After an astonishing number of lucrative contracts for upper- and middle-class free agents, and an unprecedented move to fund health care for retired players, the NBA Players Association and executive director Michele Roberts have enjoyed a fulfilling summer.
The NBPA has become the envy of other player unions with the flurry of mammoth contracts while the league soars to new financial heights. The influx of television money with a new contract has escalated salaries and, in turn, the current players decided to reward their predecessors.
Yet, the most significant move involving the NBPA was perhaps the political statements and social activism by some of its most prominent members. To begin the ESPY Awards ceremony last month, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and LeBron James expressed concern and sadness regarding police-related shootings and escalation of tensions between African-Americans and law enforcement.
Anthony, on an exhibition tour with Team USA, organized a town hall meeting in Los Angeles last month to discuss issues between African-Americans, the police, and teens, which led to an open discussion to formulate solutions. At the same time, four WNBA players from the Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts memorializing the two African-Americans killed by police in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La., and also donned a logo of the Dallas Police Department.
Social activism is becoming more popular among players and Roberts fully supports their efforts. Will this affect the relationship between owners — 29 of whom are not black — and the predominantly African-American players, especially when labor negotiations for a new contract are ongoing?
“I can tell you this, I haven’t heard a single complaint from a player or heard a single owner say that any of the expressions we’ve seen the last few weeks was problematic,” Roberts told the Globe. “I’m not saying that that’s not the case, that there aren’t owners that may feel that way, but they haven’t expressed it to me or any of my players. I would like to believe that the owners, despite the fact that they are [mostly] white, that they’re all bright enough to appreciate and understand that what is happening in our community is a source of distress and not in any way suggest what the players did was inappropriate.
“I’m going to assume the owners, whether they stand in solidarity or not, unless I hear otherwise, do not take issue and do not otherwise believe the players should be in any way shut down because of what they’ve done or what they will do going forward, assuming that this is consistent with what we’ve seen.”
Meanwhile, after the four Lynx players wore their T-shirts — prompting off-duty police officers who were serving as game security to walk off their jobs — they were fined for violating the league’s uniform policy. The WNBA later rescinded those fines. Roberts agreed with that decision.
“There is a uniform policy that exists and I have no difficulty with that, but I think what the league has to struggle with is we have men and women who do have a platform that is of some significance and they’re aware of that and their fans are aware of that,” Roberts said. “The tension is figuring out a way to appreciate the rights of every one of our players to express themselves, and obviously one way to do that is social media. But another way to do that is take advantage of their celebrity and the fact that they will have the attention of the nation when they are on the court.
“When the men last year did the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts for a brief period of time, it was not the case that they were playing the game in the shirts and while it was technically a violation of the uniform policy, I thought the league did exactly the right thing by not attempting to impose any sanctions. I was disturbed when there were sanctions imposed against the women because, in my view, it’s not too terribly different from what the men had done and in no way had disrupted the game and so I was distressed but pleased when the fines were rescinded.”
Roberts said she feels a sense of pride in watching these players, some millennials, conjure memories of their predecessors with political and social activism.
“I’m three times as old as most of them and it makes me incredibly proud and the fact that it was some of the more popular members of our community that did the ESPYs,” she said. “Let’s face it, the marquee players are the players that get [media] attention. They get fan attention and frankly they get the attention of the other players. It was powerful beyond belief that those four men did it and because of their popularity, what they did reverberated around the globe. And so I love and respect obviously all the players that comprise our membership, but I think they would all agree if you have those stars among stars taking the lead and making statements along those lines, it just generates more attention. We want attention to these issues so keep it up, and I think they will.”
What may have been ironic is while NBA commissioner Adam Silver suggested the players not use their uniforms to make political statements and instead choose social media, the league made the bold move of pulling the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of North Carolina’s passing of the controversial H2 law that does not include LGBT people in anti-discrimination practices.
Roberts supported the decision.
“I don’t know all that went into the league’s decision to pull the game, I know that they were under tremendous external pressure,” she said. “I don’t know what internal pressures they had to contend with, but at the end of the day I supported the decision because frankly to the extent any members of the basketball family, fans, and otherwise are placed in an environment that does not respect their rights, it’s troublesome. And I would have hoped that North Carolina would have come to its senses and immediately rectified what is obviously a problematic situation.
“We supported the decision to withdraw and I don’t have qualms with that, our players as well. We wanted to stay in Charlotte because it’s home to some marquee players. It’s home to Chris [Paul] and Steph [Curry], and they wanted to very much play in their home communities but they both understood, as well as other members of the executive committee, that this is not a welcoming place for all of our members.”
A WELL-EARNED ASSIST
Ex-players aided with health care
Michele Roberts lauded NBPA members for voting for health care for retired players with three or more years of service time. That was a landmark decision that may be envied by player unions and retired players from other sports, especially football.
“Again, this is another one of those myths that needs to go ahead and die — these men absolutely appreciate on whose shoulders they stand,” Roberts said. “Without any hesitation, they understand that but for the sacrifices that were made by their predecessors, they would not enjoy what they do [with such financial rewards]. So as far as we’re concerned, a no-brainer. They don’t want any former NBA player to not be able to get medical care. The concept was one they thought they needed to correct and I’m proud to say that they did.”
Asked whether the NBPA has become the envy of other sports unions — especially after many NFL players tweeted their shock at some guaranteed contracts signed by NBA players — Roberts took the modest approach.
