges was only 32 at the time and not only a three-time three-point shootout champion, but a two-time NBA champion. Four years later he filed a $40 million lawsuit against the league and its teams claiming they blackballed him. In his complaint he listed reasons that included his association with African-American social activist Louis Farrakhan, and his criticism of other African-American professional athletes not using their wealth and influence to enact change, most notably calling out former teammate Michael Jordan.
That same year the league saw more controversy when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the American anthem in protest against a country and flag he deemed a symbol of oppression and a conflict with his Islamic beliefs. The league’s commissioner at the time, David Stern, handed Abdul-Rauf a suspension that carried a $31,707 fine for each game missed. It seemed like a clear message from the league to its players: Either stay in line or there will be consequences.
It then took almost a decade for Steve Nash to place himself in the middle of political controversy by sporting a shirt during the Mavericks’ pregame warmups that read: “No War. Shoot for Peace.” Progression was happening slow in the social athletic world, but two years later the Wizards’ Etan Thomas echoed his sentiments and developed his own reputation as a political activist by delivering a powerful anti-war speech at a rally.
The cries of players’ voices did not go unnoticed as the NBA started to see entire teams rally around social justice causes. Nash (traded to the Phoenix Suns) was placing himself in the center of controversy again—this time being joined by the team’s managing partner. Together, the two of them lead the “Los Suns” movement. The team sported custom jerseys for a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs in support of the Hispanic community that was facing Arizona’s highly controversial law heavily criticized for encouraging racial profiling.
Less than two years later, the league would see one of its most recognizable pictures to date and it would be the beginning of the movement of players and teams proudly standing together in unison in an attempt to enact change for individuals being targeted—predominantly in the black community. In Florida, the Miami Heat were only a few miles away from where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed after walking through a gated neighbourhood back to his uncle’s house wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Dwyane Wade’s wife, Gabrielle Union, brought the issue to her husband’s attention and in a revolutionary move, LeBron James and Wade spent several days planning a social justice plan of action. All it took was a photo that spoke a thousand words and a hashtag that read #WeAreTrayvonMartin.
The killing of an unarmed black man, or in this case, a child of only 17 years old, is not anything new for many people in America. This time it happened to hit Wade a lot harder than he ever expected.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Wade stated, “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I’m speaking up because I feel it’s necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men and especially with our youth.”
This was also one of the first times where it seemed a social issue was spreading beyond individual players, beyond a single team, and was being acknowledged league-wide. Further acknowledgement towards Martin’s death was displayed by New York Knicks teammates Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Although we may not know the depth to the role that the Heat and players across the NBA actually played in garnering attention to Martin’s death, there was still traction and at that same time a Change.org petition had already gained almost 1.5 million signatures. Wade had retweeted CNN journalist Roland Martin’s tweet asking people to keep using their voices to demand justice. A Florida lawmaker further pushed Heat players to show up to pregames in hooded sweatshirts, and although the NBA’s uniform policy didn’t allow it, James and Wade were seen with “We Want Justice” and “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin” written on their sneakers. And in yet another groundbreaking move, the National Basketball Players Association released a powerful statement not only listing the standard condolences but went further to call for a permanent resignation of the Sanford Chief of Police and a full review of its police department as well.
Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Freddie Grey. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Cyntoia Brown.
These names are far from the only ones that should have gained attention over the years, however, in the case of Eric Garner, players and teams across the league were seen protesting his killing by wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” shirts during warmups. Under new Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA had taken a step forward by choosing not to fine players for not wearing Adidas as the league rules require. Silver stated his respect for players voicing their personal views but added that he would still prefer they abide by the rules. Over the years he has continued to progressively lead the way in the sporting community. In addition to not fining players for violating league rules with their shirts, he had previously fought to remove Donald Sterling as L.A. Clippers owner after his racist comments went public. The NBA commissioner has also shown his support for the LGBTQ community by withdrawing an All-Star game in Charlotte after it passed a discriminatory bathroom bill, and rode on a float the past two consecutive years in New York City’s pride parade.
The players, the coaches, the owners, and Silver have all taken the NBA to new places as it’s become the most progressive across the four major sports leagues (Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association). If you’ll recall, it was not so long ago when players, most famously Michael Jordan, refused to address political issues in fear of hurting their brand or alienating some fans. Jordan has had the quote, “Republicans buy shoes too,” follow him throughout his career and life, and regardless of whether or not he actually said those words, he publicly refused to take any political stances during his time as a player. It’s uncertain whether or not the movements of players have forced the league to progress, or the NBA’s adaptability has allowed the players to. But second to the changes in the league has been most recently MJ himself. Last year, he took the opportunity to speak out for what was possibly the first time in his career.
In a statement published to ESPN entitled, “I Can No Longer Stay Silent,” MJ wrote, “As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.”
The former apolitical player and current Charlotte Hornets principal owner and chairman also donated $2 million between the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Whatever caused him to finally use his voice proves that change is possible.
In LeBron’s famous 2014 Sports Illustrated article, he said, “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead …”
James has arguably been the most politically vocal sports figure (especially since Donald Trump took office) and one can only conclude there’s no silencing him in the future. His and others’ voices across the NBA and the rest of the sporting community are so important today and will only continue to grow and inspire others in sports to speak up and hopefully one day provide justice to those like Trayvon Martin or Cyntoia Brown.
Progression is possible, and if the NBA is any indication, I think it simply proves the point that athletes should absolutely not just “stick to sports,” and that social change is possible. I look forward to the future where sports figures, celebrities and those in positions of power will all use their voices to inspire and enact change in their communities and our society.