SB Nation

Paul Flannery | November 13, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: This is why we need the NBA

This is why we need the NBA

On Wednesday morning, Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy addressed a group of reporters at a pre-game shootaround in Phoenix. Van Gundy can be equally charming and provocative in these settings, but because he talked about the presidential election his words have been labeled a "rant." That’s exactly the wrong term. A rant is wild and unfocused. Van Gundy was remarkably clear and direct. Calling it a rant is the language of normalization. (You can listen to the audio here to choose your own qualifier, if you’d like.)

What follows is a partial transcript provided by Vincent Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.

"I didn’t vote for (George W.) Bush, but he was a good, honorable man with whom I had political differences, so I didn’t vote for him. But for our country to be where we are now, who took a guy who -- I don’t care what anyone says, I’m sure they have other reasons and maybe good reasons for voting for Donald Trump -- but I don’t think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic and ethno-centric, and say, ‘That’s OK with us, we’re going to vote for him anyway.'"

"We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking that this is where we are as a country."

On Friday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had his say while acknowledging his position of privilege: "I'm a rich white guy, and I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it. I can't imagine being a Muslim right now, or a woman, or an African American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person. How disenfranchised they might feel. And for anyone in those groups that voted for him, it's just beyond my comprehension how they ignore all of that. My final conclusion is, my big fear is --- we are Rome."

Multiple players also expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome, many in terms less vociferous than Van Gundy and Pop. That’s probably not an accident. Players have long known to be guarded in group media settings. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, for example, spoke of taking on responsibility as leaders, thus turning the political into a personal mission.

"Now is our responsibility as men and women to take it into our hands and be role models and be our own leaders, at this point, regardless of who is the commander in chief," Anthony told reporters on Wednesday. "People don’t know what to do at this point. I think it’s up to us as individuals to lead and everybody leads in their own way."

James, for his part, wouldn’t commit to a return visit to the White House under a new administration should the Cavs win the championship again. Still others around the league were conciliatory and cautiously hopeful. No doubt a few were privately elated.

No matter how you feel about any of the words spoken throughout the NBA this week, they are all intensely political. By its very nature and makeup, the NBA is a political league. It is one the few public spheres in American life where black men are so visible and have a measure of power and influence. This generation of players in particular have shown a willingness to engage at a grassroots level and empower kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those kids, like so many other minority groups, have been marginalized by the tone and tenor of the election. It’s at that level where there’s real work to be done.

By its actions, the NBA is also a political entity. Tuesday’s election brought about the apparent defeat of North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, whose passage of the law known as HB2 led to the NBA’s decision to move this year’s All-Star Game out of Charlotte. (McCrory hasn’t conceded and the vote won’t be certified until late November.) Whatever role it played in the electoral outcome, the NBA’s decision helped bring the law into the public’s view.

Public advocacy has at times been an uncomfortable role for a league that must sell their game to the world. It’s a game, after all, that’s played by millionaires for the financial benefit of billionaires. It has not always acted swiftly nor decisively, but when the NBA has chosen to take the lead on social issues it has yielded results. That must continue for its voices to have impact.

Those voices have not been silent. It wasn’t the first time Van Gundy, Anthony, or Popovich have expressed their views, nor will it be the last. They’ve been talking about education and civil liberties since long before the election. Just this past week there was a piece on The Undefeated about Popovich who they called "the wokest coach in the league."

As Pop told Marc Spears: "It’s pretty obvious that the national stain of slavery continues to permeate our social system in this country. People want to ignore it, don’t want to talk about it, because it’s inconvenient."

We are here now at this moment because it can no longer be inconvenient or uncomfortable to talk about racism and intolerance. This is why we need the NBA. Not because of that old corny pablum about how sports brings us together. No, we’re way, way beyond that now.

We need the NBA, not merely as a distraction, but as a community that stands against bigotry in all its forms. It’s an international community, built upon the very best notions of diversity and inclusion. And it’s a community that will fight for its beliefs.

This is the league that gave us Bill Russell, who worked for civil rights at great risk to himself and his family. It’s the league that gave us Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man who publicly converted to Islam at the height of his powers and continues to be its vocal conscience. It’s a league that welcomed Yao Ming, Arvydas Sabonis, and Dirk Nowitzki to its ranks, thereby opening the sport’s borders and becoming a truly global game. It’s the league that embraced Jason Collins when he publicly came out, and it’s a league whose players elected a black woman, Michele Roberts, to be their advocate.

It may be of small comfort this week, but for anyone who follows the NBA, this is our community. This is who we are.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

In the words of a friend, let’s basketball. Here are five early season teams trends worth watching.

