There is a scene in Netflix’s ‘Master of None’ that sums up many of the conversation’s basketball fans have with non-basketball fans. In Season 2, episode 3 (titled ‘Religion’), two characters and fans of the sport argue over which player is better – Kristaps Porzingis or Karl Anthony Towns. The non-fan (Ramesh, played by Shoukath Ansari) clearly has no knowledge of either player and decides to jump in: “You know who is good at basketball? Michael Jordan!”
It’s a scene that is all too familiar for a basketball aficionado, although feel free to alternate Michael Jordan’s name with Lebron James or the late, great Kobe Bryant.
At times this is definitely an annoyance – people who know nothing about the sport proclaim their love for the sport as if they are experts. Today, it is a blessing in disguise.
Where many sports are built around owners, managers, or coaches, the NBA is built around and driven by its stars. You might know nothing about the teams, tactics or terminology of the sport, but everyone on earth has heard of Lebron, Kobe or Jordan. The stars are the reason fans tune in, so the league respects its stars.
There was no clearer display of this respect than during the first round of this year’s playoffs.
The shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin was devastating, the event’s impact on the players was unsurprising. It prompted the Milwaukee Bucks – Wisconsin’s basketball team – to boycott their game against the Orlando Magic, following a decision among players to refuse to leave the locker room pre-game. From the locker room, the team spoke on a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
The league followed suit. All games on Wednesday the 26th of August were boycotted. Every NBA player was invited to a meeting to discuss how to proceed with the remainder of the season, or if they should proceed at all.
It’s no secret that some of the players don’t want to be in Orlando at this time. Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors and George Hill of the Bucks spoke of this previously, worried that a return to basketball would shift focus away from activism. In a players’ meeting, they got to decide if the season ends early. At the very least, they could demand action from team owners, providing them with an ultimatum – support Black Lives Matter or basketball is gone. They voted to continue playing on the condition that the team owners would do more to advance social justice.
People might ask what the boycotting of games achieved, and that is a fair question, but the truth is that it could achieve a great deal.
Even if it just means that a child asks their parents what the messages mean, it makes a difference. It might not be the greatest achievement possible in the fight against racism, but it is an achievement, nonetheless.
The NBA prides itself on player empowerment and gives its players that voice. One of those players, one of the league’s up-and-coming stars, is Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics. On the shooting of Jacob Blake, he had this to say:
“People post my jersey all the time, no. 7, and every time I look at my jersey now, what I see is a black man being shot seven times.”
Uncomfortable to hear, but it needs to be said. It is reminiscent of the time in 2012 that LeBron tweeted a photo of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies and bowing their heads in support of Trayvon Martin (a black teenager who was shot for looking “suspicious” for wearing a hoodie). After hearing Brown’s words, seeing his jersey has that same devastating impact on me that LeBron’s photo did eight years ago.
It might seem like there is a contradiction here – if LeBron’s photo was so impactful eight years ago, then why are we still at this point?
Bigotry doesn’t have an end date, in the same way that we might find it difficult to pinpoint its beginning. The fight against it is a continuous one, so giving voices to black people is not a temporary solution. It is a permanent necessity.
That’s where the NBA gets it right. It continuously gives a voice to its players. It allows that freedom of expression and stands as a precedent for so many other sports. Maybe that’s why basketball fans exhibit so much pride in their knowledge of the sport: the league is proud of its players, and the players wear their pride on the backs of their jerseys.
Sport brings people together. To achieve that, sometimes it has to show us how far apart people are.