NBA at 75: 2010s featured seismic shifts on, off the court

Two of the most important dynasties in the NBA emerged in the second decade of the 2000s.

LeBron James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a Miami Heat superteam that reached four straight Finals and won a pair of championships.

Then came the rise of Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors, who claimed three titles of their own and shattered all conventional wisdom about how far from the basket constituted a good shot.

There were also significant developments off the pitch.

With James, Curry and others setting the tone, NBA players increasingly led a wake-up call for social justice in the 2010s.

James and Wade posed in hoodies with their Miami teammates for a dramatic image protesting the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford staged a silent protest that helped lead the NBA to issue a lifetime ban against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist comments that were recorded.

Players across the league donned T-shirts that read “I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner’s last words before his death after he was suffocated by a New York City police officer.

WNBA players also stepped up their activism, from wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” to taking a knee during the national anthem to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s NFL campaign against police violence. They even campaigned against one of their owners in an election for the United States Senate.

“I’m not going to shut up and haggle,” James said, in what could well be the mantra of the decade. “I mean too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out and need someone to help them out of the situation they’re in.”

LeBron James (6) of the Miami Heat high-fives Chris Bosh (1) after the Heat defeated the Charlotte Bobcats 101-97 in Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series on 23 April 2014, in Miami. On the left is Dwyane Wade.

A decade of social activism merged seamlessly with America’s racial reckoning in the summer of 2020, which again found the NBA in the thick of things.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that the NBA has generally scored better than other North American men’s sports leagues on issues of racial and gender equity.

Richard Lapchick, who issues an annual report card through the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, credits NBA commissioner David Stern with establishing the culture that led to a decade of activism.

Outside of Pete Rozelle, who oversaw the rise of the NFL, Stern is perhaps the most influential leader in American sports history. He managed the NBA for three decades before giving way to Adam Silver in 2014.

Stern died on New Year’s Day 2020, one day after the end of a decade that may be his most enduring legacy.

“When he took over the league, a lot of critics and people were negative about the NBA. They said he was ‘too black,’” Lapchick recalled. “But he said, ‘Let’s put the best players on the floor and hire the best people to run the organizations.'”

Lapchick said that a conversation he had with Stern in the late 1990s was especially insightful.

“My goal is not just that you, or anyone else, don’t notice when we hire a black coach,” Stern told Lapchick, “but that you don’t notice when we fire a black coach.”

Of course, it is the players who make the game.

James was above them all in the 2010s. It didn’t even matter if he had a ball in his hands.

The King was increasingly willing to speak out on divisive issues, and he generously used his vast financial resources to support real change in everything from education to voter registration.

He has inspired countless young players to follow his example.

“He just used his platform the best of anyone,” Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young said. “Certainly any basketball player, maybe any athlete, just because he knows the range that he has and uses it for his benefit.”

In a way, James was simply imitating icons like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who were outspoken civil rights advocates during the 1960s and 1970s.

His influence faded with the rise of Michael Jordan in the 1980s, who was famously quoted “Republicans buy sneakers too,” a clear nod to commercialism over activism.

“I never considered myself an activist. I considered myself a basketball player,” Jordan would say in “The Last Dance,” the remarkable ESPN documentary that educated a new generation about his Airness. “Was that selfish? Probably.”

In a compelling twist, Jordan is now the only major black owner in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets and much more vocal about issues he once shied away from. But he missed a great opportunity during his playing days.

“His father was murdered,” Lapchick noted. “He could have been talking about gun control. But he chose not to.”

Jordan’s successors directed their energy in a different direction, even as it put them at odds with the highest office in the country.

Former President Donald Trump mocked activist athletes like Kaepernick and refused to invite Curry and the Warriors to the White House in 2017 after they won the second of their three NBA titles in a five-year streak of NBA appearances. endings.

While James’s enormous skills made him Jordan’s logical successor on the court, he took a decidedly different tack when it came to politically charged matters.

In almost every way, James is the anti-MJ. It’s impossible to overstate the impact James had on the players around him, teammates and enemies alike, and the transformation of him into a powerful and unified voice for change.

“I would never shut up about things that are wrong,” James said. “In no way would I limit myself to sports, because I understand how powerful this platform and my voice is.”

Following his lead, other players are capitalizing on his power.

Young, who is only 23 years old, helped eliminate about $1 million in medical debt for struggling Atlanta families. He also joined a campaign to stop the execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones, whose sentence was commuted by the governor.

“Knowing the platform that I have and the reach that I have, if I do certain things, it will reach other people and maybe inspire someone else to do something positive as well,” Young said.

Looking back over the past decade, Lapchick believes one of the defining moments came at the start of the 2016 ESPY Awards.

Normally a night for light-hearted frivolity, the ceremony began with a sobering charge from four of the NBA’s biggest names: James, Paul, Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

“We cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America,” Anthony said from the stage that night. “The system is broken. The problems are not new. Violence is not new. And the racial divide is definitely not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all time high.”

Paul pointed to the pioneers who came before them. It was time, he said forcefully, that today’s athletes cared about more than just their scoring average.

“Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and many others set a blueprint for what athletes should stand for. Paul said. “So we chose to follow in his footsteps.”

His words came less than six weeks after Ali’s death. In hindsight, Lapchick says, that was no coincidence.

“I think the athletes knew something about Ali, they knew he was someone talking but maybe they weren’t sure what,” he said. “Then with all the news after his death, pointing out everything he did for so many decades and how he went from possibly the most unpopular person in the 1960s to one of the most popular and admired people at the time of his death , which made athletes reconsider what they should become.”

As the decade ended and the world was hit by a new scourge, the COVID-19 pandemic, NBA and WNBA players only grew louder.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked mass protests not seen since the 1960s, a cause both leagues embraced as they completed their seasons in a bubble to deal with the deadly virus.

Not even the closed world of Disney could suffocate the NBA guards.

When police shot Jacob Blake, a black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a protest led by the Milwaukee Bucks prompted players to walk off the court in the middle of the playoffs, a move that sparked similar protests in other sports and received wide acceptance. support from mostly white NBA coaches and owners.

The players have vowed to turn the symbolic gestures of the past decade into real change in years to come, tackling crucial issues like voting rights in response to many states changing access to polling booths.

NBA stadiums were transformed into mass voting precincts during the 2020 election, allowing citizens to cast their ballots in person while maintaining social distancing guidelines amid a raging pandemic that has killed millions around the world. .

If the players get their way, that’s just the beginning.

There are so many things on your to-do list for the next decade.

“We need to back up words with action,” Young said. “I hope the world feels the same.”

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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