How the NBA has embraced political dialogue this season

Some of the league's key figures haven't been afraid to use their voice.

Kevin Durant, Steve Kerr
Kevin Durant talks with Steve Kerr during the team's game against the Los Angeles Lakers. –P Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

The defending NBA champions will be in Washington D.C. Tuesday, but the Golden State Warriors will not be stopping by one of the city’s most famous attractions.

While it is customary for championship teams to go to the White House as part of their celebration, Donald Trump’s presidency has deterred many players from visiting to the Oval Office. The Warriors had yet to make an official decision regarding their plan after Trump promptly rescinded their invitation after guard Steph Curry publicly expressed his disinterest in attending.

“They got disinvited to the White House, so it’s up to them what they wanted to do,” head coach Steve Kerr told ESPN’s Chris Haynes Thursday. “They made their plans.”

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According to Haynes, the team will go on a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and spend the remainder of the day with local children from forward Kevin Durant’s hometown. Only players, coaches, and students were invited to participate — media will not be permitted — with hopes of creating a more “personal” and “intimate” outing.

In addition to Curry, Durant, and Kerr, Golden State’s Draymond Green has been particularly vocal about the country’s political climate. Although critics prefer the more outspoken athletes “stick to sports” — or as Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it, “shut up and dribble” — players across the league have been using their platforms to speak out.

“I do play basketball, but I am a civilian and I am a citizen of the United States,” Durant said during NBA All-Star Weekend. “I think we’re doing some good things.”

While activism in the NBA dates back decades, here’s a look at how the league has intersected with politics this season:

The White House visit

‘He’s a blowhard’

Before the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers for the 2017 NBA title — before a visit to the White House was even in the picture — Kerr was upfront about his negative feelings toward Trump.

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Speaking to Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Ballard about what makes an effective leader and NBA coach, Kerr said he believes “being a bully” doesn’t work on the court. Using retired college coach Bob Knight as an example, he acknowledged a more brash style might have worked in years past, but argued the modern coach needs to be “much more communicative, flexible, aware, [and] conscientious.”

Kerr explained how the president lacks those exact abilities.

“I think it’s why Trump couldn’t be more ill-suited to be president, because he’s a blowhard,” he told Ballard. “You don’t see some of the qualities you talk about, the resilience, the ability to communicate, the compassion. None of that.”

‘I don’t want to go’

Curry made it clear in September he had no interest in visiting the White House, regardless of whether an invitation was on the table. Prior to Trump’s revocation, the two-time NBA champion told reporters at the Warriors practice facility he wanted to use his nonattendance as a way to take a stand against the president’s ideology.

“By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to,” he said. “I don’t think us not going to the White House is going to miraculously make everything better, but this is my opportunity to voice that.”

Curry noted while he doesn’t stand for some of what Trump has said — and hasn’t said — he understands the final decision is ultimately the team’s.

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“It’s not just me going to the White House,” he said. “If it was, this would be a pretty short conversation.”

‘U bum’

After Trump disinvited the Warriors to the White House, Cavaliers forward LeBron James called the 71-year-old a “bum” on Twitter.

His message was the seventh most-retweeted tweet of 2017.

James expanded upon his comments later that evening.

“It’s basically at a point where I’m a little frustrated, man,” he said. “When I wake up I see that a colleague of mine has been uninvited to something he didn’t even want to go to in the first place, that’s something I can’t stand for.”

Vouching for unity over division, the 33-year-old said he has no regrets about what he said. At Cavaliers media day prior to the start of the season, James doubled down on his remarks and called Trump out for his lack of awareness.

“He doesn’t understand the power that he has for being the leader of this country,” James explained to reporters. “He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the president of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement. He doesn’t understand that. That’s what makes me more sick than anything.”

‘I think the behavior, although it’s disgusting, it’s also comical’

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich chimed in on the situation as well.

“It’s like a sixth grader who’s going to have a party in his backyard and finds out somebody might not come, so he disinvites him,” Popovich said.

The 69-year-old has not been shy with his critical commentary on the president.

“I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this president had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never-ending divisiveness,” he told The Nation‘s Dave Zirin.

‘Would we have gone? Probably not’

Following Trump’s dis-invitation, Kerr called what transpired “a shame” in a first-person essay via Ballard in Sports Illustrated.

While he admitted the team probably wouldn’t have gone anyway, he also said they explored the possibility of using the visit as an opportunity to have a “serious, poignant discussion” about some of the issues they are concerned and passionate about. Given Trump’s history, however, Kerr realized the likelihood of that conversation taking place was slim to none.

“To expect to go in and have a civil, serious discourse?” he wrote. “Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.”

‘It definitely wouldn’t have been a typical White House visit’

During a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School in November, Green was asked by one of the students what he would have told Trump if the team ever visited the White House. Calling the whole back and forth with the president “a bit much,” he echoed much of what Kerr had expressed.

