Twelve days after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, Harrison Barnes stepped onto a podium, gripped a cordless microphone, gazed across a sea of thousands and made a gentle plea.
"Our job as protesters is important for our democracy," the Sacramento Kings veteran told the crowd at a rally near California's capitol building, before adding, "But if all we do is show up here to protest and don't follow through with voting, we're not gonna see the change that we want to see."
For Barnes, 28, it was an empowering moment. And a new role.
He had been outspoken on police brutality and racial justice. He had attended protests like this before, including one in 2018 after Sacramento police killed an unarmed Black man, 22-year-old Stephon Clark. But now Barnes was the one with the microphone and the message.
A movement was coalescing in the wake of Floyd's death, and here was Barnes, standing alongside former Kings Bobby Jackson and Matt Barnes (no relation), channeling a community's anguish and rage.
"It's people demanding justice," Barnes told B/R. "It's people sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Across the country, the scene repeated, one NBA player after another taking to the streets—marching, chanting, leading, demanding justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by police.
In Compton, it was DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook. In Atlanta, Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon. In Oakland, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney. In Portland, Damian Lillard. In Philadelphia, Kyle Lowry and Tobias Harris. In Washington, Bradley Beal and John Wall. In Norman, Oklahoma, Trae Young.
"I'm not used to doing this," the 21-year-old Young said, a little tentatively, as he addressed a rally last month in his hometown. "... This country is in a messed-up place right now. I just think it's important that we all stick together, and we stand up for what's right."
The world's greatest basketball players did not set out to become social justice activists. But circumstances practically demanded it. As young Black men, they knew all too well the challenges their communities faced. So players across the spectrum—from All-Stars and rising stars to third-stringers—stepped to the front lines.
There has never been a moment quite like this.
Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legends of another era, once risked their careers fighting for civil rights. Occasionally, a lone NBA voice has taken a public stand for social justice (Craig Hodges) or against a war (Steve Nash). Yet their battles were mostly solitary and unwelcome—shunned by league officials, and by many fans.
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But the "shut up and dribble" era is over.
Today's players are emboldened by each other's voices, by a commissioner who overtly supports their activism—and by the NBA legend who still walks and dribbles among them and who declared, unequivocally, he was more than an athlete.
LeBron James did not birth this modern NBA movement, but he fostered it, nurtured it and created a safe space for his peers by speaking out: on Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Eric Garner in 2014, with a speech at the ESPYs in 2016 and with a pointed barb at President Donald Trump in 2017.
"When you have the main person in the sport speaking out, it tells everyone else that they don't have to be afraid and can speak out, too," said Etan Thomas, a former NBA player, activist and author of the book We Matter: Athletes and Activism. Seeing James take a stand, he said, sends a powerful message to every other player: "I can do it as well."
"That's why him doing that is so important," Thomas said, "because he's inspiring so many guys."
Whether James claims the trophy or not, this year might already be the most impactful of his long and storied career.
Last month, he joined other athletes and entertainers in launching More Than a Vote, a nonprofit aimed at registering voters and combating voter suppression, especially in Black communities, ahead of the November election.
"I'm inspired by the likes of Muhammad Ali," James told the New York Times after announcing the initiative. "I'm inspired by the Bill Russells and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Oscar Robertsons—those guys who stood when the times were even way worse than they are today."
Now it is James who is doing the inspiring. An entire generation has grown up watching him dominate the NBA, while witnessing the steady growth of player activism he's championed.
"We will definitely not shut up and dribble," James declared in February 2018, responding to a tirade from Fox News' Laura Ingraham. "... I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don't have a way out."
That exchange was sparked by James' rebuke of Trump, who he said "really don't give a fuck about the people"—one of several times James has criticized the president (who, in turn, has repeatedly disparaged James). The prior year, James had famously referred to Trump as "U bum" in a Twitter post about the Golden State Warriors' decision not to visit the White House.
Amid the controversy, James made a simple declaration—"I am more than an athlete"— posting a photo of that phrase in neon, which hangs on a wall at Uninterrupted, the athlete-focused media company he launched with his business partner Maverick Carter in 2014.
By then, James had already trampled whatever imaginary barriers separated sports and politics.
The first step came in 2012, when he and his Miami Heat teammates posed for a photo in which every player wore a hoodie—in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman while walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Martin, who had been visiting someone who lived in the neighborhood with his father, was wearing a hoodie at the time.
That photo, conceived by James and Dwyane Wade, made the Heat "the most prominent collection of Black athletes to protest" Martin's killing, ESPN's Jemele Hill wrote in 2012. Soon after, the National Basketball Players Association issued a statement calling for Zimmerman's arrest.
Barnes was a 19-year-old sophomore at North Carolina when Martin was killed, and he remembers thinking, "That could have easily been any one of us."
"And I think when that picture came out, it was powerful," Barnes said. "History remembers that as a great moment. In that time, there was tons of criticism associated with that. ... That should be a lesson for people who are out and about now, that if there is criticism, history will remember it differently."
