All seemed well with the NBA’s comeback last week when commissioner Adam Silver announced the 22-team format in Orlando, a format that included extensive COVID-19 testing and a bubble for players, coaches, and team officials to reside in during the two-month stay at Disney.
It wasn’t a foolproof plan, but it was the best the league could do under the circumstances. And then last week, former Celtics and current Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, who will not play again this season because of shoulder surgery, raised the question to his NBA brethren about whether they should play at all.
Irving is now a vice president in the National Basketball Players Association, one of several VPs, along with the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. Irving, who is on the executive committee, brought up the possibility that the players may be used as pawns to help the owners avoid crippling financial losses, and provide entertainment and distraction for a country that’s already spent three months in quarantine.
The tragic killing of George Floyd and the recent protests about an America plagued by racial discrimination, police brutality, and stereotyping has many players bothered by the prospect of going to Orlando just to make everybody else happy.
Irving told fellow NBA players during a Friday conference call that he wouldn’t go to Orlando, but that if the players decided to, he would travel there in support.
The question is whether not playing would have a bigger impact than playing and the answer is a resounding no. NBA players have more power than any of their other professional sports brethren — we’re seeing how much power baseball players are losing in this battle with owners — and NBA players have the power to use Orlando to make several statements.
How about a “GF” patch on each jersey? How about a concise set of demands or requests to owners for more diversity in front offices? How about the owners contribute to 1) the NBPA medical insurance fund for retired players and 2) a fund that would upgrade educational systems and athletic facilities in NBA cities?
Too many times I have attended Celtics community efforts that placed beautiful basketball courts for kids in pristine neighborhoods in affluent cities around the Boston area. I would think, “This is nice, but does this neighborhood really need this?”
The Celtics, as have other NBA teams, have contributed to disadvantaged and working-class communities with upgraded computer labs, but NBA teams need to be bigger factors and contributors in their communities.
If Irving and players such as Dwight Howard and former Celtic Avery Bradley have issues with the league’s resumption and their roles as employees in their multi-billion dollar league, then devise a proposal that calls for change and the league taking a more prominent role in improving diversity, curtailing racism and discrimination.
In the 1980s, the NBA, behind young commissioner David Stern, seized a meaningful role in the war on drugs, with players such as Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan participating in commercials urging viewers to stay clean. It’s time for the league to take even a bigger role in race relations.
If Irving and others feel as if there is a problem, that can’t be discounted. Their issues need to be heard. And they will have the appropriate platform — or they can create one — in Orlando, so their message is constantly related to those who need to hear it.
The criticism of Irving is unfair. He is a thinker. He thinks differently than most, but he’s intelligent and astute. Just because his message may have been late or ill-timed doesn’t mean it needs to be discounted. If any player has a concern, speak up and be heard. NBA players are not monolithic. They are not all the same guys or come from the same backgrounds or have the same experiences. That’s stereotyping.
Not all players have to completely agree with the league’s decision to resume the season in Orlando or exist in a bubble for two months. So the choice is to pass on playing or come to Orlando with a well-organized and insightful agenda and relay that to a vast audience that will be tuning in.
The players need to meet over the next few weeks to determine a real plan to present to owners and any of their other target audiences. They could also form an alliance of players — I would nominate Brown to be on that committee — that would meet and communicate with owners about these issues.
We have seen too many examples of capable candidates of color and women being passed up for front-office positions, while retread white candidates consistently get interviews. The players notice that and it’s about time they speak up on this lack of diversity.
If the players want a more powerful voice, then this is the opportunity to seize that power. This issue is an example that not all NBA players are alike, not all of them think the same way, and not all are consumed with ball over anything else.
So the NBPA has six weeks to devise a plan of action, and then will have two-plus months to relay that message on an international stage. What a perfect opportunity to foster change.