The Messy Politics of the NBA

A Higher Court

The messy politics of the NBA.


In October 2019, a scant few months before the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers were scheduled to play a low-stakes exhibition game in Shanghai before the start of the upcoming season. The game was part of the league’s ongoing courtship of international markets, but it was suddenly overshadowed by a tweet from then–Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey that seemed to express support for the protests in Hong Kong. (The since-deleted tweet was an image that read: “Fight for Freedom Stand With Hong Kong.”) The protests had been ongoing since March, but the backlash was immediate: The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, while Chinese state television and the streaming giant Tencent announced that they would stop broadcasting NBA games. The Nets’ scheduled visit to a Chinese school was canceled, but the exhibition game eventually took place despite the tense atmosphere.

The dustup over the Morey episode put the NBA and its players in an uncomfortable position. While the NBA has mostly stayed out of international affairs, the league and its players have long been involved in domestic politics, especially during the tenure of the current league commissioner, Adam Silver. Throughout Trump’s presidency, highly visible coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich bashed his administration almost every week. After North Carolina passed a bill forcing transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, the league took the annual All-Star Game away from the city of Charlotte. But when it came to China, the NBA faced a quandary: The country was the NBA’s biggest overseas market and a focal point of its expansion efforts over the past few decades. An ESPN report, published in May 2022, found that NBA owners have a collective $10 billion invested in China, on top of the league’s existing business commitments. So Morey deleted his tweet, and a party line quickly developed among the Nets and Lakers players present in Shanghai: Say nothing. At a meeting of NBA officials and players, Lakers star LeBron James—arguably the most famous basketball player in the world—captured the league’s approach to the issue: “We don’t need to be talking.”

The 2019-20 season that followed only heightened the tension between the NBA’s professed image as one of the most progressive leagues in organized sports and its pursuit of profit. A few months after Covid arrived in the United States, the league decided to quarantine its players in a “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to finish out the season, which had been postponed along with a host of other events in American society. The bubble was a strange experiment for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because the players were not quite sure whether they should even be playing basketball in the first place. The protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder and the shooting of Jacob Blake pushed this question even further to the fore: Many players began to talk explicitly about striking and canceling the season for good. Again the league faced a difficult dilemma: If the players staged a walkout, would it sanction that action as part of its pledge to pursue racial justice? Or would it snap back to business mode and force everyone to shut up and dribble?

Two new books tell the story of the 2019-20 season and its discontents. Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is about the Nets season that year, but it frequently expounds on the shifting political and economic priorities of the NBA over the past decade and how the players’ ambitions have collided with the realities of the machine. Bubbleball by Ben Golliver is a chronological account of the bubble experience, written by a reporter with a firsthand perspective on how its simmering tensions threatened to dynamite the uneasy situation. Despite these differences in scope, both books come back to the underlying contradiction facing the modern NBA: Beyond its grandstanding public gestures and its players’ and coaches’ tweet-size missives, the NBA is composed mostly of millionaires and billionaires seeking to expand their own bottom lines. The super-sized well-to-do likely won’t fix things from within, these books warn. While the unreasonably optimistic might hold out hope that the NBA will one day evolve into a supercharged vehicle for social progress, it is unlikely that either the league’s executives or its players can meaningfully effect change through a flawed system that benefits them nonetheless.

The National Basketball Association wasn’t the first professional sports league to employ Black players, but it was the first whose Black players were consistently and obviously the best. Thanks to the singular dominance of players like Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who gave vocal support to civil rights and racial equality in the 1950s and ’60s, the NBA took on a progressive bent early on. Yet the league’s politics were hardly consistent, and the commitment of players like Russell, Baylor, and Abdul-Jabbar was not always shared by their successors. Michael Jordan—the greatest basketball player to follow them—once pointed out that “Republicans buy sneakers too” when he declined to endorse a Black politician running against the notorious racist Jesse Helms, which is just one of many examples of star players shirking their civic duty. But the NBA’s players still cumulatively leaned toward liberation, and its current batch of millennial and Gen-Z players are especially comfortable expressing their political views. In 2014, when recordings of then–Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks were leaked to the press, he was loudly criticized by the players he employed; Sterling was eventually forced to sell the team and was permanently banned from the league. And the league itself has seemingly welcomed this shift, as Sullivan acknowledges when he semi-jokingly calls it “The Woke NBA.”

