What once felt like a pretty concrete plan to send 22 teams to Orlando to finish the 2019-20 NBA season now appears to be up in the air. That initial decision to resume action, first approved by the owners, wasn’t approved by every player in the league, or even every player who would be in line to play in Orlando, but rather by the National Basketball Players Association, which consists of nine executive committee members and one player representative from each team.
Given the social and health unrest enveloping the country at the moment, this is not a situation where a few can speak, and ultimately vote, on behalf of the whole. The decision to enter into a confined bubble site in the middle of a worldwide pandemic is an obviously personal matter.
The same can be said for a league comprised of over 80 percent black players being rightfully worried about potentially distracting from, if not outright drowning out, the growing movement for racial equality by putting the spotlight back on the games. These are extremely personal choices. Everyone wants and deserves a voice.
Last Friday night, Kyrie Irving provided that platform, organizing and leading a call that reportedly included more than 80 NBA and WNBA players. As details from that call emerged throughout Friday night and into the following days, it became increasingly clear that a number of players aren’t just wavering on the idea of coming back, but are strongly opposing it.
Irving led that charge, saying flat out: “I don’t support going to Orlando,” according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, who also reported that Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard were among the players who echoed Irving’s sentiments.
For his part, Howard issued the following statement to CNN (edited for clarity):
“I agree with Kyrie [Irving]. Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction. Sure it might not distract us the players, but we have resources at hand [the] majority of our community don’t have. And the smallest distraction for them can start a trickle-down effect that may never stop. Especially with the way the climate is now.
“I would love nothing more than to win my very first NBA championship,” Howard continued. “But the unity of my people would be an even bigger championship, that’s just too beautiful to pass up.
“What better time than now for us to be focusing on our families. This is a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking full advantage of. When have we ever had this amount of time to sit and be with our families. This is where our unity starts. At home! With Family!!
“European colonization stripped us of our rich history, and we have yet to sit down and figure us out. The less distractions, the more we can put into action into rediscovering ourselves. Nations come out of families. Black/African American is not a nation or nationality. It’s time our families became their own nations. No basketball ’til we get things resolved.”
This puts Howard, and Bradley — who released a statement alongside Irving on Monday about racism and the NBA’s place in this moment in history — in opposition of their Lakers teammate LeBron James, who has long been eager to return to action assuming it’s deemed safe to do so. James, who did not take part in the Irving-led conference call, “believes playing in Orlando won’t deter his ability to continue inspiring change,” according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick.
LeBron’s voice obviously carries significant weight, so much so that Clippers guard Patrick Beverley intimated on Twitter that for all the dissenting opinions on this matter, LeBron’s opinion, in the end, is the only one that truly matters.
Over the course of his career, LeBron has used his platform to speak for and ultimately better the lives of so many people without the means or voice to do it for themselves. His “I Promise” school for at-risk kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, is a legitimate miracle for those families and that community. James has also spearheaded and provided the initial funding for a group featuring a number of other NBA and WNBA players aimed at supporting black voting rights and fighting against voter suppression.
In other words, let’s not for a second presume that LeBron somehow doesn’t understand the magnitude of this moment, or that he is willing to put his own potential gain — in the form of possibly winning a fourth championship — ahead of a movement as overdue and important as the fight for racial equality and against police violence. He just thinks he, and the league, can do both, and that in fact, the playoffs can perhaps provide an even grander platform from which players can continue advocating for change.
There are surely players who agree with James. Irving’s Brooklyn Nets teammate, Garrett Temple, is one of those who think resuming the season in Orlando is the right decision, telling ESPN’s Malika Andrews the following:
“The difference in the economic gap between white America and black America is astronomical. I can’t in good conscience tell my brethren to throw away millions of dollars in order to create change that I don’t see the direct impact of — if there was a direct impact of laws changing, that would be a different story.”
“… So, when people bring up not playing — we are a few black men that can make a little bit of money,” Temple said. “It is not a lot of money when [you] think about it in the grand scheme of America. But we can start having a little bit of money, create a little bit of generational wealth.
“But the fact that us not playing will hurt our pockets, I don’t think that is the right way to go about it.”
Likewise, Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers posted this message on Instagram:
Us coming back would be putting money in all our pockets. With this money, you could help out even more people and continue to give, more importantly, your time and energy towards the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement. Which I’m 100% on board with. …
I love Kyrie’s passion towards helping this movement. I’m with it… but in the right way, and not at the cost of the whole NBA and players’ careers. We can do both. We can play, and we can help change the way black lives are lived. … Canceling or boycotting a return doesn’t do that, in my opinion. Guys want to play and provide and help change!
All of this is to say, there can be agreement among the league’s players on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and message, as well as disagreement on what is the best way to advocate for and ultimately support that cause. This doesn’t have to pit teammates against one another, necessarily, but there are heavy financial factors to be weighed. If the NBA doesn’t return as a whole, a lot of players are going to lose a lot more money than they already have. That is a very personal matter, too.
On Monday, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the players spent this past weekend discussing how they could collectively, and most effectively, use their “obvious influence — either by playing or not playing — to make sure [they] enhance and move this movement forward” rather than distracting from it.
On Sunday night, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin cited one Lakers player saying there’s “no divide” on the team despite dissenting opinions on these matters, with a second player noting they “still have some time to figure things out as a league and as a team.”
This is true, but it drives home the point that this plan to return that we thought was all but cemented is still very much in flux, and for good reasons. There are a lot of important things happening in the world right now, and for the NBA, perhaps the worst thing that could happen is if the players remain significantly divided and ultimately make their own individual decisions on whether to play.
Imagine the Lakers showing up to Orlando without a handful of its rotation players, but the Clippers are at full strength, and all over the league you have nine guys playing for one team and seven for another and 12 for another. Games would be being played, yes, and the league would be making up some money. But nobody wants that outcome. Everyone wants as close to a unified decision as possible, and at present everyone is still working toward that.