For those who have watched the National Basketball Association over the past four decades they can attest that the league has grown by leaps and bounds. Although many believe that the NBA has always been on solid footing from the moment of its creation, that belief is simply not true. In fact, the league was struggling until the ABA folded and Julius Irving, or as we like to call him Dr. J, arrived. However, it was not until ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird arrived that interest in the NBA reached unprecedented levels.
I feel sorry for those who are too young to remember the titanic battles between the Lakers, Black folks team, and the Celtics, white folk’s team. Most thought that things could not get any better in regards to the NBA’s popularity, however, they were wrong, and I do mean very wrong. What we thought was the apex of NBA popularity would appear mundane when Michael Jordan arrived and took the NBA brand around the globe and placed a basketball in the hands of children in India, Iraq, Ghana, Britain, Brazil, Ice Land, Jamaica, and any other nation with cable television. Although we failed to recognize it, Jordan’s fame destroyed one of African-American athletes, regardless of the sport, greatest traditions; social activism and the ability to speak out on racial injustice. Athletes learned that their foremost job, even before their on-court performance was that they were never to damage the NBA’s image with any form, shape, or fashion of political commentary or social activism.
For those who doubt the veracity of this unspoken arrangement, they need to consider the case of Craig Hodges, a member of many of those NBA Championship teams that built the legend of Michael Jordan. Hodges was unrivaled at the time as a three-point specialist. It was what he did, and truthfully it was all that he needed to do. Hodges holds the distinction of being one of two NBA players to win three consecutive 3-point shooting contest during the NBA All Star weekend, the other, Larry Bird; whom Hodges defeated. Hodges’ streak ended not after being defeated by another NBA player; rather he was inexplicably cut from the Bulls roster for non-basketball related reasons. Hodges’ run with the Bulls was unceremoniously cut short after he attempted to politicize his teammates via a growing relationship with Nation of Islam leader, The Honorable Louis Farrakhan. NBA owners were apparently aghast that Hodges had the unmitigated gall to challenge Black athletes to do more work within the African-American community that had raised each of them.
From the perspective of the all-white owners collective, Hodges violated the first rule of being extended the privilege of playing in the NBA, he publicly damaged the leagues image when he traveled to the White House to be honored for yet another Championship season and not only stood before President Bush wearing a dashiki, but also capitalized upon the moment and passed the President a letter urging him to address the worsening socioeconomic issues plaguing the Black community. A short time later, Hodges was released by the Bulls. Hodges remembers, “I was outspoken, but I wasn’t disrespectful. I was never in trouble for drugs, or guns or raping women or anything like that. I just wanted to help my community, and that made me a troublemaker. What I did at the White House embarrassed the league, and it made a lot of people uncomfortable, and they did something about it.”
”It’s well known through the league that there may be repercussions if you speak out too strongly on some sensitive issues,” said Buck Williams, a forward player and head of the players association. ”I don’t know if Hodges lost his job because of it, but it is a burden when you carry the militant label he has.”
Hodges told LZ Granderson, a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine, “I went from making $600,000 a year to making nothing. No one would take my calls, no one would give me a chance. I went from helping a team win it all, to all of a sudden not being good enough to play for the worst team in the league. Do I think the league had it out for me? You tell me.”
So it is with great interest that I watch today’s NBA stars issue political commentary regarding the Eric Garner case before a majority white audience. In case you missed it, NBA athletes such as Lebron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett, and Kyrie Irving have all worn black t-shirts with the statement “I Can’t Breathe” written across the front.
Most surprising is Lebron James, the NBA’s greatest asset in regards to publicizing the league, boldness in leading the players into what can best be termed a post-Jordan period of political commentary and social activism. It appears now that NBA players, many of whom possess the same feelings as Craig Hodges in regards to helping their indigenous community, are only allowed to speak on social issues when the league’s most prominent figure leads the way; such a development provides yet another reason for us to cast a disparaging eye upon Michael Jordan’s lack of social activism. One must remember that it was Michael Jordan who refused to publicly endorse a political party, let alone a particular candidate, and explained his refusal by stating that “Republicans buy tennis shoes as well.” However, it appears that under the King James Reign the NBA players’ tongues have been loosened and they will boldly and stridently speak truth to power.
James, having witnessed Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during warm-ups the night before, donned his own T-shirt prior to a game with the Brooklyn Nets the following night. James, one of the few players to by-pass a collegiate experience by making the leap from high school to the NBA, displays an uncanny understanding of his personal responsibility to the larger society. James stated that the shirts were a simple, relatively non-disruptive, way to issue political commentary regarding a prominent social issue. James expounded upon his intentions,
“I’ve been quoted over and over about what’s going on as far as it’s more of a notion to the family, more than anything. Obviously, as a society we have to do better. We have to be better for one another. It doesn’t matter what race you are. It’s more of a shout out to the family more than anything, because they’re the ones that should be getting all the energy and effort.”
The saying goes that there is strength in numbers, the blatant injustice of the Eric Garner murder has caused many voices to rise that are normally muted. Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams is one such individual. Williams related to ESPN that
“I try to kinda distance myself from [social issues]…but this is one where I kinda really paid attention and saw what was going on…I mean, you can see the [Garner] video and you know what happened. It’s not one of those things where people are saying this and the cops are saying that. It’s there for you to see. You just feel bad that a man lost his life because of that.”
Making this moment particularly ironic is that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was in attendance. Predictably, the league Commissioner walked a fine line and simply remarked that he respected the rights of “…our players for voicing their personal views on important issues but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.” Players are required to wear Adidas attire, the league’s official apparel provider, while on a NBA court.
Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins, an African-American, summed up this important moment by stating that the players,
“…should be political. They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. If they don’t think that there is justice or they feel like there is something that they should protest…That is their right as citizens of America…I have no problem with it at all.”
Although it took decades to occur, it appears that the pendulum regarding African-American athletes and politicization has come full circle. Their tongues have been at least partially loosened and their political consciousness slightly awakened. The Jordan years, years that produced a deafening silence on racial matters, are apparently no more. Too bad that Craig Hodges’ playing days are long behind him, it now appears that he was truly a man born way before his time.
James Thomas Jones III, Ph.D., M.A., M.A., M.A.