'The Balling Part Is Easy': NBA Activism Got Legit. What Now?

Trump vs. LaVar is all hype, but basketball players want to get real. We asked superstars, veterans, coaches and do-gooders how they're picking up the baton from Kap.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 22, 2017

Karl-Anthony Towns was already the face of an NBA franchise before he'd ever voted in a presidential election. But the sudden, awesome power of a superstar's platform did not discourage the 22-year-old from flexing off the court and, he says, "addressing the elephant in the room." Never has. Now that sticking to sports has become impossible—the daily bombardment of news, the hourly bombast of social feeds—he never will.

"You fall victim to always thinking about what other people think, or worrying about the outcome of what you say," Towns told B/R Mag this week. "You think about the things media will say, or fans. But you have to understand that we have a platform as NBA players—the most popular, famous athletes in the world, who do a lot of good for society."

The Timberwolves center had already written an essay, after the white nationalist rally and killing of a protester in Charlottesville, about how "[i]t's really hard to see our president refuse to stand up for what's right."

He had worn custom "Love trumps hate" kicks. He had traveled to China as an international ambassador of America's fast-rising cultural export. But now here he was, speaking around the same time as LaVar Ball was being interviewed about Donald Trump on CNN, and KAT knew his words mattered—that his platform had become a catapult.

"I think about everything I say," Towns told B/R Mag. "I'm very calculated, but I always have a strong belief in what I say."

“It’s disheartening when our president doesn’t understand his words carry a tremendous amount of weight,” Karl-Anthony Towns has said. “It’s unbelievable to me that as soon as we step up and start defending ourselves,” Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale told B/R Mag, “how we’re demonized for that and now, all of a sudden, these aren’t our rights and we shouldn’t have the First Amendment and players should just play and coaches should just coach.”
“It’s disheartening when our president doesn’t understand his words carry a tremendous amount of weight,” Karl-Anthony Towns has said. “It’s unbelievable to me that as soon as we step up and start defending ourselves,” Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale told B/R Mag, “how we’re demonized for that and now, all of a sudden, these aren’t our rights and we shouldn’t have the First Amendment and players should just play and coaches should just coach.”(Getty Images)

The streets of communication travel both ways now. And for a rapidly increasing number of professional athletes, being politically fluent has become as familiar as shooting a free throw. But as the most prominent sports activist of our time, Colin Kaepernick, remains without a football team and under the implementation of strategic silence, his gainfully employed colleagues across the road in the NBA are confronting a paradigm shift: If basketball players are encouraged to speak up, how do they use their voices to enact engagement and actual change?

This most recent weekend is becoming more typical than not. When LaVar Ball refused to show deference after Trump wondered aloud whether LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA teammates would thank him after a shoplifting charge in China, the president tweeted that "I should have left them in jail!"

Less than 18 hours later, Trump aggressively renewed his vendetta against the NFL, calling for the league to suspend Marshawn Lynch for sitting during "The Star-Spangled Banner" and standing for the Mexican national anthem. In between, LeBron James had said of Kaepernick: "It just feels like he's been blackballed."

As Jamal Crawford, the veteran on KAT's T-Wolves, told B/R Mag: "It's too much—like, the fact that our president knows LaVar Ball, that's absurd. And he's calling him out!"

Crawford broke into the NBA at a time when talking to newspaper reporters represented one of the only viable means of reaching a mass of fans. If a quote about a topic beyond the game got muddled, it typically remained muddled; an athlete had to wait to be asked about it some other day and hope the issue got cleared up the day after that.

"But now," Crawford says, "you can correct that in two seconds to how many thousands or millions of followers you have."

Stephen Curry says it was “surreal” when Donald Trump tweeted at him. “Modern life,” his coach, Steve Kerr, says of Trump and LaVar Ball. “Two people seeking attention and they're both getting it.”
Stephen Curry says it was “surreal” when Donald Trump tweeted at him. “Modern life,” his coach, Steve Kerr, says of Trump and LaVar Ball. “Two people seeking attention and they're both getting it.”(Getty Images)

Now, JR Smith can take to Instagram to share a meme about Meek Mill and police shootings faster than Jay-Z can write about it in the New York Times. In the two-way flow, Trump can rescind an invitation to the White House that the Warriors were never going to accept, and James can react in real time to call the president "U bum."

