What would it mean to eventually crown an NBA champion when sports felt simultaneously unimportant and yet so central to public discourse?
The question didn’t have an obvious answer then, and still doesn’t now on the eve of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. This isn’t to suggest I haven’t enjoyed basketball’s return — despite fanless venues and the absence of “do-or-die” road games. I absolutely have. But even in the midst of Luka Doncic’s superstar turn, the Denver Nuggets’ impressive run, everything Heat-related and the Lakers’ attempt to return to the mountaintop for the first time since Kobe Bryant led them there a decade ago — the question remains.
I’m living with an ongoing mental tug of war. As coronavirus deaths piled up by the tens of thousands, and countless text messages poured in from friends saying they’d lost grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, co-workers or friends, it seemed the last thing in the world that was important was sports. There’s only so many “I’m so sorry’s” or “Your family’s in my prayers” or “Please let me know how I can help’s” you can say before that sort of response begins to leave an emptiness in the soul.
And how could I truly appreciate the game I loved when the country it’s headquartered in is so traumatized? There’s nothing the game could do to reverse that train of thought — and that’s not the game’s fault. We’ve seen too much Black life lost on camera in 2020. Far more Zoom panels than convictions. And way more rhetoric spewed than legislation passed.
Since its inception, America would rather condemn the explosive angst of Black folks demanding justice than the systems in place that created the bomb. That thought — that emotional tumor, rather — ran through my head all summer as I went on runs hoping that my end wouldn’t mimic Ahmaud Arbery’s. And how fair was it to ask Black athletes to not only be entertaining on the court, but also serve as a moral compass for a country that had long lost its way? My grandma says this and she’s right: That’s giving this country way more credit than it deserves.
Basketball didn’t need to return, but it was going to anyway. There was simply too much money being transferred through too many powerful hands for it not to. That’s America at the end of the day.
But something, however fleeting, shifted in 2020. As if Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, Jordan Davis’ music, Eric Garner’s cigarettes, Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, Atatiana Jefferson’s video games, Philando Castile’s livestreamed execution, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford’s plastic guns and the deaths of countless others set the backdrop for the year that America could no longer ignore the executions of Black folks such as Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. Suddenly, a corporate reason to invest in anti-racism emerged. Companies pledged millions of dollars to social justice and diversity causes. Commercials were full up with messages about Black lives mattering and the conversation we needed to have. The issue was on the forefront of everyone’s minds. Even if a dollar sign dictated the conversation.
The morbid truth is COVID-19 forced America to sit still. It couldn’t use sports to distract itself from the injustices that had long been the soundtrack to American life. One virus killed more Americans than the last five U.S.-involved wars combined and held a mirror up to America. The carnage it was inflicting mimicked the virus that the country has never sought to truly treat because only one segment of its citizens was disproportionately dying from it. Maybe NBA players could actually shed light on that.
So when the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans tipped off in the first game of the NBA restart on July 30, I felt a sense of trepidation. NBA players would use their voices, as they had so often in the past. My concern wasn’t with them. It was the NBA that had to get this right.
As coronavirus deaths piled up … and countless text messages poured in from friends saying they’d lost grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, co-workers or friends, it seemed the last thing in the world that was important was sports.
For so long, fairly or unfairly, the NBA has basked in the image of being the “woke” league. Except for the WNBA, no other major American sports league has joined itself to the movement for social justice so thoroughly because of the freedom its players have to voice their perspectives. (Though it, too, still has many skeletons in its closet.) Now, the league had to find the exact sweet spot, the right combination of high-level basketball and attention to the issues of the moment. If the return of professional basketball were to have any moral justification, finishing the season had to be about more than personal and team legacies — and absolutely more than securing every dollar in one of the most economically volatile times in the country’s history.
“The business may have a different type of agenda, but I think for players it’s important that they continued to play because, again, they’re important to bringing attention to what’s happening,” said Tiffany Packer, a history professor at Florida A&M University. “Continuing in the excellence of what they do, in this case basketball, is imperative that they see it through to the end while still continuing to use their platform for good.”
Maybe it’s foolish to indulge in the dream world of pro sports when the rest of us are living a nightmare. The true unemployment rate hovers near 11%. School classrooms and many churches now live online. We’ve had to say final goodbyes to loved ones through prayerfully reliable internet connections. Weddings have been postponed. Newborn babies can’t be held by loved ones. Businesses abandoned for months may never be seen again.
