LeBron James again has shown why he is the unquestioned leader among NBA players. He speaks his mind without fear of retribution, addressing social issues while fully realizing younger players are monitoring his every word, giving them more freedom to join in with their opinions.
The one thing James wanted to accomplish during these difficult times is for younger players, those whose racial experiences may differ from those of the 1970s and ‘80s generation, to become more socially aware. And that’s been the case here at the Orlando bubble, where various players, including Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart of the Celtics, are asserting themselves in this unusual forum.
James addressed the media for 13 minutes Thursday evening after the Lakers’ opening scrimmage, and he talked little about basketball. James instead tackled a variety of issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Breonna Taylor, and being a Black man in America.
“Never afraid to speak about things that I was knowledgeable about, that I had insight on, and I was up to speed on,” said James. “And with the Trayvon Martin case, obviously years ago, I spoke about that situation; with the George Floyd incident that happened not too long ago, that’s a horrible incident. And also, obviously, the Breonna Taylor situation.
“It’s unfortunate that — well, it’s fortunate that we had the George Floyd video, to see it. I mean, is that what we need to see, a video of Breonna being killed, for people to realize how bad the situation is?”
You don’t have to agree with everything James says, but you have to respect his desire to inspire his community, using his status and wealth to change lives by opening his own school in Ohio. You can’t criticize these NBA players for being thinkers, realizing there is strife, racism, and discrimination in their world, even though it may be perceived they are shielded from it because of their wealth.
“I never shied away from being who I am and speaking about things that not only affect me, hit home for me, but also affect my community and affect Black people,” James said. “Because we’ve been going through it a lot. I seen a video today of a Black man inside a Walmart or a Target or whatever, trying to buy a bike for his son — and the cops were called on him, he had a receipt and everything, and the cops were called on him and they arrested him inside the store and took him outside.
“I mean, it’s just heartbreaking. Unless you’re a person of color, you guys don’t understand. I understand that you might feel for us, but you can never truly understand what it is to be Black in America. But once again, that’s what it’s about.”
James has set an example for activism among athletes. Unlike the man he is most compared to, Michael Jordan, who has long refrained from social statements, even when they appeared non-controversial, James has been unafraid to speak his mind, perhaps even making adversaries.
So James‘s disdain for the term “movement” with relation to Black Lives Matter is no surprise. James spoke from experience, carefully choosing his words.
“A lot of people kind of use this analogy about Black Lives Matter as a movement,” he said. “It’s not a movement. When you’re Black, it’s not a movement. It’s a lifestyle. We sit here and say it’s a movement. OK, how long is this movement going to last? Don’t stop the movement. This is a [way] of life. When you wake up and you’re Black, that is what it is. It shouldn’t be a movement; it should be a lifestyle. This is who we are. And we understand that. And we know that for one step someone else might have to take, or for one yard someone else may have to take, that we know we’ve got to take five more steps. And we know we’ve got to take 10 more yards to get to the end zone. We understand that, we know that.
“But also that’s what makes us strong, it makes us powerful, makes us so unique and unified, [it] is that we’ve had so much hardships in our life, either from personal experiences or loved ones or reading history or seeing videos — Rodney King — or just being a part of the communities that you’re in where you’re racially profiled from the time you come out of the womb.
“It’s not a movement. I don’t like the word ‘movement’ — because unfortunately, in America and in society, there ain’t been no damn movement for us. There ain’t been no movement.”
Agree or disagree, you have to respect James’s courage. He could just play ball, be the best player in the world, collect his checks, and live well. But that’s not enough, thankfully.
Tatum, Celtics have opportunity
The Celtics are a popular dark horse to make a title run because they are healthy, have an emerging superstar in Jayson Tatum, and a supporting cast that played well for many stretches this season despite a tumultuous offseason.
ESPN/ABC analysts Jalen Rose and Paul Pierce (of course) agree with that assessment, placing the onus of the Celtics’ success squarely on the shoulders of third-year pro Tatum.
“This is going to be rec ball. The guys that can have the most players who can dribble, pass, shoot, and score 20 points in a half, 35 points in the game, I have those teams with the best odds,” Rose said. “That’s why I like the Celtics, and the Clippers if everybody is healthy. Those are the teams that I like.”
Gordon Hayward has said he’s completely healthy, and the Celtics have brought Kemba Walker back slowly from a sore right knee, but he’s supposed to be 100 percent when Boston opens the seeding schedule July 31 against No. 1 Milwaukee.
“I know that Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker have dealt with some injury issues,” Rose said. “If one of them and/or both of them are hobbled, they won’t get it done. Now, if both of them are healthy, I think the key player is … Jayson Tatum, his ascension of superstardom.”
Pierce, forever a Celtic, agreed with Rose. Pierce has touted Tatum as the next great Celtic, and said he has a chance to be better than himself. And Pierce likes himself — a lot.
“The only real superstars in this league, common denominator, and I always say this to Jalen, to win a championship, No. 1 ingredient, you got to have a top-five player,” Pierce said. “There’s like rare cases throughout history where that top-five player wasn’t in the Finals. Now, Jayson is starting to emerge, head in that direction. But he has to be a key player. He was playing like a top-five player before the shutdown.
“I’ve watched him play since Day One. He looks like a whole different player now. He’s going to be the key for them. If he can continue to play like that where he was averaging, like, 28 points, shooting 40-plus from the three, over 50 from the field, getting to the line, that’s that player they need him to be if they have any hopes of going to the Finals.
