Los Angeles Lakers players lock arms as the American national anthem is performed before a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings at T-Mobile Arena on October 13, 2016. (Getty Images)
"I think NBA players have done a great job of speaking out, trying to pass on a positive message," says Marvin Williams of the Hornets. "But I think NFL players can do it—NHL players, MLB, whomever can do it, as long as you're sending the right message. I feel like everyone should speak up and try to create change, because it's going to start with us to get out of this little rut that our country is in."
For the next four years, athletes across the spectrum will be asked to either speak up or keep quiet. It's the nature of our hyperactive media environment. We want our athletes to thrill us, but some of us also want them to comfort us in tough times. We wear their shoes. We project our fantasies of power, fame and glory onto their exploits the same way that David West describes our relationship to Barack Obama: "the feel-good story" in which We Shall Overcome morphs into Yes We Did in the span of four quarters.
Athletes, be they liberal or conservative, often act as avatars for our ideologies, for our cultural identification points. In the NBA, that ideology is increasingly bold, and defiantly black.
"It wasn't because of what his views were politically. It was just what he stood for as a man—as a black man, he gave us that hope. ... It's like, 'Oh, shit: We got a black president.'"
— CARMELO ANTHONY
Melo has been at the forefront of the NBA's activist resurgence, along with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, his banana-boat buddies. Their ESPYs speech last July was something of a mission statement for athletes in this era of upheaval. Since then, Melo's been at it with Phil Jackson and George Karl over comments that had more than a subtle twinge of racial stereotyping. But of white coaches like Van Gundy, who praised teams that "stand up for their values" and boycott Trump hotels, Anthony tells B/R Mag: "We need that. Because at the end of the day, it's not about black or white, it's about us as humans, as people. And they're being affected the same way that black people are being affected."
Not that this country hasn't always needed its sports heroes to stand tall, as it were—or, as it is, sit down. Just ask Dr. J, whose picture hung on Obama's bedroom wall and who then visited Obama's White House. Or ask Bill Russell. Or even Metta World Peace, who was the poster child for the NBA's coarsening reputation back in his Ron Artest days and told me at Lakers practice the other day: "They called me a thug. They called me a rebel. A lot of these guys speak out when something big happens. I've been speaking out for years."
President Obama shoots a basketball while playing with children during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House on April 6, 2015. (Getty Images)
Of course, there's always the stick-to-sports crowd, even in our athlete-as-activist moment, and especially among black players who don't come from hardscrabble upbringings. "World peace" is, quite literally, all that Austin Rivers feels qualified to speak about publicly: "I'm not a politician," the son of the Clippers coach tells me at practice. "People ask me my opinion, whether it's Trump or it's Black Lives Matter—I don't think as a professional athlete, and as an NBA player, that you have a responsibility to be a voice. That's all personal. I think you do have a responsibility to give back to the community. I think that's two different things."
Maybe we were drinking the Kool-Aid. But Obama filled a gaping hole for a lot of black young people in this country; when the impossible seemed out of grasp, he was the benefit of the doubt. In the Trump era, NBA players can carry that torch—maybe even raise a fist—by just continuing their nightly rituals of pregame unity, and quiet defiance.
Like a lot of NBA teams, the Clippers put out a unified public front when volatile nationwide moments put a spotlight on our role models' politics—even though there's a wide variety of opinions on a 13-man roster. Unlike Rivers, J.J. Redick was upfront with his criticisms of Trump during the campaign, saying he thought it was "embarrassing that Donald Trump is a presidential candidate." Now, as Trump prepares to take office, Redick is less prone to throwing rhetorical haymakers—"to not make it about one's self, which has been very hard for me, given Donald Trump winning, but I'm going to continue to keep my mouth shut."
David West shows his support for then-President-elect Barack Obama on his shoes during a game in New Orleans Arena on November 5, 2008. (Getty Images)
David West, a veteran who never keeps his mouth shut, remembers being a young player with the Hornets back in the George W. Bush years and hearing rumors about players who refused to shake hands with arena staff. "I don't think that division between our world and the rest of the world exists as it did before," he tells me back at the Warriors locker room. "We're more socially aware."
Inside Oakland's Oracle Arena, the cultural capital of the woke NBA, Chinese variations of Warriors jerseys dotted the crowd. The league's ambition to expand the reach of the game to Europe, Asia and—yes—Mexico imagined a world that shares, if not the same language, the same reference points and the same heroes. Even with a huge construction project looming across the bay, somewhere a kid was buying Steph's shoes, and basketball was making America great again, one step at a time.