Pillared by basketball’s holiest, the history of the NBA is rich with activism. Bill Russell–resolutely uncompromising, bold, and critical even of the racism infecting the city he brought 11 championships to–reinvented the modern Black athlete during the Civil Rights Era. Oscar Robertson, once sent a death threat from the Ku Klux Klan via telegram while in college, was a tireless advocate for players’ rights and sued the NBA in 1970 in the groundbreaking move that yielded free agency. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at age 17, publicly supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam at age 20, and revealed that he had converted to Islam after winning his first of six championships at age 24–setting the tone for more than five decades of his own activism.
Setting a New Precedent
Today, the NBA is often lauded as a “progressive” outlier in the canon of American professional sports. In a September 2017 letter collaboratively penned by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA President Michele Roberts, the league and the union’s leading faculty members encouraged their players to not be afraid of their power to be publicly impactful and socially active on a global scale. This move deviated from the NFL’s messy collision with the president based on peaceful protest by players and the league’s infamous blackballing of Colin Kaepernick.
Much of this contrast was thrust into the open air this past February, when Fox News talking head Laura Ingraham took aim at LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Simultaneously the two greatest basketball players of a generation and two of the world’s most charitable people, James and Durant publicly criticized President Trump by pointing out his most obvious flaws and emphasizing their comfort with speaking truth to power. Ingraham’s response–dressed from head to toe in racism, hinging on a desperation for attention– questioned their intelligence and capacity to engage in political discourse, and was summed up with her wondering, “must they run their mouths like that?”
The absurd yet predictable commentary preceded All-Star Weekend, deepening attention on the situation. LeBron and Kevin retorted by acknowledging their enormous platforms, their importance to culture, and their entitlement to their voices.
“Let me begin by saying I’m incredible proud of our players for using the platform they have.”
— NBA TV (@NBATV) February 18, 2018
Silver expressed solidarity with his marquee players, drawing the kind of line NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not and evidently will not. Silver didn’t do much tiptoeing, explaining, “it’s not lost on me … that there’s [an] enormous amount of racial tension in this country, an enormous amount of social injustice, and I do see a role for this league in addressing those issues.”
Silver’s sentiments and the NBA’s position at large were echoed the next day by the “Sports & Society” roundtable, featuring Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony and moderated by Angela Rye. Facilitated by the NBA and TNT as a new piece of All-Star programming, the discussion about athletes’ roles and responsibilities as activists aired as an appetizer for the All-Star Game that Sunday. Another step in the right direction.
Social impact in the 2017-18 season has proven that NBA players are as involved as ever in the real world beyond arena walls, and the league as a whole is supportive of players’ endeavors into activism.
Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Blazers for Gun Reform
Recent school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas have left much of the country reeling. The NBA is equally invested, and some of its most distinguished have chosen to speak up and act.
This is Joaquin Oliver. He was one of the 17 young lives that were lost tragically at Douglas HighSchool in Parkland. Joaquin was one of many that i heard was excited about my return to Miami and yesterday was buried in my jersey. This is why we will not just SHUT up and dribble! pic.twitter.com/X0tfTTao33
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) February 26, 2018
After learning that Joaquin Oliver, one of 17 left dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, was buried in a Dwyane Wade jersey, Wade himself recognized a call to action. The horrifying gun violence at Stoneman Douglas–just miles from where Wade and Gabrielle Union-Wade send their young boys to school every day–was close enough to home for the Wades to dedicate significant energy, personal time, and impactful money to one of this country’s most pressing epidemics.
Last night was absolutely beautiful. @DwyaneWade team turned an empty warehouse into a wonderful tribute to honor the victims of the MSD shooting and also displayed the harsh truth of gun violence in this country. Wonderful job @BStyleINC @lisjoseph #marchforourlives #neveragain pic.twitter.com/JGaR9jS4VO
— Adam Alhanti (@AAlhanti) March 11, 2018
Dwyane visited the school on the students’ first day back to class. Two weeks later, he and Gabrielle donated $200,000 to the “March for Our Lives” movement, sending young activists from Wade’s hometown of Chicago to Washington, D.C. for the milestone rally; Carmelo Anthony joined the cause, sending students from his hometown of Baltimore. Additionally, the Wades sponsored the “Parkland 17” interactive art exhibit, a space equally for grieving and for political action (a “Ring Your Rep” phone booth was available, allowing participants to contact political representatives directly to discuss gun control).