But the league is a business above all else; its most important priority is generating revenue, and the players’ most important priority is getting some of that revenue. During the China controversy, then executive director of the NBA players’ union, Michele Roberts, was unequivocal about this: “If there was any conspiracy of silence,” she said, “it was motivated by guys not wanting to lose any more money.” Or as Roberts later added when discussing how the players could raise awareness about the killing of Breonna Taylor: “Anyone who suggests that the players should be intending to create revolutionaries out of their fans—that’s an incredibly naive assumption.”

The Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, one of Sullivan’s main subjects in Can’t Knock the Hustle, is the most prominent exception to this rule. While many of his peers kept their silence about China, and opportunistic right-wingers hammered them for their presumed hypocrisy, the Nets’ star point guard instead poked holes in the debate, arguing that it was unfair to ask this group of ball players to micromanage geopolitics. ESPN reported that before the exhibition game, Irving “had asked aloud whether the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers should consider not playing because of the political tension.” And when demonstrators supporting the Hong Kong protesters gathered inside and outside Barclays Center, where the team plays, Irving told the press: “Colored people here in America…. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar, and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace. So for me as an individual, I stand up for those four pillars, and when they’re being conflicted, I can understand why protestors come to the games.”

Irving’s willingness to speak out in a moment when everyone in the league was being instructed to just shut up was all the more striking given his superstar status. “Kyrie was a rebel by nature,” Sullivan writes. “And he made every effort, as did so many athletes in America’s new pastime, to be more than famous.” Sullivan quotes league veteran Andre Iguodala saying much of the same when he compares Irving to the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively blacklisted for kneeling during the National Anthem; another player says Irving “does whatever is in his soul…. It’s not as meticulously planned, but it’s who he is—it’s outrageously authentic, and it’s supremely Kyrie.”

Since entering the NBA in 2011, Kyrie has established this reputation for zigging wherever his peers zagged. Whether it was semi-seriously coming out as a flat-Earther, posting quotes from Fred Hampton on his Instagram, or skipping games to attend a Zoom organizing call with Cynthia Nixon, Irving liked to toy with the expectations placed on him for being exceptionally good at handling a basketball. And when he came to the Nets in 2019, the team seemed like an ideal vehicle for his outrageously authentic Kyrie-ness. In 2012, the team had relocated to Brooklyn from Newark, where it had played as the New Jersey Nets. Since that move, the NBA had embraced a “player empowerment” model that allowed players to transparently chase fame and success rather than tough it out with a crummy franchise, as had been the tradition—perfect for a team now located in the hippest borough of America’s hippest city, with much-publicized ties to its most famous rapper. Despite the fancy rebrand and appeal to player agency, though, the Nets had struggled to build a winning squad—but when Irving and his friend and fellow superstar Kevin Durant joined the team as free agents, this changed. Their talent and big personalities immediately filled a vacuum; as the organization had no real history in Brooklyn and no standard to uphold, Irving and Durant could completely mold the team in their own style.

From the start, the duo also held out the possibility of something more than just winning for the team—their ancillary goal was to inject “a new energy into a city through basketball,” as Durant said on signing with the Nets in 2019. If you squint hard enough, you might conjure a scenario in which these Nets made waves in the NBA, leading to Irving’s outspoken contrarianism and activism becoming more mainstream in the league. But that would work only if they were actually able to play—and win. Yet Durant spent all of his first year with the Nets rehabbing a serious leg injury, while Irving sat out large chunks of the season with his own health issues.

Then came Covid. In March 2020, the NBA became a bellwether for the pandemic’s world-historical implications. Many Americans like myself peg the moment they finally thought “This is for real?” to the night in March when the NBA announced it would be postponing all of its games, effective immediately, after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid. (In a memorable coincidence, Tom Hanks also announced his positive test that evening.) When the first calls of “We have to get back to normal!” started up a few months later, the NBA decided it could no longer remain inert, but Irving was one of the few players who resisted restarting the season.

In a conference call of NBA and WNBA players, Irving tried—and failed—to convince his peers that they shouldn’t support the bubble. “Kyrie believed Black players needed to put health and safety at a premium in order to fully articulate that their lives mattered,” Sullivan writes. When other players pointed out that refusing to play could lead the NBA’s owners to withhold their salaries for that season and the next, Irving waved off that concern: “I’m willing to give up everything I have,” he asserted. His peers thought he was full of it, or at the very least naive. Some of them didn’t want to be revolutionaries, as Michele Roberts had observed; they just wanted to hoop.

