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With Politics, NBA Speaks Its Mind

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is one of many NBA figures who's recent comments have veered into current politics.
Nick Wass
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is one of many NBA figures who's recent comments have veered into current politics.

Athletics as escapism makes sense. A recent New York Times op-ed writer reminded us that that talking sports offers a "way for people who have diametrically opposed politics to share a beer at a bar."

Well, if you enjoy sports only as an escape from political give and take, there's some bad news: You can no longer enjoy the NBA.

Take this past Wednesday, which began with LeBron James — the defending NBA champ — addressing Donald Trump's travel ban head on. "I stand with the many, many Americans who believe this does not represent what the United States is all about," James told The Hollywood Reporter. "We should continue to speak out about it."

That same day, Steph Curry — the defending MVP — publicly parted ways with the CEO of Under Armour, his corporate partner, who'd called Trump an "asset" to America. "I agree with the description," Curry told The Mercury News. "If you remove the '-et' from asset."

At first, this might just sound like defiance from a couple of athletes. But listen to their bosses.

Listen to Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose own father was killed in a terror event in Beirut in 1984, discuss the travel ban two weeks ago.

"Having lost my father, if we're trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, it's the wrong way to go about it," Kerr said.

And there's San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking on America's racial divide this month.

"It's a tough one because people don't really want to face it. And it's in our national discourse," he said. "I mean, we have a president of the United States who spent four or five years disparaging and trying to illegitimize our president."

Now, basketball has not always been our most political sport. In the 1990s, Charles Barkley offered a rather different assessment of his public platform: "I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model."

NBA was where Michael Jordan, Barkley's teammate on the '92 Dream Team, reportedly backed away from endorsing a Democrat, saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." [Editor's note: This Jordan quote has been questioned as apocryphal.]

But '92 was actually a turning point.

That Olympic "dream team" exported basketball across the planet, bringing about a new age for the game and making basketball our most cosmopolitan and personality-driven sport.

Three-fourths of the league today is black. One-fourth of the league is foreign-born. Two NBA players, Luol Deng and Thon Maker, were born in Sudan, but to us they're just NBA players.

Yes, baseball may be our national pastime, and football our national addiction. But the NBA is our nation itself: an outspoken, melting pot of a family — whether you enjoy that, or not.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pablo Torre