Bubble bursts as LeBron James leads American sport’s fight for real change

It started when Colin Kaepernick took a knee but this summer has seen an explosion of protest

LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers team-mates take a knee while wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts ahead of a game against the LA Clippers at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex  in Lake Buena Vista, Florida back in July. Photograph:  Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers team-mates take a knee while wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts ahead of a game against the LA Clippers at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida back in July. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

 

Game five of the NBA finals took place as most people on this side of the Atlantic slept. If the NBA finals series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat reached what many believe to be an inevitable outcome, then LeBron James is right now celebrating his fourth championship as he enters a phase of unassailable influence on American life.

And if the Lakers did indeed win it all, then the curtains come down on what will rank as the strangest NBA season in the league’s 74-year history. Everything was off-kilter and unfamiliar, not least the fact that the playoffs took place in a deserted Walt Disney World, the theme park and spiritual home of America’s ultimate fabulist. And those games were all but overshadowed by the players’ rolling response to the cross-country protests against the indiscriminate killing of black Americans with a sustained campaign of awareness and, behind the glossy athleticism, a thinly veiled sense of seething anger and impatience.

Because the world’s economic and moral order has been chucked into a tumble dryer and placed on fast spin by the virus, it is easy to forget what happened within the relatively closeted and luxurious NBA bubble over the past few months. As Black Lives Matter protests flared across America, pitching citizens against police authorities, night after night, city after city, the NBA’s elite players had the rare opportunity to meet and talk and share ideas.

For once, they weren’t racing to the next plane, the next city. They listened and watched and began to channel their collective power. In the summer when the horrific killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor became symbolic of the thousands of deaths of African-Americans, the NBA finals might not have even reached its conclusion.

Officials stand beside an empty court after the scheduled start of game five of the NBA playoffs between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic was boycotted by the Bucks. Photograph: Ashley Landis/Getty Images
Officials stand beside an empty court after the scheduled start of game five of the NBA playoffs between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic was boycotted by the Bucks. Photograph: Ashley Landis/Getty Images

Five years ago, it would have been unimaginable that teams would wear jerseys featuring such vividly political slogans and messages. It would have been unheard of for a team to simply boycott a playoff game, as the Milwaukee Bucks did just hours before tip-off, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. And it would have been impossible for all other players to hastily agree to a lightning strike, downing tools and deciding against playing and therefore breaking their contracts.

Other sports quickly followed: 20 teams in Major League Baseball, where just 7 per cent of players are African American, went on strike. The Women’s NBA went on strike. When the Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, a part owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s NBA team voiced an objection to using the league as a platform for protest, nine times WNBA All Star Diana Taurasi and other members of the Dream team wore tee-shirts with the slogan Vote Warnock – the Democratic opponent of Loeffler for the senate seat. Even ice hockey teams belatedly moved to strike during that incendiary week.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the decision by the Bucks players, on August 27th, to strike came the day after a nakedly emotional response not just from James but, more strikingly, from Glenn ‘Doc’ Rivers, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, when asked about the shooting of Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

His team had just won a playoff game so Rivers’s voice was hoarse and he was also close to tears. Part of what he said travelled widely on social media and news channels in the following hours and was high voltage in its message and depth of feeling. “We’ve been hung, we’ve been shot . . . all you do is keep hearing about the fear. It is amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”

Less widely shared was his view on the prevailing law enforcement culture in the US.

“The training has to change in the police force,” Rivers pleaded.

“The unions have to be taken down in the police force. My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We are not trying to defund the police. We are trying to get them to protect us – just like they protect everyone else.”

And Rivers’s views echoed with the unforgettably powerful and coldly magisterial address given earlier that afternoon by Letetra Widman, a sister of Jacob Blake.

“Don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time. It happened to Emmet Till. Emmet Till is my family. This is nothing new. I’m not sad. I’m not sorry. I’m angry. And I’m tired. I don’t want your pity. I want change.”

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has been one of the most outspoken voices in the NBA. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has been one of the most outspoken voices in the NBA. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s probable that Rivers saw Widman’s speech earlier that day. Either way, it was a remarkable aligning of the atmosphere at ground level and that within the rarefied bubble of the NBA. Gregg Popovich has for years been one of the most independent and outspoken voices in the NBA as well as arguably its most brilliant basketball mind. In a recent podcast conversation with Steve Kerr and Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Popovich attempted to grapple with what it was that had lit the fuse of conscience and protest spirit over the summer.

“I have talked to a good number of people about that. Why not two killings ago or four killings ago? It is similar to the argument about guns. Sandy Hook wouldn’t be enough – to see kids killed the way they were. It wasn’t enough. So to me it is always a matter of: how do you make people feel the pain? It has to be pressure of some sorts and usually it is protests. Nothing happens because people are silent or quiet.