Houston Rockets' Chris Paul on deadly shooting at nearby Santa Fe High School: “It’s scary that that’s becoming a norm here, and we've got to do something about it, because I can’t imagine something like that taking place with my kids." https://t.co/qde62c3qfe pic.twitter.com/pTrwxkU8ni
— ABC News (@ABC) May 18, 2018
On May 18, eight students and two teachers were murdered at Santa Fe High School, about 40 minutes south of where the Rockets play in downtown Houston. Chris Paul was vocal about the gravity of the situation in the context of “minor” playoff basketball, citing concerns for his young children: “it’s scary that that’s becoming a norm here”.
I hope people throughout the state will support the campaign, so that we can qualify and pass this important initiative into law. 2/2
— Paul Allen (@PaulGAllen) May 21, 2018
Four days after the Santa Fe shooting, Microsoft co-founder and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen responded by donating $1 million to a Washington state-based initiative that aims to regulate firearms. Allen, a Seattle native and team owner of the NFL’s Seahawks, has targeted the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and its Initiative 1639, which, if added to the November 2018 Washington State election ballot, would:
Create an enhanced background check system applicable to semiautomatic assault rifles similar to what is required for handguns, require that individuals complete a firearm safety training course and be at least twenty-one years of age to purchase or possess such weapons, enact a waiting period for the purchase of such weapons, and establish standards for the responsible storage of all firearms.
Allen called I-1639 a “reasonable and necessary measure that will improve the safety of our schools and communities” in a series of tweets posted Monday. The proposed law is exclusive to Washington, but its success would no doubt set the tone for other states to energize similar campaigns. Having an NBA team owner behind I-1639 sets a precedent for other billionaire owners around the country to get involved with similar legislation. Allen and former Microsoft CEO and current Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer allegedly fell out over smartphones, but it would do them and the league well to pair up on this emergency of an issue.
J.J. Barea, Carmelo Anthony for Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in late Summer 2017, is still struggling with an extended recovery process. Many citizens are physically ill, in need of mental health care, and lacking innumerable resources–most especially, electricity. While the U.S. government may be turning a blind eye, NBA representatives have stepped up selflessly.
J.J. Barea has been in this fight since September. Barea, beloved Dallas Maverick and Puerto Rico native, made his first big splash in relief efforts by stocking full the Mavericks’ team plane with supplies soon after Maria made landfall. His preseason was spent coordinating trip after trip to provide aid, assistance, and support to Puerto Ricans, including his own friends and family. Barea crowdfunded upwards of $750,000 and convinced Mavs owner Mark Cuban to donate all ticket sales from an October game, generating an additional $114,000 to be contributed directly to Puerto Ricans in need.
To this day, Barea remains involved. In April, he and Cuban travelled to the island to oversee refurbishments of sports and youth facilities and a local bar. They experienced firsthand the blackout that continues to afflict the island seven months on, and Cuban noted, “there are so many places that need to be rebuilt, so much work to be done.” Further expressing that he was happy to “contribute again and bring more awareness to the status of the island”, it is now incumbent upon billionaire Cuban to continue to be a resource to those on the island, and a reminder to his powerful allies of the continual, unjust mistreatment by the U.S. of its own citizens–citizens who would just like to resume normality.
Just as well, Carmelo Anthony and his foundation have done incredible work in Puerto Rico. Anthony, who also had friends and family living on the island, issued a call to action via The Players’ Tribune on September 22:
I’ve been texting my people down there for the past 24 hours, and I get nothing back. It’s the worst feeling in the world. Imagine texting somebody you love and getting no response for more than a day. It’s been days of nothing, and I’m sitting here on pins and needles. I’m just hoping and praying that one person hits me back and gives me some kind of update on what’s going on — let’s me know that everything’s OK.
Anthony’s personal distress paralleled the larger theme: “Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans.”
Anthony’s YouCaring campaign raised close to $500,000, and according to updates on the page, the Carmelo Anthony Foundation donated and distributed 100,000 pounds’ worth of food and water. The foundation also paired up with UNICEF, Feed the Children, and Operation Airdrop, but pointed out in November, “we are making progress but still have a long way to go”.