Atlanta addressed its rebounding woes: When the Hawks made the decision to transition from Al Horford to Dwight Howard it fundamentally altered the makeup of their pace-and-space ethos. That team was a lot of fun to watch when everything clicked. Unfortunately, their magical elixir proved to be an ineffective tonic against LeBron James and the Cavs. One of the primary culprits was rebounding and in Howard they know have a giant who can patrol the paint and control the glass. He was magnificent in a 17-rebound outing against the Cavs earlier in the week that snapped Atlanta’s 11-game losing streak against its nemesis.

Charlotte’s defense is once again outstanding: During his four seasons in Charlotte, Steve Clifford has has routinely fielded top-flight units without top-flight talent. This year’s squad with a healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the league’s best. MKG is a hellraiser on the perimeter, capable of shutting down top wing scorers, but the strength of the Hornets defense is as a team unit that plays on a string. And to think, they’re doing it without Roy Hibbert, who has been out with a knee injury. The Hornets schedule is about to get tougher, but this team is no fluke.

Boston’s defense has slipped dramatically: On the flipside, we have the Celtics’ sieve-like unit that is near the bottom of the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. The injury-related absences of Horford, Jae Crowder, and Kelly Olynyk (an underrated team defender in their scheme) have played a major role in their unraveling, but the Celtics have been afflicted with a team-wide hustle malady. This is not a squad that will overwhelm you with talent, and its greatest strength in years past was simply playing harder than their opponent.

Dalllas’ shooting will improve: Not a lot has gone right for the Mavericks through the first few weeks. Dirk Nowitzki’s battles with a balky Achilles injury is concerning enough, but the Mavs’ shooting percentages have also tumbled. The Mavericks have taken the ‘right’ shots, they just haven’t gone in enough. Nowitzki was off to a slow start and Wes Matthews has also struggled. Both have impressive track records so a bounce-back seems likely. The silver lining for Dallas has been the play of Harrison Barnes, who has taken the lead role offensively and responded with better than 20 points per game. That’s not likely to continue, but then neither is a 25th-ranked offense for a team that has routinely ranked in the top third.

The Timberwolves will be fine, eventually: The team Tom Thibodeau inherited is long on young talent, but short on defensive acumen. Since the latter happens to be Thibs’ calling card, it was only natural to expect immediate improvements on that end of the floor. Even Thibodeau’s most ardent admirers had to concede that he wouldn’t be able to turn the Wolves around in a month. It hasn’t helped that invaluable point guard Ricky Rubio has missed all but two games with a sprained elbow, but the Wolves allow an unhealthy amount of made shots and foul too much. Both can be chalked up to a young team learning a new scheme and both can be overcome in time.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"We’re all out of whack. There’s no trust, there’s no chemistry, there’s no belief. We’re kind of just lifeless right now." -- Pacers forward Paul George after a loss to Charlotte.

Reaction: It’s a little early for this, Paul.

"Everybody in this locker room, including myself, the coaches, we have to start knowing what we're supposed to be doing. The scouting report, we pay attention to it. And then we get away from it as soon as that ball is thrown up in the air. We lock in on that and we'll be fine." -- Bulls forward Jimmy Butler after a loss to Atlanta.

Reaction: Although it seems like it’s going around.

"He is playing at another level right now. He’s saving possessions, he’s creating possessions, he’s creating offense and tonight he hit a three." -- Kyle Lowry on teammate DeMar DeRozan.

Reaction: DeRozan is averaging 34 points on better than 53 percent shooting with an absurd 37.5 usage rate. And yes, he’s even hit a couple of threes to go with his steady diet of midrange jumpers and trips to the free throw line. It’s way past time we acknowledge just how good he’s been and how good he’s become.

"Are you kidding me, we were 0-8 and fighting for our lives. Everything that we've done in some kind of way had gone bad. To be able to finish the game and come away with a win, it's relief. We're not going to say it was just another game." -- Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry after finally breaking through with a victory.

Reaction: At last some good news for the Pelicans, who also received word that point guard Jrue Holiday will be joining them soon. Then they lost by 27 at home to the Lakers. Gah.

"I've kept in touch from everybody there besides Pat. From the owners on down. It's nothing but respect, and I have no hard feelings. I understand what Pat is, he's a competitor. I've been knowing him for 13 years so I expect no different. People might not believe me, but I have no hard feelings toward Pat. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen, everything happens for a reason, so I'm fine." -- Bulls guard Dwyane Wade to CSN’s Vince Goodwill on his departure from Miami.

Reaction: It’s a shame that it came to this, but perhaps everyone involved is in a better place. Wade has been a boon for a Bulls team trying to stay relevant, while Pat Riley and the Heat can attempt to rebuild with younger players and eventual cap room.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Take us home, Steph.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.