Stephen Curry can take to The Players' Tribune to write about that Saturday just two months ago when Trump tweeted at him, to say about his platform: "I don't want to just be noise. I want to use it to talk about real issues, that are affecting real people. I want to use it to shine a spotlight on the things that I care about."

Even if NBA stars are armed with the traditions of Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the same instantaneous social-media bullhorn as the president, Crawford insists the key is to stay positive in communicating with precision and purpose, on issues of passion.

"Sometimes, you can't keep up with it all," Crawford told B/R Mag, as Ball was taking to the airwaves. "But you can't run from some of it either, because it's so in your face."


Under the banner of THE NEW AMERICAN HEROES, this month's issue of GQ declared Kaepernick as Citizen of the Year and Kevin Durant as Champion of the Year. In Milwaukee, Bucks forward Khris Middleton read with pride.

"It makes me feel great," Middleton told B/R Mag, of glow-ups outside the lines. "We're not just athletes. I hate when people say just stick to sports. We're role models for a lot of people, a lot of kids out there. So we have to do a great job—a better job—of getting out in the community."

Which, of course, is what Kaepernick understands. But as several current and former NBA players and coaches have made clear this season, when partisan politicians willfully misconstrue one man's stance to stir the base, sometimes his colleagues need to step up and turn a muddled message into progress.

Warriors star Draymond Green spoke at Harvard Business School last week. Of Colin Kaepernick, he said: “He didn’t just kneel and stop.”
Warriors star Draymond Green spoke at Harvard Business School last week. Of Colin Kaepernick, he said: “He didn’t just kneel and stop.”(Getty Images)

"Somewhere along the way of kneeling and everything, the whole reason for kneeling was lost," Draymond Green told an audience last week at Harvard Business School. "The actual kneel became the discussion. It became, 'Oh, you're kneeling, you're disrespecting the flag. You're kneeling, you're disrespecting the soldiers. You're kneeling, you're disrespecting the fallen soldiers. You're kneeling, you're disrespecting our country.' That wasn't why it started."

Kaepernick's self-invoked silence is exposing the NFL's owners, but it has also created an unfilled lane for social leadership among athletes, says Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University and the author of We Will Win The Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest For Equality.

"He has his camps and he has his Twitter and his social media, but he's not as vocal, and I think that left this vacuum where there was room made for people to now make this about the First Amendment, make this about the national anthem, make this about troops and get away from police brutality," Moore says. "And I don't know if we go down this LaVar Ball path, if it can go back to police brutality."

I don't know if we go down this LaVar Ball path, if it can go back to police brutality. —LOUIS MOORE, Grand Valley State University

Moore partly attributes this gap in outspokenness to the influx of money in professional leagues and players wanting to protect their soaring salaries. "And eventually, that black power movement dies down, right?" Moore says. "Even without the athletes, it was something that it took a lot of energy. You have cities sort of decaying. You have a mass influx in the war on drugs, a mass influx of law and order, and it starts to break people down and the movement starts to go away, too."

The most impact an athlete can have, Moore believes, is to show up when called.

"It's hard, because a lot of it is about organizing and that's not their job," Moore says. "Their full-time job is to be a professional athlete. A lot of the work that gets done is in the trenches, is in the organizing.

"We've seen with some of the football players, they've tried. They've sat down with police and talked community policing, but you would rather have someone who's been trying to do that for 10-15 years have that seat at that table, who lives in those communities.

"I don't know if it can be done. What they can do is get the message out there. When you take Kap, that's the beauty of it: You have to deal with this. You have to deal with racism in America before you watch a football game."

Showing up is what Green did last week when he headlined the Harvard panel of athletes as leaders as part of his commitment to RISE, The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.

"I commend Kap because, yes, he kneeled and some may say it backfired on him," Green told the audience. "Some may say it's been amazing. Everyone has their own opinion. But one thing I commend him on, he didn't just kneel and stop. He kept going and he's still going, and I think that's what's most important."

Green's former Warriors teammate, Harrison Barnes, recently spent a day at Lincoln High School in Dallas, delivering mouth guards and protective sleeves to its basketball teams.

