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Giants Among Giants: The NBA’s Most Influential Activists

Credit: Antonio Losada

Credit: Antonio Losada

These past weeks have been a reminder of how broken our nation is, as protests in response to police violence against the Black community have flared up in every major city. And with the NBA at a standstill due to COVID, athletes--usually a focal point on our televisions--have seemingly been an afterthought while police clash against citizens demanding justice and peace.

But don’t get it twisted, NBA players have been far from silent. Even though they aren’t in their usual setting--as the Playoffs are still on pause--they have shown up in large ways at the sides of their community. Young players like Jaylen Brown, Karl Anthony Towns, and Juan Toscano have all been spotted at demonstrations nationwide in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality. The cause has gained so much support that even Michael Jordan--long considered to be a socially unbothered superstar--donated $100 million to organizations that are combating racial injustices in the U.S.

Yet, as radical and energizing as it may seem to see NBA superstars donating large sums of their wealth for social issues while marching with the masses to demand change, it isn’t anything new for a League that has long pioneered the art of activism as a form of political expression in the sports world.

Bill Russell

“I Have a Dream” (1960s)

Credit: Antonio Losada

Credit: Antonio Losada

Ever since 1950, when the first Black American--Earl Lloyd--was allowed to play in the NBA (but unfortunately had his career cut short only seven games into his career after being drafted into the U.S. military), the equality for Black players has been an important issue. Lloyd dealt with unprecedented racism, receiving harassment from white fans in the few games he played, and though he didn’t have to endure it for very long, this type of targeted discrimination existed for many players after him, even decades later.

That’s where Bill Russell comes in: if you’re talking activism in professional sports history, you have to mention Bill Russell--who is perhaps the first major, iconic athlete to use his athletic platform to speak on issues of race and inequality. In fact, in 1963, Bill Russell--MVP of that year’s NBA All-Star game and captain of the World Champion Boston Celtics--led his team to a Finals victory against the Los Angeles Lakers, then spent the rest of his summer involved in the Civil Rights Movement, joining Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C. for his historic “I Have a Dream Speech.”

Imagine that. A historic player of Russell’s caliber at the side of a historic figure of MLK’s stature. There’s a beautiful black and white photo of Russell in the crowd, glistening. It’s a moment for the ages, and one that largely defined the history of NBA players being unafraid to stand tall--literally, but also figuratively--and walk with their fellow citizens in demand for human dignity, equality, and respect by amplifying the voices of their brothers and sisters.

But it wasn’t easy for players like Russell to openly share their world views; racism still existed, especially in Boston, where Russell was eternally scrutinized by media and fans. The racial hatred towards him culminated when--as a rejection of his involvement in Civil Rights actions--Russell’s home in Massachusetts was ravaged. According to the Boston WBUR News, “someone broke into Bill Russell’s home, scrawled insults on the walls, and defecated in his bed.”

But that wouldn’t stop Russell, as he continued to be outspoken as a member of the Black American diaspora, even joining forces with Muhammad Ali to challenge military recruitment. His reputation drew criticism from Bostonians, who didn’t attend his original jersey retirement, highlighting just how resented he was back then for his actions.

Yet history has proven that having a player of Russell’s prominence--who served as a fearless champion in his community, as he combated against hateful and systemic acts of racism in his era--established him as a worthy example and tradition for future NBA hoopers to follow. NBA fans will forever look back and remember this great Hall of Famer with 11 championships who stood up for what he believed in, especially during the most difficult of times--and who is now, in the midst of racial turmoil once again, tweeting out in opposition to Donald Trump.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“It’s hard to measure success while there is still a body count” (1970s)

Credit: Antonio Losada

Credit: Antonio Losada

Originally born Lou Alcindor, the man we would later know as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar deserves to be in this discussion for many reasons. Though his persona and actions were never as overtly radical or loud as Russell’s, Jabbar offered an equally provocative if not poetic statement against Black oppression.

He would eventually become the All-Time Scoring Leader in NBA History; think about that, the dude scored more points than anyone else who has ever put on an NBA uniform, including Michael Jordan. However, despite his killer game, he was shy, quiet, and reserved, while his life choices reflected a deep intellect and social awareness, highlighted by his name change in 1971 after leading the dismal Milwaukee Bucks to their first ever NBA Championship.

The decision to revise his name and identity--adopting the Black Islamic code, something largely controversial at the time for its associations with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad--was not warmly received by white America, especially where he played in Wisconsin. But Jabbar’s choice went beyond his fear of social criticism and racial attack, and up until he finished his playing days as a Los Angeles Laker--including a total of six championships and two MVPs--he was known for being a meditative presence who would read books in the locker room before games, exemplifying his Blackness in a way that challenged the negative stereotypes and unfair bias of his days by exuding his inner spirituality.

