How Melo and Co. might pick up Obama's torch (and maybe even raise a fist) as an increasingly bold (and defiantly black) force for good in far-right America

By Dave Schilling

Illustration by Diego Patiño

January 19, 2017

Earlier this week, as Martin Luther King Day was winding down, a pair of red, white and blue sneakers sat prominently in the middle of the Warriors locker room, just a few feet from Steph Curry's jam-packed cubbyhole. No. 30's got a lot of shoes, but the patriotic flavor of these particular kicks—they were adorned with the seal of the President of the United States—made them, shockingly, look wearable. Forget the Dubs' emphatic victory over the Cavs. Hell, forget the Affordable Care Act. This was as impressive as any of Barack Obama's accomplishments: After a whole lotta people on social media clowned Steph's shoes for looking like the sort of thing a dad wears to Costco, the ultimate cool-dad POTUS finally inspired Curry to release some kicks that the kids actually liked.

Allow me the indulgence of a prediction toward the end of this week, as Obama becomes a cool-dad citizen and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with a spray tan takes his job: There will never be a Trump sneaker.

I don't think that's much of a stretch, considering our new president seems like the kind of guy who puts pennies in his shoes. Alas, here we are, as America looks to move past a contentious election cycle and the country's hippest sports league is experiencing some serious separation anxiety from the ultimate First Fan. We are about to say goodbye to a leader who, as Carmelo Anthony told B/R Mag this month, "knows stats, he knows what you like to do, he studies the game—it's like, Oh, shit: We got a black president." And, well, as the Warriors' introspective, passionate forward David West told me Monday night in that red, white and blue locker room: "When you look at the inauguration of Donald Trump, if you look at who we are and where we stand on history, we can deal with this."

Trump is not Obama; that much we know we're dealing with. No matter your politics, we can all agree that his presidency is a retrenchment from his predecessor's cheery grace and global positivity. And the rise of the NBA has overtly reflected Obama's easy-to-believe dad-coolness: We marveled at Steph Curry draining impossible shots (in his ugly shoes), we gawked as The Block cemented LeBron James' status as the best player of the Obama era (and, when he endorsed Hillary Clinton, its most outspoken superstar), and we cheered along the expectation that, at last, a sport that for decades was seen as "too black" or "infested with thugs" could infuse its latent activist impulse upon white middle America without reservation.

Were we really duped into believing a fairy tale? At a moment and a state of mind in United States history, in which the rise of Obama and professional basketball were inextricably linked, did love of a black president blind us to the realities exposed by Trump? This much we know comes next: The NBA, as one of the world's most potent symbols of black excellence, might inspire us to confront the next four years with a bit more patience, but also a healthy dose of skepticism.

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LeBron James and Hillary Clinton arrive for a rally at the Cleveland Public Auditorium November 6, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

"With Trump becoming president, this country has dealt with people and administrations that have been far more dangerous, and we're still here," West tells me with an uncharacteristically cautious optimism, adamant that it's time for Americans to get real. "We were drinking the Kool-Aid of President Obama—and the whole idea that we got over the hill sort of rattled people."

"We cannot continue to just be made to feel good," he continues. "Oh, we feel good because something's on TV, because the imagery is right. That's symbolism. We need substance."

Indeed, a B/R Mag straw poll of the NBA's more politically outspoken stars reveals a mood of deep concern for the imminent future of American race relations and continuing uncertainty for pro athletes' roles in leading us out of it. "The people who are dealing with Donald Trump, I feel like they're looking for personal gain," West says. "You can't think about progress and the things that we need to do if you're talking about personal gain."

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Ever since Colin Kaepernick took a seat and the specter of Trump's presidency became a reality, the NBA has become a veritable woke-off between players, executives and coaches. Whereas Kaepernick's national anthem protest and Trump's politics divided the NFL, mostly along racial lines, the left-leaning NBA has been in progressive lockstep. Even outspoken Trump conservatives like Charlotte's Spencer Hawes rarely force the league to straddle a line between an employee's right to free speech and the imperative to protect the organization's inclusive image. Commissioner Adam Silver, who moved next month's All-Star Weekend from North Carolina to New Orleans because of a discriminatory law, has encouraged his players to speak to Trump because he has encouraged them to live as citizens—just like us, the folks who don't have Obama in our iPhone address book to call when we need numbers in our pickup game.

White coaches Stan Van Gundy, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich traded impassioned condemnations of Trump's most inflammatory rhetoric and expressed sympathy for the black community that their players represent. ("It makes us comfortable to be able to play for a guy like that, especially a guy of a different race and a different generation," the Spurs' Danny Green says of Popovich, who had John Carlos—he of the raised fist at the 1968 Olympics—speak to his team during the election cycle.) Entire rosters, from the youthful Lakers to the Boston Celtics, have continued their pregame displays of unity, locking arms during the anthem long after Trump replaced the Kaepernick controversy in everyday headlines and the league's ongoing community efforts drifted behind the scenes.

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.'"


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."

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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."

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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.

Yaron Weitzman, Michael Pina and Mike Monroe contributed reporting to this article.

Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R this month, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.

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