Baseball is America’s pastime. Football is the most-watched sport in the country. Soccer is ‘the beautiful game’ and the most popular sport in the world. However, basketball is the sport of the future, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) — and its players — is leading the way as a model example of how a professional league should operate.
When the pandemic first started to make waves in the United States, the NBA was very much in the headlines, but not exactly for the right reasons. On March 11, during the third quarter of a game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Denver Nuggets, Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban was caught on camera with his mouth agape upon learning that the season would be
suspended upon completion of that night’s matchup due to the pandemic. Despite not having any idea when they would step onto the court again, the players finished the game to a standing ovation from fans that haven’t been able to watch sports in person since that night.
What led the NBA to suddenly put a halt to the season? Minutes before the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were set to tipoff, the team doctor for the Thunder came running onto the court to let the referees know that a Jazz player had just tested positive for the coronavirus.
That player turned out to be French center Rudy Gobert, who just two days earlier had joked about the threat of the virus by touching all of the microphones on a table during a press conference. Gobert would later apologize for the incident, but it caused a rift between him and star teammate Donovan Mitchell.
As all of American life took a pause, the next step for the NBA was to find a safe way to return to play. By early June, a plan had emerged: invite 22 teams to play eight regular season games before cutting the field down to 16 to participate in the traditional playoffs format. Every game would take place inside a bubble environment at a campus inside the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Not everyone was on board with the proposal. Just one week earlier, the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands and knee of a Minneapolis cop sent shockwaves throughout the nation and fostered many conversations on the systemic racism within the police force. NBA players were at the forefront of multiple protests, with Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, Philadelphia 76ers swingman Tobias Harris and Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. marching alongside thousands of people through the streets of Atlanta, Philly and Fayetteville, respectively.
Brooklyn Nets All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving even voiced his concerns with playing at all given the circumstances. He reportedly said, “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls***. Something smells a little fishy.” As one of the vice presidents of the NBA Players Association, his words held extra weight and were prescient towards what lay ahead.
The players arrived inside the isolated bubble at the beginning of July, giving every team about three weeks to get into game shape before the resumption of the season on July 30. While there were a few minor complications, like the mediocre food that the players had to stomach as they quarantined in their hotel rooms, the NBA’s plan seemed to be working smoothly.
That is until the Aug. 23 shooting in Kenosha, Wis. where a police officer shot resident Jacob Blake seven times in the back, leading to his paralysis from the waist down. Although the games continued for a few days, the Milwaukee Bucks, whose hometown is less than an hour away from Kenosha, decided to do something drastic the following Wednesday: boycott Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic. The team chose to stay in the locker room and ask for justice on a phone call with the Wisconsin Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor. It wasn’t long before Wednesday’s entire slate of games were canceled and there was talk that the playoffs might be as well.
After days of negotiations, including calls with former President Barack Obama and Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, the players and the league agreed to finish the season, but not before the owners agreed to uphold certain commitments. The players were allowed to wear messages on their jerseys like “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” upon the original continuation of the season, but now they wanted a concrete plan. They got that in the form of the owners pledging to help form a social justice coalition made up of players, coaches and owners, NBA arenas being converted into safe voting locations for the 2020 election and the networks televising the games creating advertisements to encourage people to register to vote. With the new initiatives in place, the players were ready to play once again.
This social power the NBA has to mobilize masses in a time of crisis is among the number of reasons why I dubbed basketball the sport of the future. But it’s not the only one.
First of all, there’s the accessibility aspect. While sports like baseball, hockey and lacrosse require spending both money and time on equipment, travel teams and showcases for potential recruiters, basketball needs just the ball itself and a court to play. Second, there’s the rising influx of talent from around the world. This past season’s All-Star Game had a distinctly international flavor with eight players born outside of the United States, the most in the game’s history. Last season, the Most Improved Player of the Year hailed from Cameroon (Pascal Siakam), the Defensive Player of the Year from France (Rudy Gobert) and the Most Valuable Player and arguably the best player on earth, Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, from, you guessed it, Greece.
The final reason is because of the individuals behind the institution. The NBA has established itself as the most forward-thinking league when it comes to social justice in all of sports. Some credit must be given to commissioner Adam Silver, who has admirably sided with the players and given them the freedom to speak out. But above all, it’s the players. LeBron James, Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell have been vocal about the need for change and adamant that police brutality, racial injustice and voter disenfranchisement are bigger than basketball. Without the Milwaukee Bucks taking a stand and boycotting their game, I find it doubtful that other leagues like the MLB and NHL as well as the tennis at the Western and Southern Open would have followed suit. Whether it’s on the court or out in the streets, the NBA and its players are leading the charge towards justice. Now, they can only hope that the players, executives and fans from the teams of other leagues not only show their support on social media but also with dedicated action.