These NBA Finals are about far more than the last two teams standing and the provocative storylines that’ll ultimately define the series. The bubble, judging by its zero positive COVID-19 tests, is the safest place in America. Yet, how safe is safe?
Heading into the bubble in July, NBA players viewed mental health as the “most looming unknown.” Players such as Jamal Murray, Dwight Howard, Jaylen Brown and Paul George openly discussed a topic that was once frowned upon.
“With the privilege of being one of the biggest stages in sports also comes the stress of public expectation, as players have the power to use their platform to address our collective unrest and despair,” said Justin Hopkins, a clinical psychologist in Washington. “Given the challenges to compartmentalizing, added pressure to speak on matters bigger than the game and being removed from loved ones and spaces of comfort, players are likely battling a disproportionate amount of stress compared to other seasons.”
Players wore league-approved messages on the back of their jerseys. “Black Lives Matter” was painted at half court for every game. Yet, America went full America once more. Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back. NBA players were isolated in a bubble that protected them from the virus in the outside world, but not the emotions that came from it. The question of whether it made sense to call off the season resurfaced. Playoff narratives felt cheap when placed alongside real life.
Whatever goodwill had been established didn’t matter then. The NBA, WNBA, US Open champion Naomi Osaka and more protested by not playing after Blake’s shooting. The season felt this close to caving in on itself, and I wouldn’t have been upset with that. If NBA players were to make the resumption of the season worth it, it had to be for a bigger cause than simply finishing what they had started. To the players’ credit, they saw that.
Maybe this is why the NBA Finals matter: Whether players continued the season or not wasn’t the most important thing. What truly matters is that they used their platform to further their social justice goals. If the summer of 2020 taught us anything, there is no perfect stage or surefire way to combat racial oppression.
When the NBA returned for a second time in late August following days of boycotts after Blake’s shooting, it agreed to one of the players union’s most critical demands. Arenas would be used as polling locations. The NBA, in particular its players, understood that voting was more important than any result that occurred on the court.
“One of the things the NBA seems to get right nowadays is that neither politics nor social justice are elephants in the room,” said Hopkins. “This is without question one of the most important elections in modern time. It’s vital the league engage an issue of this magnitude, rather than avoid it.”
Now voting is as critical to the completion of the NBA season as the completion of the NBA season itself. It’s part of halftime and postgame shows as well as the message on players’ shirts on the sideline. There’s no way to tell how much of a difference this will make, but seeing it every night is a protest in and of itself.
For the first time in history, the NBA Finals and a presidential election will operate in the same cultural space. The first presidential debate is on Tuesday — 24 hours before Game 1. Should a Game 7 be necessary, it will be played Oct. 13, two days before the second debate and 21 days before the election itself.
The Heat sit four wins away from the most improbable title run in history. One no one outside of Biscayne Bay, Florida, saw coming — and even some there didn’t when the season started nearly a year ago. And for the sixth consecutive decade, a Pat Riley-featured team has made the Finals. For the Lakers, it’s four wins from a basketball pinnacle they’ve yet to experience since Kobe Bryant’s last title run. Yet, in the same year the franchise lost the icon with two jersey numbers retired, winning a title would resonate far more than another parade and another banner raised in the City of Angels and constant danger. For Anthony Davis, a career that was already bound for Springfield, Massachusetts, is undeniably so. For LeBron James, a potential fourth championship and a fourth Finals MVP with a third team elevates an already iconic career to levels the game has never seen. Yet, if that journey is as much personal as it is spiritual, his More Than A Vote campaign holds court for even more people who have skin in the American political game far beyond whatever happens in the next potential seven games. Perhaps this is what it meant when some said more good would come from playing than sitting out.
“It’s perfectly ironic that the Finals would be ending around the time of the voting period,” said Packer. “People think of politics in terms of voting, but politics is so much more than even just the act of voting. NBA players speaking and continuing to play, and being very vocal, and making these demands — those are political acts on their own terms.”
I still wrestle with the same concern: Does being crowned an NBA champion really matter if the world that forced it into a bubble doesn’t change? The answer’s no as much as it is yes.
Yet, NBA players have done their part. Every NBA championship has its own fingerprint. Whichever team becomes the first to four wins might have an asterisk beside its place in history. But it won’t be because the journey to the mountaintop was laid with rose petals. Lives were lost to get here. A lot of them.
“To be an NBA champion this year, it’s not just representative of winning an overarching sport,” said Packer. “But are you being part of leading the conversation to bring about the change in inequality that humanity deserves?”
That’s a question we all need to be asking ourselves.