It was a striking gesture at the time—a drastic departure from the studied neutrality so often practiced by pro athletes who feared alienating fans or sponsors or league officials. It soon became the new normal.
In 2014, James spoke out about the deaths of 18-year-old Mike Brown (killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri) and 43-year-old Eric Garner (killed by police in Staten Island, New York).
James also joined several other players in wearing T-shirts that read, "I can't breathe"—the phrase repeatedly uttered by Garner as police put him in a chokehold that led to his death. (Derrick Rose, then with the Chicago Bulls, was the first NBA player to wear the shirt, at a game two days earlier.)
At the 2016 ESPYs, James and his three closest friends—Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony—gave a joint speech denouncing racial profiling and police violence, and urging other athletes to get involved as well.
It all has a profound effect, said Harry Edwards, a sports sociologist and civil rights activist who advised Olympic athletes-turned-civil rights icons Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1960s and has consulted for the Warriors and San Francisco 49ers.
"Anytime that you get the highest-profile, consensus best player in the game taking a stand and making a statement," Edwards said, "it's going to accrue a certain level of legitimacy that encourages people of less standing, of less courage, to at least speak up. That is absolutely the case."
Still, Edwards added, "It is not just that the man creates the moment—but the moment and all of its dynamics helped to create the man."
In this case, the rise in NBA player activism has tracked with the public's rising awareness of police brutality and a growing embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement. Fifty-three percent of registered voters said they supported the movement in early June, in the wake of Floyd's death, up from 36 percent in 2017, per Civiqs.
So when today's players demand racial justice, they are more likely to find a sympathetic audience than their predecessors, Edwards noted.
"When you realize that sport inevitably recapitulates society, and when you have a broad-scale movement in the society that comes in through the locker room door, or over the stadium wall, that has to be responded to," Edwards said. "You can't just brush it off."
The risks were much greater for players like Russell and Abdul-Jabbar, or in a later era, Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. So while Barnes praises James for doing "incredible" work today, he also credits their predecessors, who "were criticized heavily, blackballed, faced ... heavy amounts of racism, in order to get us to the point where the league is an open platform for activism."
It helps, too, that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is now openly encouraging such engagement, easing any concern a player might otherwise have about his job security. That wasn't always the case under prior commissioners, even the civic-minded David Stern.
Hodges, who played from 1982 to 1992, and Abdul-Rauf, who played in the NBA from 1990 to 1998 and in 2000-01, both believe their careers ended prematurely because they took unpopular stances: Hodges advocated for racial justice during a White House visit with President George H.W. Bush as a member of the Bulls, and Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem on moral and religious grounds.
This was the age of Michael Jordan, who once famously declared, "Republicans buy sneakers, too"—which effectively captures the ethos of the era.
"David Stern was all about marketing," Thomas said. "He didn't want anybody to upset or affect the bottom line. ... There's a reason why MJ was so quiet. There's a reason why what happened with Craig Hodges happened, why Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf happened."
Thomas added: "Listen, if MJ back in the day would have been outspoken, you would see a whole lot more players during that day outspoken as well. And now that you have LeBron outspoken ... of course it sets a tone. There's no doubt."
Sixteen years ago, Thomas felt the backlash as a 26-year-old center for the Washington Wizards. He had declared his staunch opposition to the Iraq war—a stance that some called anti-American.
"I had a lot of people that were very angry with me," Thomas said, referring to fans and media. "It was kind of like, 'How dare you?' Like, 'Who is this ungrateful athlete who has the nerve to even speak on this topic?'"
A league official soon reached out with a friendly admonition: Be careful. It was not a threat, Thomas said, but a note of concern—perhaps for his safety, perhaps for business reasons. The league then was hypersensitive to alienating fans and corporate sponsors.
"And I remember, David Stern got really upset about it," Thomas said.
Now, when the NBA season restarts July 30, the courts will all have "Black Lives Matter" painted on the sidelines. Players will have the option to use certain social justice messages on their jerseys in place of their names. The entire three-month bubble season will have activism baked in.
"Adam Silver is different," Thomas said.
James, speaking to reporters Saturday, said he looks forward to using the NBA's platform to "continue to push the envelope and let people know that we are human as well."
For younger players, a politically engaged NBA is the only NBA they've known.
Young, the Hawks' rising star, was 13 years old when the Heat stood up for Martin and 15 years old when Silver became commissioner.
More than half of the players who appeared in NBA games this season were 25 or younger (as of Feb. 1, per Basketball Reference).
In the Age of LeBron, speaking out is as second nature as dribbling a ball. Political activism is the norm. And demanding racial justice, a necessity.
"At the end of the day, you're a person before you're a basketball player," Barnes said. "There are beliefs that you have that you should feel comfortable to stand on. There's no job in the world that's more important than being able to stand for what you believe in."
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full-time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts the podcast The Full 48, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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