“There always has to be a reaction. And as many have said, I do think the virus has a lot to do with this. You are holed up in your house, you are already in a semi-depressed state, your mood is a little different than usual, you have lost a little bit of energy in your step. You become a little more introspective and are more involved with relationships with family and friends. And in the middle of that you have a president and a government who has been the way he has. But even for people who initially voted for him I have to believe a certain number are truly disgusted. So it all coalesces.

“And then the George Floyd murder was so in your face and the manner in which it was done sickened – I hope – even the most ardent Trump supporters. Because that was a gut feeling that anyone with any kind of heart would have. It was primal. It was a primal feeling when it was an expressionless man actually adjusting his knee on this man’s neck as he left his hand in his pocket – like, there’s really not a lot of effort here, I’m just doing what I need to do. I think it disgusted a lot of people. And thus the protests came out with all kinds of different people and races, which was heartening for sure.”

It has been heartening. Bleak and dystopian and violent as the police response to the protests has been, the willingness of Americans of all creed and colour to show up and stand up has been the story of the US summer.

The overt stance taken by NBA players mirrored what was happening in those cities. And James’s guidance and influence has helped to shape this. In a way, the actual basketball was irrelevant this summer. It took a kind of willing suspension of disbelief to buy into the authenticity of the NBA playoffs. It was obvious what was missing: the crowds and care-freedom, the berserk atmosphere and the wilful insanity of teams zig-zagging across the continent to play games.

One of the inadvertent points of American sports leagues is surely to make the unfathomable size of the country more manageable for its citizens: what would Bostonians and Los Angelenos ever think about one another but for the Celtics and Lakers rivalry. It makes them part of the same place. None of that was relevant in Disney World. And it was impossible to gauge how deeply the players were invested in what was an entirely concocted reality, devoid of any authentic or familiar backdrop.

Even before the suspension of the season, the Lakers were favourites to win it all. James’s decision to ‘go’ to the Lakers all but guaranteed the signing of Anthony Davis, one of the league’s best all-round younger stars. James quickly moulded a support cast to suit his needs. In the quiet and neutral Disney arenas, they’ve had a straightforward path to the verge of another championship. The sports debate revolving whether James is now eclipsing Michael Jordan as the greatest the game has seen also feels forced.

In normal times such topics are one of the chief satisfactions of sport: heated debates over essentially absurd subjects. Jordan and James played in different eras and effectively played different games. Jordan went six for six in the finals and year after year shrugged off defensive hits that were basically common assaults. One of the great irritations of James’s play is his outrage and hammy over-reactions whenever any opponent lays a hand on him. But James’s supreme athleticism and discipline and hunger means he has the potential to stay in the league for another three seasons. At 35 and after 17 seasons, he remains the dominant player in the league. He seems impervious to injury.

But more compelling than the final act of his basketball life is his potency as a force for social and racial change. He has been a constant and insolent critic of the presidency of Donald Trump. He is investing millions in educational projects. And he has the influence to ensure that the NBA persists with his mood for change.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the playing of the anthem before the game against the San Diego Chargers in September 2016. Photograph: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the playing of the anthem before the game against the San Diego Chargers in September 2016. Photograph: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Now that the lights go out on the basketball season, the attention turns to winter football. The sight of football teams ‘taking the knee’ ahead of Premier league games in England has become so commonplace that it is literally unremarked upon. That is just four years after the lone stand taken by Colin Kaepernick in his role as quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, a gesture and image that will, in time become as iconic as the Smith and Carlos salute at the Mexico Olympics half a century ago.

“I think there was a moment in time that a young man captured,” said Carroll, the Seahawks coach. “He stood up for something he believed in. What an extraordinary moment it was. I don’t think he had any idea of what the impact would be. But what a symbol of courage and vision, maybe even as he was just learning it, to do what he did. And it is still the same statement – we are not protecting our people, we are not looking after each other, we are not following the right process to bring people to justice when actions are taken. We owe a tremendous amount to him.”

By August, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was conceding that he wished the league could have listened to what Kaepernick’s message was. But the NFL features a cast of owners who are prominent Trump supporters and financial supporters, including Robert Kraft of the Patriots, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner who recently announced a $13 million dollar donation to Rise, a non-profit organisation set up to address systemic inequality. And even if the attitude towards Kaepernick has changed, he remains frozen out of the NFL, with no team offering him a new contract.

Meanwhile, the temperatures will continue to fall steadily across the States. The snow and storms will come. The election atmosphere will turn molten. Trump will leave the White House. Or not. In a year of mind-bending uncertainties, it remains to be seen if the explicit politicisation of the NBA and American sport was a spontaneous moment in an extraordinary or bewildering year or whether James will lead the league towards advocating and agitating for the reforms that will lead to a better future for black lives.

It certainly feels as if something enduring has been lit. Angel McCoughtry, the veteran Olympian and WNBA player, has been one of the foremost advocates for using the game as a theatre of protest. In one of her most recent Twitter posts, she cites James Baldwin’s shrewd and ever relevant observation: ‘To be African-American is to be African without any memory and American without any privilege.’

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