“Now we’re judging people by their religion—trying to keep Muslims out. We’re getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps, of Hitler registering the Jews. That’s where we’re heading.”
The words above were not shouted by a member of Congress or an activist making a stump speech. They came from Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, off the cuff, after a game, and mad as hell. It’s just one of many statements coming from the NBA standing up to Donald Trump and his agenda of border walls and bigotry.
Each one of these stinging statements, whether from stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry or role players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Enes Kanter or coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have put the NBA at the heart of the resistance sweeping this country. The question is: Why? Of all the leagues, why is the NBA the most outspoken?
It’s not like the League has always been a font of activism. During the George W. Bush years, as wars raged overseas and New Orleans was being drowned by government neglect, the number of players who stood up and spoke out were few and far between. It was basically backup center Etan Thomas, the occasional quote and a whole lot of silence. The NBA was defined by Michael Jordan’s credo that the game was to be sold and political statements were obstacles to cash flow. Times have changed and it’s worth trying to understand why.
I would argue that there are a perfect storm of factors that have positioned the players and coaches of the NBA at the fulcrum of the Trump resistance. It started with players finding their voice, and it took the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to make that happen. Martin, a young Miami Heat fan, was killed while going out for a snack at halftime of the 2012 All-Star Game. He was an NBA kid. The schools of South Florida erupted in protest and walkouts as his killer George Zimmerman remained free. This created the space for LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the Heat to pose wearing hoodies and take a side. After that, there was a template for every player who wanted to speak out. When the #BlackLivesMatter movement exploded in 2015, players were poised to have something to say.
This process has been aided, undoubtedly, by the ascension of Adam Silver as commissioner (instead of the hyper-controlling David Stern) and the rise of social media, allowing players to speak directly to fans. Yet the No. 1 reason why the NBA is at the heart of the political forces assembling themselves in response to the POTUS is that this is a global league. Players either come to the league from all over the world or they are from the US and have played across oceans. They have seen that Muslims aren’t “the enemy,” and learned they have more in common with many “foreigners” than the man in the White House. Then there is the fact that their own brothers in the League could be affected by Trump’s Muslim Ban, particularly vet Luol Deng and rookie Thon Maker, both of whom were born in South Sudan. Maker is new to the League, but Deng has played over 13 years and is one of the most respected players in the NBA and when news of the ban broke, he wrote the following:
I am a #ProudRefugee. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the opportunity to find refuge in a safe harbor. For the people of South Sudan, refugee resettlement has saved countless lives, just as it has for families all over the world escaping the depths of despair. It’s important that we remember to humanize the experience of others. Refugees overcome immeasurable odds, relocate across the globe, and work hard to make the best of their newfound home. Refugees are productive members of society that want for their family just as you want for yours. I stand by all refugees and migrants, of all religions, just as I stand by the policies that have historically welcomed them.
The NBA family is showing they’ll stand by refugees. They are doing so because they stand with their own.
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