As much as NBA players and coaches wanted to concentrate solely on their jobs the past few days, an increasing number of them couldn’t help but notice the protests at airports sparked by President Trump’s travel restrictions.
Trump mandated an executive order preventing citizens from seven predominantly Muslim-populated countries from entering the United States for 90 days and suspended the entrance of all refugees for 120 days. That prompted protests at many airports around the United States. The NBA released a statement that said it is gathering information on how a travel ban would affect players who are from those banned countries, such as the Bucks’ Thon Maker and the Lakers’ Luol Deng, both natives of Sudan.
The NBA prides itself on being an international league that is accepting of players from all nations. The league has established offices or communication centers in London, Hong Kong, Manila, Beijing, Madrid, and Johannesburg, and just completed a series of regular-season games in Mexico City.
So Trump’s decision to ban immigrants from seven countries, three of which are in Africa, where the NBA has a Basketball Without Borders program, makes the league quite uncomfortable. And while commissioner Adam Silver has yet to comment, the league is not limiting its coaches from giving their opinions on the current political climate.
One outspoken coach has been Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy, who has been a critic of the increasing racial divide in the past few months. And he again set a strong example for his NBA brethren by offering his thoughts on the travel ban, perhaps speaking for those who may be afraid to speak.
“We haven’t talked about [the issue] this week,” Van Gundy said when asked whether he has discussed the ban with his players. “I hope our players would say in general that we try to be very encouraging of them knowing what’s going on and getting involved and when they feel so moved, but speaking up. They’ve certainly heard a lot of what I’ve had to say.”
Van Gundy was part of a town hall meeting in Detroit on Nov. 3 that included athletes, local citizens, and police officers. The coach has never been shy of speaking his mind.
“This travel ban, it’s starting to get really, really scary,” he said Monday before the Pistons took on the Celtics at TD Garden. “We’re getting into the days, now we’re judging people by their religion. We’re trying to keep Muslims out. None of those seven nations has been responsible for an American death. But we’re barring everybody from those nations.
“It’s just playing to people’s fears and prejudices and everything else, getting back to the days of putting the Japanese in relocation camps, of Hitler registering the Jews; I’m mean, that’s where were headed and it’s just fear-mongering and playing to a certain base of people that have some certain prejudices that just aren’t fair. There’s no reasonable reason to do it.
“If they haven’t been responsible for a single American fatality, how is doing it making us safer? And the answer obviously is it’s not. But to some people it sounds good and if you have a prejudice against Muslims in general, it sounds really good to you. This stuff is real and it’s scary and I think everybody should speak up.”
Van Gundy continued.
“This isn’t about a person in office or anything else,” he said. “It’s about policy that’s antithetical to what we’re supposed to be about in America. So I would love our players to speak out about that.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Globe that the entire situation is unfortunate.
“One of the things that I’ve really appreciated about being in the NBA is the commitment to inclusion,” he told the Globe. “So the travel ban obviously is something that frustrates me and I’m certainly not happy about.
“I was sitting with Jaylen [Brown] and Al [Horford] at a school on Thursday and the topics were diversity, inclusion, and conflict resolution, and then the next day we institute a travel ban. So there’s a lot of discussion about it amongst all of us, but it’s not something we’ve talked about in a group setting.”
When asked if the ban would affect any of the organization’s players playing overseas, Stevens took a broader approach. He is rightfully more concerned about the bigger picture than how this affects the Celtics.
“You’d have to ask the front office that, but hopefully we have some people stand up and we make change,” he said. “That’s my hope.”
So as we adjust to these changing times, Monday was a refreshing day. The dialogue was conscientious and commendable. The coaches spoke from their hearts and their minds. The NBA is a league of diversity, and its members become disturbed when there are any threats to that philosophy.
And on a night the Celtics celebrated the military, freedom of speech and expression should be celebrated and encouraged.