“I’m not sure we were going to go anyway,” Green told the crowd. “But if we were to go, I think there would have been more of a conversation of trying to get him to understand the way some of the things he had said up until that point affects people — how it affects us, how it may affect our family, how it may affect just the community in general, how it affects our country.”

“We would be more so going just talking as the people and the way these things affect everyone,” he continued. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, you offended me.’ No, you may have offended a bunch of Americans. Just trying to really share that message more so than anything.”

‘Instead of unifying and trying to calm the storm, he’s creating it’

Kerr, who actively retweets politically liberal messages, was asked on CNN’s The Axe Files how he felt about forgoing the visit to the White House.

“We see what President Trump does with his words, with his actions, and it’s difficult to reconcile that and just say we’ll put all that aside,” Kerr told David Axelrod. “He can make fun of handicap people. He can say a lot of nasty things, ugly things, whether it’s about women, whomever. There can be a lot of things that happen that are just really difficult to just say, ‘All right, we’ll put that aside and go visit and shake his hand.’ It doesn’t feel right.”

The NBA player-turned-coach acknowledged he didn’t always agree with the legislative policies during previous visits to the White House with other championship teams, but the 52-year-old explained how this term is different. It’s become a “human respect issue,” he told Axelrod.

“I didn’t always agree with their policy, but I never once thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not going to go because I disagree with, you know, immigration or some foreign policy or tax reform,'” he said. “They were all above reproach in terms of their respect for their fellow man and their respect for the office. And I don’t think any of us see that right now.”

The NFL anthem protests

Kerr also told Axelrod he took great issue with Trump’s stance on the NFL protests this past season. In order to raise awareness for police brutality and racial inequality, several players decided to kneel during the national anthem — a move started by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

“You’re the president of the United States and you’re going to call them sons of bitches?” Kerr said, referencing Trump’s speech at rally in Alabama.  “You’re going to call Kaepernick out for non-violent protests, a staple of American democracy? That’s really hard to deal with.”

“For me, that was probably the hardest one to deal with,” he continued. “The personal slights that we’ve seen from Trump, you sort of get used to it after a while, you get numb to it. But that one really stung, because it was so divisive, and it was so angry, and it just didn’t make sense.”

During his rally in Alabama, Trump not only called for NFL owners to fire any player who kneels during the national anthem, but he also reveled in the thought of it. Additionally, he proclaimed the protests were responsible for the league’s drop in television ratings.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!'” Trump told the crowd. “They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

A number of NBA players voiced their disapproval with the president’s comments during their team media days, which happened to take place in the days following the rally in September:

Wizards guard Bradley Beal: “I feel like, honestly, that’s not a leader. For you to come out and, for one, disrespect a whole sport that the whole world basically loves and call people SOBs — that’s out of pocket to me … That doesn’t make any sense to me. To me, you’re a clown. That’s unacceptable. That’s not what a leader does. Your job is supposed to bring everybody together.”

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown: “I think what’s going on in football, with having the freedom to express their First Amendment right, I think that should be something that should be considered and understood. The president’s made some comments — and he came at players and teams in the White House — I think it’s unconstitutional to do that, to tell them they don’t have the right to speak on whatever they feel like their heart needs to be spoken on.”

Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale: “Look at what he’s doing with North Korea, putting our troops in danger right now instigating a war. You know how many troops we have in South Korea and Japan that’s in direct line with where this guy can fire missiles? … So when we talk about disrespecting our military, people need to take a look back at who’s really disrespecting our military and who’s really honoring our military by exercising their rights.”

Celtics guard Kyrie Irving: “When someone is kneeling at the national anthem, it’s much bigger than that. It’s a human being thing. Knowing that intent on fighting the inequalities of certain things you have a problem with, I think that is every person’s right to speak up and say what they feel on it, as long as it’s not the intent to create more and more division between people.”

76ers guard JJ Redick: “I’m about as anti-Trump as you can get. I’ve been that way since the election. I think being anti-Trump at this point is sort of like eating breakfast in the morning. It’s just something that you do during your day. How often do you go through a day and not be offended by the guy?””

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook: “Obviously, the things he’s saying are outrageous. In my opinion, they’re uncalled for, especially due to all the other things we have going on the world, you know, the people and families, people all across the world that are hurting, that need help. I’m definitely not in agreement to anything he says, and I never will be.”

American soldiers killed in Niger

In response to the deaths of four American soldiers during an ambush in Niger, Trump said — 12 days after the ambush — he penned letters of condolences and had plans to personally call the families soon after.

“Other presidents did not call, they would write letters, and some presidents didn’t do anything,” Trump told reporters in October. “I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter.”

Popovich was enraged by Trump’s baseless claim that former presidents had not done the same. According to CNN, Barack Obama had made calls to families of Americans killed in combat.

“His comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families are so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words,” he told Zirin.

