The Messy Politics of the NBA

In October 2019, a scant few months before the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers were scheduled to play a low-stakes exhibition game in Shanghai before the start of the upcoming season. The game was part of the league’s ongoing courtship of international markets, but it was suddenly overshadowed by a tweet from then–Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey that seemed to express support for the protests in Hong Kong. (The since-deleted tweet was an image that read: “Fight for Freedom Stand With Hong Kong.”) The protests had been ongoing since March, but the backlash was immediate: The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, while Chinese state television and the streaming giant Tencent announced that they would stop broadcasting NBA games. The Nets’ scheduled visit to a Chinese school was canceled, but the exhibition game eventually took place despite the tense atmosphere.

The dustup over the Morey episode put the NBA and its players in an uncomfortable position. While the NBA has mostly stayed out of international affairs, the league and its players have long been involved in domestic politics, especially during the tenure of the current league commissioner, Adam Silver. Throughout Trump’s presidency, highly visible coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich bashed his administration almost every week. After North Carolina passed a bill forcing transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, the league took the annual All-Star Game away from the city of Charlotte. But when it came to China, the NBA faced a quandary: The country was the NBA’s biggest overseas market and a focal point of its expansion efforts over the past few decades. An ESPN report, published in May 2022, found that NBA owners have a collective $10 billion invested in China, on top of the league’s existing business commitments. So Morey deleted his tweet, and a party line quickly developed among the Nets and Lakers players present in Shanghai: Say nothing. At a meeting of NBA officials and players, Lakers star LeBron James—arguably the most famous basketball player in the world—captured the league’s approach to the issue: “We don’t need to be talking.”

The 2019-20 season that followed only heightened the tension between the NBA’s professed image as one of the most progressive leagues in organized sports and its pursuit of profit. A few months after Covid arrived in the United States, the league decided to quarantine its players in a “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to finish out the season, which had been postponed along with a host of other events in American society. The bubble was a strange experiment for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because the players were not quite sure whether they should even be playing basketball in the first place. The protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder and the shooting of Jacob Blake pushed this question even further to the fore: Many players began to talk explicitly about striking and canceling the season for good. Again the league faced a difficult dilemma: If the players staged a walkout, would it sanction that action as part of its pledge to pursue racial justice? Or would it snap back to business mode and force everyone to shut up and dribble?

Two new books tell the story of the 2019-20 season and its discontents. Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is about the Nets season that year, but it frequently expounds on the shifting political and economic priorities of the NBA over the past decade and how the players’ ambitions have collided with the realities of the machine. Bubbleball by Ben Golliver is a chronological account of the bubble experience, written by a reporter with a firsthand perspective on how its simmering tensions threatened to dynamite the uneasy situation. Despite these differences in scope, both books come back to the underlying contradiction facing the modern NBA: Beyond its grandstanding public gestures and its players’ and coaches’ tweet-size missives, the NBA is composed mostly of millionaires and billionaires seeking to expand their own bottom lines. The super-sized well-to-do likely won’t fix things from within, these books warn. While the unreasonably optimistic might hold out hope that the NBA will one day evolve into a supercharged vehicle for social progress, it is unlikely that either the league’s executives or its players can meaningfully effect change through a flawed system that benefits them nonetheless.

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