“I’ve known [NFLPA executive director] [DeMaurice] Smith and I think he’s phenomenal, I think the NFLPA is phenomenal,” she said. “There are things that they do that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to catch up with some of the innovations that they’ve had in place for some time. I don’t want anything I say to suggest that I think they have any deficiencies whatsoever, because I don’t view that they do.
“They’re a separate collective bargaining unit. They’re a separate league. They have a different commissioner. They have different owners. They have a different history, so where they are in terms of guaranteed contracts, I look at Major League Baseball, they don’t have a salary cap. So we all have our different struggles and we all have our difference successes.
“Of course I love the notion of anybody envying the position that our players are in, but I don’t view that as a statement that there are any deficiencies in terms of their union. They are a strong union. They’ve got good leadership. I’d like to think there are things that we do better than them, but I also know there are things they do better than us. We consider them brothers.”
Thibodeau begins with the basics
Former Celtics assistant and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is back in the game as president and coach of the Timberwolves, one of the league’s more intriguing teams because of their wealth of young talent. Thibodeau spent last season out of the game to refresh himself after mutually agreeing with Chicago management to leave the Bulls. Now, with reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, slam dunk champion Zach LaVine, former Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, and rookie guard Kris Dunn, the Timberwolves are tabbed as one of the teams to watch in the Western Conference.
Dunn played only two games in the Las Vegas Summer League because of concussion-like symptoms but the former Providence College star was impressive and appeared comfortable with the NBA game.
“For him, this is the first step in the NBA, so it gives him a baseline and I thought he did some really good things,” Thibodeau said. “But we didn’t want him to fool himself to think this is the NBA. This is just the beginning. But he’s very coachable, hard working. He’s tough. He can break a defense down off the dribble, get into the paint, make plays. The fact that he tries to play both sides of the ball is important.
“It’s a good start. He’s obviously got to learn the NBA game. He’s got to learn a new system. He’s got to learn his teammates. But what we’ve seen so far, we’re pleased with.”
It will take time for the players to learn Thibodeau’s system and become accustomed to his style. He has been known to be hard on players, work them feverishly in practice, and play his veterans extended minutes. The culture will change in Minnesota.
“Any time you go into a new situation, the first part is building relationships and sell the vision to your best players because they have to sell it to the rest of the team, and then to take it step by step,” he said. “The main thing is just to concentrate on doing the right things every day, so we can improve. When you’re a 29-win team, there’s a lot of room for improvement. We have to improve in a lot of different areas.”
The Timberwolves need to improve as a defensive team. They were 23rd in the NBA last season in points allowed at 106 per game. Thibodeau has been known as a defensive guru, and will need to apply that quality to this team to take the next step.
“You start from the zero base, just like you do with your offense,” he said. “You concentrate on the fundamentals. You build your foundation and then you add layers on to it as you become more confident in certain areas. I think it’s better to concentrate on a few things to be really good at first, and then build from there.
“The young guys are working hard this summer on their own improvement and I think that’s a big part of it. We have a lot of work to do, but it’s going in the right direction.”
Thibodeau said he will inherit his team with a clean slate, starting fresh with every player regardless of past reputation.
“My experience has always been you have to base how you feel about people based on your own experiences,” he said. “Sometimes you hear things and then you find out that perception is not correct. If you believe in the goodness in everybody and try to do the right things and be honest with people, by telling the truth you can build trust and that’s how we try to move forward.”
While the eyes of the professional basketball world focus on Rio and the Olympic tournament, there will be special focus on Croatian forward Dario Saric. Saric will make his NBA debut this season for the 76ers after remaining with Turkish club Anadolu Efes the past two years. Saric was drafted 12th overall by the 76ers in 2014 but a bit of mystery is attached to him because he remained overseas. He will face strong NBA competition in the Olympic tournament, starting with the Croatian opener on Sunday against Pau Gasol and Spain. Croatia is in Group B, considered the tougher of the two groups, along with Spain, Lithuania, Nigeria, Brazil, and Argentina. . . . Another intriguing player to watch in Rio is Brazilian center Cristiano Felicio, a late addition when Brazilian mainstay Anderson Varejao backed out because of injury. Felicio played well in the Bulls’ run to the Las Vegas Summer League title and he should get more minutes this season in Chicago with Gasol in San Antonio and the Bulls lacking a true center. He is 6 feet 10 inches, 275 pounds, and has impressive passing skills and runs the floor well. Joining Felicio in the frontcourt for the Brazilian team is new Houston Rocket Nene Hilario, who is participating in his second Olympic Games . . . The two top remaining free agents are both members of the Cavaliers — LeBron James and J.R. Smith. James has committed to re-signing with Cleveland, and it’s likely Smith returns as well because teams that can offer him a market-value contract are drying up. Quality veteran players such as former Celtic Brandon Bass and Alan Anderson are signing veteran-minimum deals. One team that could have made a bid for Smith was the Celtics, but they agreed to an extension with center Tyler Zeller. Boston also added Gerald Green to a one-year, minimum deal to compete for the backup small forward spot . . . One free agent who may have to head overseas is Lance Stephenson, whose option was not picked up by Memphis. It’s uncertain why the Grizzlies passed on Stephenson, who averaged 14.2 points and shot 47.4 percent from the field in 26 games after he was acquired from the Clippers. Stephenson has enough talent to help a contender, but the question is whether his quirky personality has scared off teams. Also still remaining on the free agent market: Josh Smith, Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, Ty Lawson, Shane Larkin, J.J. Hickson, Cleanthony Early, and Jason Thompson.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.