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others,” he continued. “This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner — and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers — is as low as it gets.”

Popovich was also critical of Trump’s colleagues for being bystanders.

“We have a pathological liar in the White House — unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office — and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day,” he said. “The people who work with this president should be ashamed, because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it.”

UCLA basketball players released from China

In November, LiAngelo Ball and two UCLA basketball players were arrested for shoplifting during a team trip to China. After taking credit for “saving” the three students from a long-term prison sentence, Trump was upset Ball’s father, LaVar, had not yet thanked him for his good deed.

“Who?” LaVar said when ESPN asked the father of three about Trump’s role in his son’s release. “What was he over there for? Don’t tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out.”

Trump fired back on Twitter.

The two continued to battle it out in a war of words, prompting Kerr to joke that the media should stop covering both of the attention-seeking individuals.

The sequence of events marked the point of no return for Boston’s Brown.

“He demanded a thank you,” Brown told The Guardian‘s Donald McRae. “It’s ridiculous. What happened to people doing things out of the generosity of their heart or because it was the right thing to do? There have been multiple situations where it’s been ridiculous but that one was like: ‘OK I’m done. I’m done listening to anything you have to say.’”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Popovich believes Martin Luther King Jr. would have been disappointed to witness the country’s current state of affairs. The Spurs coach said the civil rights activist would likely be “a very, very sad man” if he were alive “to see that a lot of his efforts have been held up and torn down.”

“He would be less than inspired by the leadership in our country, no doubt about that,” Kerr echoed to reporters.

In a video shared by the NBA Players Association in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, several players offered their thoughts on how they would complete the start to MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

“I have a dream that everybody unites, comes together, makes a stand, and continues to push forward for progress, for change,” Brown said. “I have a dream that this world is made a better place in the next 10, 15, 20 years by a few actions of many or many actions by few. I have a dream that my dream will come true.”

“I have a dream that one day my son will never understand what it’s like to be black in America,” Green added.

Speaking to reporters before the Hawks-Spurs game on MLK Day, Popovich also responded to Trump’s claim that he is “not a racist.”

“You can argue all day and you can see some of his sycophants dodge and weave and all that sort of thing, and you can argue he is or isn’t,” he told reporters. “But what really is disgusting to me, is even if you wanted to say he is not a racist, or even as he says he is the least racist of anybody… he is certainly willing to wield race like weapon and use it for his own purposes.”

“No matter what it is, he is willing to use it as a weapon for a certain number of people who will vote for him, for his own selfish reasons and it shows what he really cares about is himself,” he continued. “It has nothing to do with America or anybody else. It’s about puffing himself up and making sure in his own disingenuous, cynical way he satisfies a group, and that’s what I find really dangerous and really disgusting, the way he uses his comments and then will tell you he is not a racist.”

Parkland shooting

In response to one of the deadliest mass shootings in America that killed 17 people, Kerr called the inaction by the Trump and government “demoralizing.”

“It doesn’t seem to matter to our government that children are being shot to death day after day in schools,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that people are being shot at a concert, at a movie theater. It’s not enough, apparently, to move our leadership, our government, the people who are running this country to actually do anything.”

“We can do something about it,” Kerr continued, condemning Trump’s lack of meaningful progress. “We can vote people in who actually have the courage to protect people’s lives. Hopefully we can find enough people with courage to actually help our citizens remain safe and focus on the real safety issues, not building some stupid wall for billions of dollars that has nothing to do with our safety.”

‘We can continue to alert the people that watch us’

In a segment for Uninterrupted, James called Trump’s presidency “laughable” and “scary” because of his consistently disrespectful comments and his inability to understand the people.

“The number one job in America, the point of person is someone who doesn’t understand the people — and people don’t give a f— about the people,” James told Durant and ESPN sportscaster Cari Champion. “When I was growing up, there were like three jobs that you looked for inspiration or you felt that these were the people who could give me life. It was the president of the United States, it was whoever was the best in sports, and the greatest musician at the time.”

“This time right now, with the president of the United States, it’s at a bad time,” he continued. “While we cannot change what comes out of that man’s mouth, we can continue to alert the people that watch us and listen to us that this is not the way.”

When Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble,” the 33-year-old refused. The Cavaliers forward is using his platform as an opportunity to inform others that things should not be the way that they are.

“We will definitely not shut up and dribble,’’ he told reporters during NBA All-Star weekend. “I will definitely not do that. I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth. I meant too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out and need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”

Popovich was effusive with his praise for James’s ongoing activism, defending his comments against Ingraham and commending his presence as a role model.

“Think about when he came into public view, how young was he?” he said. “To this day he hasn’t missed a step, he hasn’t fallen off the ledge and he’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and haven’t had the same advantages as others.

“They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything,” he continued. “We should all be very proud that we have someone like that who’s willing to speak about a variety of topics and you listen to them all.”