Today there is a new generation of political athletes in the NBA, comprised of some of the League’s brightest stars. This group of highly influential young black men are leveraging their fame to affect change and representing a set of independent politics that stands apart from what happens in Washington, DC. It is animated by the fight against racist policing practices—which many players have experienced firsthand—and for black lives.
But on the heels of decades of political apathy and apprehension in NBA locker rooms—with rare and notable exceptions from role players like Craig Hodges, Adonal Foyle, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Etan Thomas—it is worth noting where this generation of stars first got their sea legs to navigate these rocky political waters. It happened when a hoops-loving, one-term senator from Chicago named Barack Obama aimed for the White House. The connection was natural. I spoke with legendary sportswriter Alexander Wolff, who wrote a book called The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama, about this. He said, “President Obama engaged with NBA and WNBA players during his first campaign and actually played the game in office. No president had ever had a bunch of pros join him for a private tournament to celebrate his 49th birthday, the way Obama did. So he had cred from the jump. And when he enlisted guys like Kobe and LeBron to help sell Obamacare, they suddenly had skin in the game, too.”
It is difficult to figure out whether NBA players gravitated to the historic nature of Senator Obama’s candidacy or if his campaign reached out to them, but I’m inclined to believe the former. It would have made no sense for a presidential campaign to say, “Do you know where there are a group of influential political people? The NBA!” And yet, there was Portland All-Star guard Brandon Roy, hitting an absurd game-winning rainbow of a shot in 2008 and saying unprompted, that it was cool, but not nearly as cool as electing the first black president. There were Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis throwing their own fundraisers. And there were two young players who, as a harbinger of today, first revealed a political jones. Twenty-three-year-old LeBron James wore Obama t-shirts to practice and talked about “wanting to dunk on George Bush” and 24-year-old Carmelo Anthony said that he wanted to score 44 points in a game as a symbol of hope that Obama could become the 44th president. (He only scored 28 points that particular night, which was probably not meant to be a tribute to Woodrow Wilson.)
The question that naturally rises from this is whether the absence of Barack Obama and now the ascension of Donald Trump will put a damper on the desire of players to affect change. Will players who have enjoyed a particularly close friendship with President Obama (looking at you, Stephen Curry) take a step back without an ally in the Oval Office?
Alexander Wolff does not think so. “The political momentum in NBA locker rooms won’t disappear after he leaves office. To be a woke athlete is a generational thing. And with social media tools, players know how much power they have on their own. They don’t need marching orders from Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Taking even a cursory look at the current post-Kaepernick landscape and the intersection of sports and politics, one would have to be inclined to agree. This is all about how we define “politics.” Connecting to Presidential initiatives—like Stephen’s work on gun violence—is one form of political engagement. But the kind that’s germinating in NBA locker rooms draws far more inspiration from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, not to mention motivation from the stubborn lack of change in how policing is organized. “To be a woke athlete is a generational thing” and the White House—no matter who is occupying that space—will either get with that program or be left in the dust.