Later in his career, Jabbar would flourish as an activist and writer, most recently publishing this moving article in the Los Angeles Times about his views in support of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. The man not only had a commanding Sky Hook, but learned how to hook his audience by the soul with his elegant, thoughtful eloquence.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

“I couldn't stand for a flag that represented tyranny and oppression” (1990s)

Credit: Antonio Losada

Credit: Antonio Losada

Perhaps the darkest time for NBA activists was in the ‘90s when players like Craig Hodges were largely ignored and silenced for their political views, and were unable to recruit the alpha superstars like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson to act in solidarity. Most famously, Hodges called for a boycott of Game 1 in the 1991 NBA Finals as a protest against the police brutality displayed against Rodney King days before--but MJ and Magic agreed that social politics should stay off the basketball court. Hodges never recovered, and after writing a letter to President Bush, shortly fell out of the League.

The story of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf--former sharpshooter for the Denver Nuggets who had his prolific career cut short when he refused to stand for the flag during the National Anthem--perhaps best exemplifies the rift between politics and the NBA in the ‘90s. Essentially blackballed out of the NBA for his beliefs, Rauf (the former #3 overall pick) decided that his views as a Black man in America were more important to him than his performance--highlighted by a 51 point outpour against the Jazz in ‘95--in a game so many Americans loved.

In what was largely ahead of its time (compared fifteen years later to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling for justice in the NFL), Rauf viewed the oppression and mistreatment of his community as intolerable, so he refused to stand for the U.S. flag before every game. The NBA inevitably suspended him and withheld $32,000 from his paycheck--something that Rauf said in a future interview he would do again, “1000%.”

Despite being one of the best scorers in that era of NBA players--often viewed as a predecessor to Stephen Curry--he was shunned by the League and fans until he was left without a job, and left to play overseas in Turkey, where he finished his estranged career. What Rauf taught us, however, is that his message was indeed true: being a Black man in America is oppressive and will leave you on the outside looking in if you aren’t willing to compromise your beliefs.

It’s a testament to Rauf’s legacy that he never folded, and to this day, he proudly stands by his words and experience. Perhaps if Rauf existed in the modern NBA, he would’ve been embraced and celebrated rather than jettisoned as an outcast.

LeBron James

“We will definitely not shut up and dribble” (2010s)

Credit: Antonio Losada

Credit: Antonio Losada

Adam Silver deserves some credit here. After coming into the League in 2014, the NBA Commissioner has time and again made it a point to support the sociopolitical expressions of his essential employees--the Players. I’ve listened to many of his talks at educational events and interviews, and I can honestly say that Silver seems to legitimately care for--and respect--the legacy and humanity of his players and his League. It’s in his best interest, after all.

Before the start of the 2019 season, the NBA sent letters to the homes of every player League-wide. In each letter was a statement from Silver, personally encouraging his employees to speak out on issues that most mattered to them, and to express who they are in every aspect of their identity. This may seem insignificant, but in contrast to rival U.S.-based leagues, data shows that the NBA leads in just about every category that involves racial representation and balance among coaches, staff, and players, showing steady growth in every measure, while other leagues have shown a decline in the same period. In other words, Silver is really about that socially progressive life.

But let’s not forget, Silver inherited this majestically built game filled with vibrant tradition and social engagement, largely pioneered from the contributions of previously mentioned giants like Earl Lloyd, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Craig Hodges, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf--among countless others--who in many cases sacrificed their own comforts and wellbeing for the greater good. So, on the shoulders of these fighters from decades ago, comes Silver. And on the shoulders of Silver, comes one of the most visible activist athletes in world history: LeBron James.

Make no mistake, LeBron is the culmination of all the struggles waged before him; that said, he undoubtedly deserves the credit and recognition for selflessly using his personal brand and platform in a way that most great players--including Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, and just about every other megastar of recent generations--have never done.

LeBron isn’t a saint, and some would argue he isn’t doing enough. But he also isn’t a bystander, and in my opinion, doesn’t owe any of us anything, and yet continues to
actively and consistently thrown down towards affecting a positive social impact--whether through building schools, promoting Black identity and tolerance through mainstream media, partnering with Black entrepreneurs to create business opportunities for others, or simply by speaking out against the injustices of the current U.S. administration while asking his teammates to wear I CAN’T BREATHE t-shirts.

LeBron doesn’t owe any of us anything. However, he is a Black man, and because of that, he owes himself everything. As a result, he gives his people what he can--and what he gives shouldn’t be dismissed as simply good charity. When you look at what a global icon like LeBron has done as an NBA player and compare that to any other billionaire athlete in the world--whether in the NFL, MLB, NHL, FIFA, or any other major sports league--you will not find an individual who is as deeply rooted and diversely invested in supporting the social, economic, and racial equity of his people in modern times. Sure, people will criticize him for this or that, but while you’re at it, look in the mirror and tell me what you’ve done for our society-at-large lately?

Supported by his brethren--including Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, and numerous other ballers--the modern NBA has firmly positioned themselves as a compassionate, evolving, and vocal League. It isn’t perfect, but it admits its mistakes and attempts to grow to include more communities--evidenced by the large international presence of the sport.

This decade, it has been no secret that the NBA has grown far ahead of counterpart leagues when it comes to social and racial awareness, and a large part of that progress is due to LeBron--the face and mouth of the NBA--and those who came before him. The everyday actions and engagements of these basketball activists exemplify that Black Lives Matter--not just today, not just tomorrow, but always.