After the final buzzer sounded in the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James had finally delivered on his promise to bring the Cleveland Cavaliers its first NBA title against the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors. Consumed with emotions, the magnitude of the moment was difficult to express, but he tried his best.
“I gave everything that I had,” James told ESPN reporter Dorris Burke, fighting back tears. “I put my heart and my blood and my sweat and my tears to this game. Against all odds. I don’t know why we want to take the hardest road. I don’t know why the man above gives me the hardest road, but […] the man above don’t put you in situations that you can’t handle.”
Four years removed from that moment, those words hit a bit differently. As the NBA prepares to salvage what’s left of its season after the death of Kobe Bryant and an unprecedented global pandemic, there are those who believe the timing couldn’t be any worse.
It’s a pivotal time in our country’s history, as the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers has shifted the status quo. Rampant protests and unrest have engulfed the country, leading to long-overdue advancements in police reform, Black Lives Matter murals sprouting up all over the country, billion-dollar corporations imploding due to racist ideologies and public figures using their platforms to demand change and address systemic inequality—with mixed results.
To that end, some of the biggest names in sports have followed suit. Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in NASCAR’s Cup Series, played a pivotal role in the sport’s decision to ban the Confederate flag, while NFL stars Patrick Mahomes, Ezekiel Elliot and others forced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to condemn racism and admit that the league was wrong for punishing players who peacefully protested during the national anthem.
In a similar vein, LeBron has every intention of continuing to advocate for change while contending for his fourth NBA championship when the NBA resumes play in July. But former teammate Kyrie Irving—the same Kyrie Irving that LeBron tearfully hugged after winning an NBA title in 2016—is leading a growing number of players who feel otherwise.
“I don’t support [resuming the NBA season in] Orlando,” Irving reportedly said during a conference call on Friday. “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. […] Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”
Yes, the coronavirus factors into that decision, but Lakers center Dwight Howard, who shares Kyrie’s apprehension, explained their reasoning in a statement to CNN:
“I agree with Kyrie (Irving). Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction. Sure it might not distract us the players, but we have resources at hand majority of our community don’t have. And the smallest distraction for them, can start a trickle down effect that may never stop. Especially with the way the climate is now. I would love nothing more than to win my very first NBA Championship. But the unity of My People would be an even bigger Championship, that’s just to (sic) beautiful to pass up. What better time than now for us to be focusing on our families. This is a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking full advantage of. When have we ever had this amount of time to sit and be with our families. This is where our Unity starts. At home! With Family!! European Colonization stripped us of our rich history, and we have yet to sit down and figure us out. The less distractions, the more we can put into action into rediscovering ourselves. Nations come out of families. Black/African American is not a Nation or Nationality. It’s time Our Families became their own Nations. No Basketball till we get things resolved.”
This sentiment isn’t isolated either, as ESPN reports that this “growing faction” of NBA players is demanding answers about how the league will invest resources into social justice reform and ensure the safety of any players to choose to play when the season resumes.
There’s also former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who took to Instagram to declare that resuming the NBA season would impede the progress being made by the Black Lives Matter movement. As we reported here at The Root, Jackson was a life-long friend of George Floyd.
“I love the NBA, man. But now ain’t the time to be playing basketball, y’all. Now ain’t the time,” he said in a video. “Playing basketball is going to do one thing: take all the attention off the task at hand right now and what we fighting for. Nobody’s going to be talking about getting justice for all these senseless murders by the police. Nobody’s going to be focusing on the task at hand, bro.”
On the flip side, count Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers as someone who believes there’s no reason that playing should preclude NBA players from continuing to contribute to the progress being made.
“Us coming back would be putting money in all our (NBA players) pockets,” Rivers wrote on Instagram. “With this money you could help out even more people and continue to give more importantly your time and energy to the [Black Lives Matter] movement. Which I’m 100 percent on board with. Because change needs to happen and injustice has been going on too long.”
There’s also Clippers guard Patrick Beverly, who made this point succinctly:
I guess we’ll see how this will all play out, but the NBA has the real potential to look even more unrecognizable when it returns in July.