Barnes began ingraining himself in the Dallas community shortly after signing with the Mavericks last summer. He attended the memorial service for police officers killed in sniper fire and cultivated a relationship with former Dallas police chief David Brown. He, too, wrote an article for The Players' Tribune, detailing a dinner with community leaders; he, too, tweets about doing good instead of creating more noise.

"The balling part is easy," Barnes told B/R Mag. "That's literally a dream come true every single day—you don't even look at that as work; it's your passion. We're not going to be able to play forever. We have this platform to go and impact kids. You don't want to look back and say, 'Man, I wish I would have taken 20 minutes to talk to these kids,' or, 'I wish I would have did this or done that.' Because once it's gone, it's gone."

The Bucks' Middleton came into the league aware of its short lifespan and planned on making a difference. This week, far below the Trump-vs.-Ball headlines, Middleton announced a pledge to donate $1 million to his high school, Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, to support scholarships for underserved and minority students.

"I don't think it's a job for us," Middleton said of being active in the community. "I enjoy being out there doing it, putting smiles on other people's faces by being selfless. I can't say it's a second job at all."


Kevin Garnett mentored Towns throughout his rookie year of 2015-16, which paralleled the rise of Trump, which seems like so long ago now. But this generation of expressive NBA stars has come an even longer way since the days of Michael Jordan's alleged line of "Republicans buy shoes, too"—and since the long-ago stance of Charles Barkley, Garnett's colleague at TNT (a corporate partner of B/R), that "I'm not a role model."

Times done changed. In retirement, Garnett hosts his own show, Area 21, as part of TNT's basketball coverage. And now, Kaepernick is one of his dream guests.

“I reached out to Kap—just having him on would give a platform,” Garnett says. “Obviously, he has to live through being himself every day, and I'm sure that's a challenge.”
“I reached out to Kap—just having him on would give a platform,” Garnett says. “Obviously, he has to live through being himself every day, and I'm sure that's a challenge.”(Photo courtesy Turner Sports)

"There's not a lot of platforms to where athletes have a chance to rebuttal or speak out where it's not filtered or altered," Garnett told B/R Mag last week. "We're not here to try to save the world, but we're definitely here to give solutions to it. And if we can, then we will."

"I can only imagine this cloud, what he's been going through," Garnett said of Kaepernick. "He's going to come from underground in a minute—I just hope that someone gives him the platform to be able to speak."

Indeed, as Kaepernick has embraced his silence and a handful of football players have followed his lead, the loudest voices in pro basketball—at least the employed ones—have been NBA coaches.

There are very serious condemnations from Stan Van Gundy, and half-serious jokes about Gregg Popovich running for office in a presidential leadership vacuum. Now that we have arrived at Trump-vs.-Ball, drifting closer to the point of no return on an investment in a new kind of role model, even Steve Kerr is at a loss for words to sum up the ludicrousness at the intersection of politics and play.

"It's just really interesting to see how that stuff works out when these guys do that," David Fizdale, the Memphis Grizzlies head coach, told B/R Mag in late September as Trump was feuding with Curry over a White House visit and half the NFL over the anthem.

"But it's also interesting: Have you heard him come back at Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr about their comments toward him? Did he ever respond to them? Isn't it interesting that white coaches come out and say stuff and he has no response to them, but if a black player comes out and stands up to him and stands up to what's wrong, how all of a sudden they should be fired and gotten rid of and they're offending our flag? I don't know if anyone's taken note of that. I just haven't seen a lot of responses to the white coaches that have come out against him."

Kap may be setting the tempo in this, the year of the athlete as activist American hero. And Trump sure is providing the noise ("IT WAS ME," he tweeted again Wednesday morning, telling Ball that shoplifting is "a really big deal"). But the players are playing, and many of their coaches are busy conducting.

While Garnett rarely discussed facets of his life outside of the game with reporters during his playing days, his protege, Towns, associates his own symphony of impassioned candor directly with basketball.

"It translates to off the court, for me at least," Towns says. "I always ask myself, How can I help people? I always feel like maybe I could have done another minute, another 30 seconds. Maybe I missed one person driving too slow. There's always those things. You're always looking for ways to help people.

"I'm always going to have that feeling that I haven't done enough. Just like in basketball, I'm still in the pursuit of perfection—on the court, and off the court as well."


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the author of the forthcoming book All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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