Sacramento Kings for Black Lives & Police Accountability
On March 18, 2018, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was murdered by Sacramento police officers. The officers, who suspected Clark to be in possession of a gun, shot at the unarmed man 20 times in his grandparents’ backyard. Body cam footage showed the gruesome killing to be indefensible. Clark posed no threat to the officers. He was simply trying to enter his home.
The Sacramento Kings responded under pressure when local activists turned the Golden 1 Center into a public forum. On a night where 15,000 fans were turned away from a home game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Kings and team owner Vivek Ranadivé acknowledged the “horrific tragedy” of Clark’s death, and ended the evening with a promise: “we’re gonna work really hard to prevent this kind of a tragedy from happening again.”
Propelled by Ranadivé and players Garrett Temple and Vince Carter, the Kings put good use to their immense platform and put their money where their mouth is. The team facilitated discussion about Black lives and police violence in the subsequent weeks. They partnered with visiting Boston Celtics players on a public service announcement-style video that called for change, and both teams wore warmup shirts that implored accountability for Clark’s killers.
On March 29, the Kings made an extraordinary, radical move by announcing partnerships with the Build. Black. organization and the local Black Lives Matter chapter. The next night, Temple, Carter, and Doug Christie dedicated time to a youth-focused forum, laying groundwork for transformative local change.
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) March 2, 2018
While the Kings’ season ended mid-April, team representatives continue to do their part. On May 3, Temple announced a commitment of up to $20,000 to benefit local high schools. Temple visited Sacramento Charter High School a day earlier in a mentor role, leading discussions on race, leadership, and the importance of education.
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) May 22, 2018
This summer, the Kings’ union with Build. Black. will take shape with a co-ed youth basketball league. Announced on May 22, the Kings and Queens Rise league promises to “provide a caring and positive environment for Sacramento youth through community building, sportsmanship, and resources for health and safety”, building on the positives founded at the aforementioned forum held in March.
In the press release, which acknowledges support from the Black Child Legacy Campaign, Ranadivé is quoted as hoping “that this league will encourage an open dialogue to help our city grow stronger together”; the 16-team intramural league will represent eight Sacramento neighborhoods, with each boasting two co-ed teams of seventh and eighth graders and ninth and tenth graders.
Participants won’t just be competing for tournament glory, though:
Weekly practices will provide a fun and safe environment for young athletes to learn fundamental basketball, as well as serve as forums for valuable workshops designed to address a variety of topics from mental health to conflict resolution to responsible social media use.
With an emphasis on individual development beyond just success on the court, the Kings and Queens Rise league is shaping up to be an invaluable resource to Sacramento youth. League participants will also be invited to a public forum in early July, where they will be encouraged to discuss community-based issues before watching the California Classic.
It’s worth noting the Kings’ undivided attention on reaching out to Black students through Black organizations–this team subverted the type of colorblind approach to community outreach that the NBA is used to. The Sacramento Kings have emerged as league leaders in the contemporary campaign for Black lives, all the while honoring Stephon Clark and setting an example for the sports world at large.
Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, and the Myth of Narratives
One of the great ironies of sport lay comfortably in the narrative. Some of the most demonized, incendiary players–maligned for whichever convenient reason–end up being the most altruistic people, exposing the futility of good-versus-evil debates in professional sports. Media-driven narratives sell. But rarely do they account for immeasurable heart. It drives home the point of all this: fame, fortune, championship rings, and all of the fickle frills are mere consolation prizes to the greater reward of giving back and paying it forward.
DeMarcus Cousins, mistrusted and questioned throughout his playing career, is a gleaming example of this. His public narrative insists he’s a poor leader whose immaturity will always prevent him from winning at the highest level. In reality? The basketball-related parts have never been accurate, but the off-court good achieved on his own time speaks for itself.
Cousins received the inaugural Offseason NBA Cares Community Assist Award in October for work done in Sacramento, New Orleans, Alabama, and South Africa. He has provided free basketball camps, neighborhood block parties, substantial monetary contributions to the refurbishment of athletic facilities, and donations of school supplies and eye exams, all for underprivileged youth–and that was just last summer. In the time since, Boogie has donated $75,000 worth of game tickets for local New Orleans youth, hand-delivered Thanksgiving meals for 150 families in the 9th Ward, treated 100 local kids to shopping sprees at Christmastime, held a charity comedy event whose proceeds went entirely to local non-profits, and offered mentorship in Los Angeles during All-Star Weekend to communities coming to terms with police relations.