Still, hooping is no solace when your soul is sick. Irving’s anti-bubble stance placed him on the margins of the league, but he was correct in anticipating the tensions and contradictions that would explode within this enclosed environment. Ever since the virus began to move through the United States, the question of how organized sports would deal with it loomed ominously. But the NBA had to find a way—there were fans to please and pricey television contracts to fulfill. So a solution was hatched: For three months that summer, the league’s 22 best teams were invited to live in a hermetically sealed habitat at Disney World, where players would finish the season and the league could declare a champion.

The players all lived in Disney hotels, which they weren’t allowed to leave without quarantining for 10 days afterward, negating their ability to play—and most crucially, they played to empty stands. The result was extremely weird. Absent the traditional dynamic where a home team wants to entertain its fans and a visiting team wants to crush their spirits, the games resembled particularly intense scrimmages. But if the bubble felt weird to observe as an outsider, it was even weirder for its participants. Isolated from their home life and lacking the traditional distractions available to young, rich celebrities, the players soon discovered that their success on the court was strictly related to their ability to focus on nothing but basketball. “Chemistry seemed more important than pure talent,” Golliver observes in Bubbleball. “Living in the bubble was a chore, and playing in the empty gyms was a constant test of a team’s internal motivation.”

The bubble remained virus-free, but the world the NBA had built was not insulated against reality. As protests in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor bloomed across America that summer, the NBA’s players were especially attuned to the ongoing circumstances. Many bemoaned the meaninglessness of playing basketball and even sounded ashamed of their relative privilege. “We shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest,” Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill told the press. “I think coming here just took all the focus off what the issues are.” (At the time, his teammate Sterling Brown was enmeshed in a lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee and its police department, after Brown was wrestled to the ground and tased by police officers during a confrontation in 2018; the city eventually admitted wrongdoing, and the case was settled.)

After Jacob Blake was shot by Kenosha police, the Bucks refused to play one of their games, which nearly led to the entire bubble being called off as the players convened to discuss whether they should remain at Disney World. (Commentators at the time first referred to the action as a boycott, but the more astute identified it for what it was: a wildcat strike.) As Golliver and Sullivan recount, attitudes seemed to change from hour to hour; while many prominent players embraced walking out, what mattered more was the follow-up. “If the players were to remain on strike, would they head to the front lines of Wisconsin…or home to their kids after being stuck in Disney World for seven weeks?” Sullivan writes, recounting one prevailing line of thought. “Would they actually book meetings at city hall this time, instead of massages in the Bahamas?” Through these heated arguments emerged the potential for what could have been the defining sports moment of the 21st century. There have been lockouts in sports before, but those were mainly during labor disputes and contract negotiations; this was a more existential response to the indignities of society. What might happen if the players rejected not just basketball culture, but basketball itself?

We never found out. Instead, their action was halted by the most noteworthy voice of all: Barack Obama’s. In conversation with LeBron James and players association head Chris Paul, the former president convinced the players that, rather than refuse to play, they should push for a slate of political reforms and league-supported voting initiatives. From this, three commitments from the team owners were obtained: “the formation of a social justice coalition” made up of players, coaches, and owners meant to advocate for “meaningful police and justice reform”; the use of team-owned arenas as polling locations; and the creation of TV and arena ads meant to turn out voters. “It’s not going to be solved overnight,” Obama told them. “This is something that we got to stay on. We got to keep on moving.” The season continued, and eventually the Los Angeles Lakers—led by LeBron—were crowned champions. Nearly two-thirds of NBA arenas became polling places, but the Republican-dominated legislature in Wisconsin rejected any attempts to institute police reform. The so-called social justice coalition has, as of press time, just over 3,000 Twitter followers and has been obstructed by the usual gridlock and partisan grievances.

I don’t want to pooh-pooh the short-term gains, because real people worked to achieve them, but this strikes me as a paltry return, measured against the chance to shock and transform the sports firmament. Still, in hindsight, it seems obvious that the NBA’s players, regardless of their expressed politics, were not going to jeopardize their livelihoods in a single moment—that they were not in the same position as Irving, who was not in the bubble in the first place because he was rehabbing a shoulder injury at home. (Without him or Durant, the Nets were swept in the first round of the bubble playoffs.) Had Irving been in the room, it’s hard to say whether his voice would have swayed things; it’s just as likely that he would have irritated everyone. But as with most missed opportunities, you can spend all day speculating about what might have been, and the range of possibilities will only depress you.

