Four decades ago, back when the NBA televised its championship games at midnight on tape delay, the unpopular league was considered “too Black,” whatever the hell that meant at the time in America. Late commissioner David Stern began building his leadership legacy by bridging that gap between Black players and white customers in a way that was more comfortable to all of America, growing the sport across oceans and language barriers and racial divides, and he started doing this with the particular personalities and particular pigmentations of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Since then, basketball has empowered its Black stars and treated them as partners in a way you still don’t see in football, where the Black faces wear masks and the Black bodies remain disposable, and the white quarterbacks are still the ones who get the best TV commercials and best broadcasting jobs. The NFL treats its employees like they’re in the army; the NBA treats its employees like they’re artists. You give your most powerful people more power, Stern knew, and everyone gets stronger, as does the partnership and the allegiance within it.
With that as historical context, it was fascinating to watch what mushroomed last week, when some of America’s biggest, strongest Black icons were trapped inside a bubble, playing games, as America felt like it was about to burn again. Four years to the day after Colin Kaepernick peacefully took a knee before the American flag during the national anthem to protest police brutality and lost his football career because of it, it was impossible even inside a manicured Disney World bubble to escape the horrifying reality coming out of Wisconsin: one video of a Black man being shot in the back seven times by police in front of his loved ones, another video of a white 17-year-old carrying an assault rifle with his hands up after killing two protesters — while police drove right past him.
From Watts to Ferguson to Miami, American history is filled with cities burned down when the injustice is this stark, and now it seemed NBA players were angry enough to torch the bubble and the season and, given the financial ramifications to the collective bargaining agreement, maybe even the sport. Sure, it would hurt them more than anybody, but that they were even considering it says plenty about how much pain they were already in.
But Adam Silver, who learned at Stern’s knee and became the most progressive commissioner in the history of American sports, has gotten pretty good at this whole “leading through unprecedented calamity” thing. First, while our country’s leadership downplayed a pandemic, he got all of America’s attention by shutting down his sport after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Then, in a virus hot zone, he somehow got basketball up and running successfully again with no precedent on pandemic protocol to help him.
Before he could even get out of the first round of the playoffs, though, he was put in a terrible spot as the white leader of a predominantly Black sport, standing between all of his sport’s dollars and proud players too angry to distract America with bouncing balls. Do you understand how much trust you’ve earned with your Black labor force when you are white, and your angry employees believe you have their principles in mind even when your agenda, your business, your bosses and all your money appear to be in conflict with striking? It is very easy to have a good relationship when interests are aligned; the true test of partnerships emerge when they’re not. Having tamed one virus that had poisoned America for months, Silver was now confronted with the one that has poisoned America for centuries.
Into the breach stepped, of all people, the famously apolitical Michael Jordan, saying he was speaking first as a Black man, not as a former player or current owner, and that he was proud of the players for their convictions and pushing NBA owners for substantive systemic change. You know why that 10-part ESPN documentary/Nike commercial got record ratings two decades removed from Jordan’s last game? Because he never made fans uncomfortable away from sports, never made them choose sides beyond the scoreboard. As Jim Brown will remind you, Muhammad Ali didn’t go from America’s most hated athlete to its most beloved … until he lost his ability to speak. Jordan inherited Stern’s league from Magic and Bird — took it from them by force, really — but he didn’t use any of that power or platform to advocate or instigate for change the way you see across the NBA today. He packaged the league in a cool and safe Nike veneer, steering it further away from the “too Black” of 1980 even while playing his games in the heart of a racially torn Chicago.
Jordan, it should be noted, is from Wilmington, North Carolina, where in 1898 a Black newspaper was burned to the ground, 60 people were murdered and the local government elected days earlier was overthrown and replaced by white supremacists. It remains the only coup ever on American soil. For decades, whitewashed American history textbooks portrayed the Black victims incorrectly as instigators and the killers as heroes. Sometimes you have to choose a side. Jordan is 57 now, and it is much easier today, but it is nice to finally see him check into this game.
Our country is so divided that it can’t agree on masks or science or even what used to be known as facts, so of course frustrated NBA players would feel like millionaire minstrels by continuing to play uninterrupted while the dehumanizing discourse around police brutality too often feels like some version of this:
Can we please have equality?
Can Black lives please matter?
Can you please stop shooting us?
It must feel unusually powerless for the powerful — silly and meaningless, even — to wear the words “How many more” or “Listen to us” on the back of your jersey while another Black man takes seven bullets to his own back. Police brutality isn’t worse than it has been; it is just televised more often. The system isn’t actually broken; it works as intended and a little too well (police forces didn’t even exist in the South until they were created to prevent slave revolt and chase down runaways). Black men are killed and incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in America, which is why Clippers coach Doc Rivers gives voice to the heartbreak when he wonders why the country Black people love can’t just love them back. What the hell is controversial about requesting equality?
But when you come from privilege, another man’s cry for equality can feel like oppression … or a threat. So even the most benign language has been weaponized in recent years. “Woke” used to just mean emerging from sleep. “Snowflakes” used to be delightful. “Social justice warrior” might have sounded like a compliment before social media turned into a poisoned well. It’s all code and camouflage, a security blanket to protect white power against the threat of encroaching equality. And, from within that bubble, athletes with strong voices and opinions are told to just shut up and dribble. Some fans don’t want their playground of escape graffitied by the real world.
It doesn’t help that President Donald Trump ran on a platform of building a literal wall between us and the dangerous them, and is now trying to get reelected with more divisive fear, telling white-housewife suburbia he will keep it safe from the inner cities from which many of these NBA players emerged. Walls, division, fear, voter suppression, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, police brutality — all obstacles to equality, all intended to keep the power exactly where and how it has always been.
People want more immediate change on systemic reform that will take decades, so there has been a lot of corporate flailing recently, none more embarrassing than the flip-flopping NFL’s. Aunt Jemima is taken off your breakfast table, Washington’s NFL team changes its name, and Land O’ Lakes butter changes its packaging by doing the most American of things — removing the Native American but keeping the land. It doesn’t amount to much in terms of system fixing and inflames those who whimper about cancel culture and political correctness. But if you are tired of hearing about racism, just imagine how tired Black people are of experiencing it.
Real change happens much slower, and requires the transfer of power, so let’s again trace the history of this league over the past 40 years as it has grown in stature and strength, from tape delay to prime time, from Stern to Silver, from Magic and Bird to Michael and now LeBron James. You’ve seen what the heir to Jordan’s throne is doing off the court, right? Builds a media company to empower Black people. Builds a school to get at-risk kids college scholarships and emotional support. Builds a rent-free transitional housing community for families in Akron suffering from homelessness, domestic abuse and other obstacles. Pours millions into Ali’s exhibit at an African heritage museum. Leads and funds a voting movement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help Black voters. Helps turn Dodger Stadium into a polling place. Rebuts every Trump attack and summons Barack Obama for guidance when his sport is under duress.
Trump meant to dismiss and disparage the NBA when he said it was “like a political organization.” But it is, now more than ever, in messaging that stretches from the court to the jerseys to the news conferences. It is political organization advocating for Black rights, a symbol for Black strength, powerful enough to welcome even an unfair fight, undeterred even though Black people have been losing this fight since both they and this country were born.
What once was a problem for the NBA is now a source of its strength.
Change doesn’t get a whole lot more obvious than that.
This column was republished by The Miami Herald here.