In his seven years as a Sacramento King, Cousins was constantly involved in the city around him at the ground level. He remains devoted to Sacramento, continuing to host charitable events there and make himself available as a resource to local students he’s built lasting relationships with. In the aftermath of Stephon Clark’s murder earlier this year, Cousins reached out to the Clark family and insisted on covering their funeral expenses. Boogie is a divisive All-NBA talent, but there’s nothing to doubt about his social impact.
A loaded free agency move rendered him “snake”, “cupcake”, “competition destroyer”… take your pick. But Kevin Durant’s understated philanthropy speaks volumes more of his character than a workplace decision ever could. Through the 2017-18 season, Durant has committed millions of dollars and many hours of time to communities that have shaped him and organizations which inspire him.
A $10 million, ten-year pledge to the College Track program is the headliner: the Durant Center, to be opened in Kevin’s old stomping grounds in Prince George’s County, Maryland, will prepare D.C.-area students for college, academic success, and career-related goal fulfillment. KD has also donated significant amounts to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts; to Oakland’s Elizabeth House, a safe place for homeless women and children, and San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services; and to De-Bug, a San Jose-based organizing site focused on social justice in and beyond Silicon Valley.
Durant’s hosted breast cancer survivors and at least 860 underprivileged children and their families at Warriors home games this year. In lieu of a White House visit, Durant and the Warriors celebrated their 2017 championship by treating 60 youth from his hometown Seat Pleasant to a field trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In the offseason, he refurbished basketball courts in the Bay Area, New York’s Lower East Side, and New Delhi, India. Recently, it was reported that Durant will be contributing substantially to four Bay Area students’ college tuition costs after being personally moved by their stories at a Redwood City Boys & Girls’ Club.
Kevin has set himself apart as a true difference-maker beyond the hardwood, and has prioritized his capacity to effect social change as integral to his personal journey. He’s learned from his idol, mentor, and colleague, LeBron James. James, whose own 2010 free agency decision cast him as one of the most disliked athletes in the world, is putting at least 2,300 Akron-area students through college. Soon, he’ll open the I Promise School for at-risk Akron third graders, retain them through high school, provide them with years-spanning resources into adulthood, and reward eventual graduates with full rides to the University of Akron.
LeBron has a history of being vocal about police killings of unarmed Black men and boys, about gun laws, and about intra-league racism (read: Donald Sterling). More recently, in lieu of using social media during the 2018 Playoffs, LeBron’s lent his Instagram platform to the #AlwaysBelieve campaign centered on young activists—many of color—devoted to helping at-risk Black youth, saving the bees, defending the value of literacy, combating climate change, and healing broken communities, among other causes.
It’s this indefatigable commitment to social responsibility that informs the types of worldview that Fox News lives to attack, and the NFL has chosen to suppress. You can’t encourage rich athletes to be charitable and socially active, then tell them to “shut up and dribble” (or “demonstrate conspicuous respect for the national anthem or wait in the locker room”) when they speak up about the very social issues that beg their philanthropy in the first place. It’s intellectually absurd.
Decades’ Worth of Work Left Undone
The NBA is not a bastion of progressivism. There are skeletons in its closet named Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Royce White. The league has miles to go in terms of the less visible diversity behind the scenes: on coaching staffs, in front offices, in the league office, and among ownership groups, white men enjoy most of the power. There’s evidence of structural misogyny within, at the very least, the Dallas Mavericks organization. Becky Hammon’s acceptance of an interview for a head coaching position was mind-boggling for too many people.
There even exists a longstanding rule about standing for the pregame national anthem–not a far cry from the NFL’s newest policy. Commissioner Silver has said, “if [kneeling or a similar protest] were to happen [during the anthem], we’ll deal with it when it happens.” There is no delineated punishment for breaking the rule. Meanwhile, LeBron James has pointed out he hasn’t felt compelled to use the anthem as a site of protest, citing the myriad other ways the NBA enables him and his colleagues to make social and political statements. Some players, like David West (whose understated protest has been a part of his pregame routine throughout his career) and J.R. Smith have found ways around the policy. Flexible as the rule may be, enforced patriotism will remain a scar on the NBA’s progressive reputation so long as it exists.
Again: the NBA is far from radical. But allowing players their personal agency and letting their philanthropic community work inform their roles in greater social movements is an important foundation for what’s to come.