Of course, the outsize attention devoted to sports globally is absurd just about any way you slice it. Every day, hundreds of millions of people willingly choose to obsess over professional and semi-professional athletic competitions, often at the expense of civic engagement, family life, spiritual fulfillment, or any number of other pursuits that might enrich their lives. I don’t mean to sound like a snob; I, too, am one of these millions. I often think about how the indefatigable vastness of sports’ popularity makes them a vehicle for any number of competing ideologies and social phenomena that obviously shape society on a larger scale: masculinity, for one; legalized gambling, for another; the right to underpay your employees, for a third. Sportswriters are naturally drawn to the attempt to explain these quandaries, because it doesn’t make total sense why people are captivated by what Kyrie Irving has to say about anything at all.

But there’s a sadness in reading about how the NBA’s politics have matured over the last decade, and how its players have become especially conscientious about social matters, and realizing still that revolution, as someone like Irving envisions it, is merely a pipe dream. In Bubbleball, Golliver, who’s largely sympathetic to the players’ feelings and the protests outside the bubble, expresses relief when the strike is called off and the games resume. He’s a basketball reporter, after all; without basketball, what would he have to do? Even the most enlightened NBA fan would confess to watching basketball for the basketball, not the political awakening.

Yet Irving did have a point: The league was stymied by its competing motives and interests. This was true in 2019 and 2020, and it remains true today. But looking to Irving to make this point has become something of a loaded question ever since he announced that he would not get a Covid-19 vaccine, just before the start of the 2021-22 season. He wasn’t the only player to refuse the vaccine, but he was the most prominent, and because of New York City’s vaccine mandates, his refusal meant that he couldn’t play for much of the season. Even when he was back in action, the damage incurred by his absence was undoable: Plagued by a lack of consistency and chemistry, the Nets ended up getting swept in the first round of the 2021-22 playoffs.

Irving has never fully explained his resistance to the vaccine—beyond vague platitudes about freedom—or why he chose to sit out the majority of the 2021-22 season. One suspects that politics might also have been involved, just not the kind usually associated with anti-vaxxers. Sullivan’s book touches on Irving’s affinity for holistic healing and his mistrust of team medical staffs; these may have been reasons why he was wary of getting jabbed. But I wonder if Irving had just grown sick of having his participation in basketball dictated by contradictory mandates and measures. Speak out politically, but not about China; support Black lives, but enter the bubble and become walled off from society; play basketball during a raging pandemic, but only if you get a shot. (A silly quirk of New York City’s rules is that visiting players were allowed to be unvaccinated.)

Then again, it’s difficult to ascribe too much cogent political intent to someone whose preferred mode of expression these days are Instagram and Twitch livestreams. Irving’s rebelliousness often does not seem political, but rather the contrarianism of a dorm room debater who is just asking questions, all of the time. Basketball players still primarily define themselves through basketball, and a player who doesn’t play or win will only be marginalized and mocked. Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were committed activists, but they also planted their foot in NBA lore by attaching these beliefs to championship success and showing up for their teammates. (Abdul-Jabbar was also a vocal critic of Irving’s vaccine decision.) And regardless of the limits of his imagination, LeBron James remains a political standard-bearer within the modern NBA simply because he also shows up.

When Irving recently announced that he was staying with the Nets, he released this particularly goofy statement: “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.” That week it was reported that Durant had requested a trade, because he no longer had faith in the team’s direction; after a protracted impasse, the two sides agreed to what appears to be an uneasy detente that will keep Durant with the Nets. So if and when Irving does actually take the court, he will “dare to be different” by making $36.5 million to play basketball for a conflict-ridden team whose path to a championship remains clearly uphill, after several years spent attempting to establish a new culture in Brooklyn. In this he’ll be like any number of his peers, most of whom will see their individual ambitions defeated by the reality of their context over the course of their careers and will instead find solace in the generational wealth they will create for themselves by remaining employable. Meanwhile the NBA marches on untouched, happy to declare a set of champions who will accept the cost of doing business.

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