“Is he a top-five player today? No. Was he playing like one before the break? Yes, he was, indeed.”
THE PLACE TO BE
Pierce enjoyed his time in Boston
When Paul Pierce arrived in Boston in 1998, the city was considered racially divided, hardly a priority for big-name free agents. That perception lasted for years, until players such as Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen gained comfort in the city and won a championship.
The Celtics then signed maximum free agent Al Horford, followed by Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown signed an extension to stay in Boston for four more seasons. Plus, Jayson Tatum is expected to sign a five-year extension. Pierce said the perception of Boston as a city unwelcoming to Black players has been exaggerated.
“I think players, when they get there, I think ownership is great,” he said. “They’ve created a culture since as long as I can remember to where basketball is everything there. People on the outside looking in, this goes back to when I left and I started seeing guys play, from Isaiah Thomas to now Kemba Walker and these guys. They didn’t know how the culture was in Boston.”
The Celtics organization has been considered one of the best in the NBA, and Pierce was greatly appreciated in the city after a bumpy start, having his number retired in February 2018.
“The fanatics, the sports town, the management, the practice facility,” he said. “People think there’s nothing to do in Boston, but they built that city up. It’s just a whole lot different now than it was when I was there. People actually enjoy the city.
“When you go around the NBA looking at different NBA cities, where guys want to play, just the environment, the practice facilities, the arena, players fall in love with that.”
Despite the franchise winning just one title in the last 34 years, the Celtics tradition remains a strong recruiter. Pierce has toured the team’s new practice facility and has shown an interest in a management position.
“Players want to be part of tradition. I think that’s something they fall in love with when they get there and they engulf themselves in it,” he said. “Especially with these guys there now, it’s easier when you’re in an environment, have a great young coach, general manager, owners, and you’re winning. Winning creates culture. Let’s be honest, people don’t sign as free agents, sign max deals, if you’re not winning. Winning creates the culture.”
No shortage of WNBA issues
The WNBA, which resumes its season Saturday, has a controversial issue on its hands with the status of Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a US senator from Georgia who has criticized Black Lives Matter on several occasions, including in a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Loeffler has drawn the ire of several WNBA players, who have asked for her to relinquish her stake in the team. The WNBA, however, has not made that request.
“I was surprised to receive the letter from Kelly,” Engelbert said. “From the short time I’ve known her, even seeing public statements prior to me joining the league, she’s been very supportive of women’s issues, women’s empowerment, has been interested in the players and what they stand for. Having played basketball herself, she wanted to help grow and support the league.
“Again, not sure what all is at bay here. I’ve been so proud of the WNBA players who … have always been at the forefront of social movements. A lot of people didn’t know that coming into these recent events.”
Another WNBA issue is the status of superstar Elena Delle Donne, whose request for a waiver to miss the season for medical reasons (Lyme disease) was denied. The Washington Mystics said they will pay her salary regardless, but the denial put the league in a negative light considering the pandemic.
“Obviously, we’re sensitive to her health and support her,” Engelbert said. “What we’ve been trying to do throughout setting up this whole season is to follow the science of the virus, consult with infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists.
“The virus is very complicated. We had to put in a process that we worked out collectively with the Players Association to create a level playing field for all WNBA players so everyone is treated fairly. Independent medical review panel, including specialists.”
Should the WNBA have treated Delle Donne differently because she’s a former league MVP and face of the league?
“The level of player is not a factor when making those decisions. The pandemic has disrupted her back rehab, as it has many of the non-essential type things that we’re doing during the height of COVID,” Engelbert said. “There were a lot of things that were disrupted by the pandemic March through July.
“Absolutely highly respect Elena. Great player in our league. Her level of play was not a factor. It’s an independent medical review process with infectious disease specialists that were reviewing her and other cases as well for us. That’s why it’s called independent. It was an independent medical review panel. It is unfortunate that the reaction was what it was, but we are sensitive certainly to her health and support her all the way.”
Delle Donne is expected to miss the season.
The NBA announced that the final eight games for the 22 teams in Orlando will not count toward the voting for postseason awards, meaning votes from the media will have to be submitted by the time games resume. So, that means campaigning has already begun, and the MVP race is likely down to LeBron James of the Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks. The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant is likely the choice for Rookie of the Year, while Nick Nurse of the Raptors could be a runaway winner for Coach of the Year … There is the belief that some players will use the bubble as a means of recruiting players from other teams, and there is plenty of opportunity. The Coronado Springs Resort Convention Center houses three practice facilities, meaning there could be a flood of players in the lobby when practices are over and they are free to fraternize. As Kemba Walker of the Celtics was conducting a Zoom call with the media this past week, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell came over and took photos of Walker. The two then enjoyed a conversation. As players are conducting Zoom calls outside the practice facilities, players and officials from other teams can walk by, wearing masks of course, and observe. It is an environment for bonding. Also, many of the players complained about the food in the early going, so every team has a food station outside its facility. The Celtics also had a catered meal for their off-day dinner in the convention center … The Celtics will not replace assistant coach Kara Lawson until the offseason, but there is much interest in the job, and look for the Celtics to replace Lawson with another female candidate. The Celtics were pleased with Lawson’s impact and have sought to diversify their staff. Lawson left the Celtics earlier this month to become women’s basketball coach at Duke.