From Russell and Abdul-Jabbar supporting Mohammad Ali, Craig Hodges giving President Bush a letter in ’92 to Kobe, LeBron, and their generation wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts before games – NBA players have a proud tradition of fighting for justice and equality. But, there were moments when fans and observers felt the players should’ve done more. For instance, Craig Hodges tried to convince Magic and MJ to sit out and boycott Game 1 of the ’91 Finals after the Rodney King case. He didn’t succeed, and the Finals happened as planned.
Another opportunity NBA players had was after V. Stiviano’s recorded conversation with Donald Sterling became public. The former Clippers owner resented his girlfriend for “taking pictures with minorities,” and said other racist things. Sterling had a long-lasting reputation of having a “plantation mentality,” and this was the tipping point. Following a quick inquiry, the NBA forced Donald Sterling to sell the team. While waiting for the NBA to take action, players had to decide how to respond to the entire situation. The Clippers were in the playoffs, one of the contenders to win it all. Do they boycott the game?
On the one hand, they would send a strong message and make us all realize how vital the conversation about this is. On the other hand, Sterling’s racism would rob them of a chance to do something they worked their entire lives on if they decided not to play. Up 2-1 against the Warriors in the first round of the Playoffs, the Clippers faced the most difficult decision in their careers. They showed up on the court with their t-shirts inside-out, hiding the Clippers logo. The team decided to play. Here’s how Mark J. Spears talked about that day on The Jump.
“I remember DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes, hearing that they didn’t want to play. Doc telling the players that it’s their decision. The Warriors were ready to jump in on any sort of boycott. We’re in Oakland, California; we’re in the home of the Black Panthers. The crowd’s in their favor and the world’s watching. This could’ve been a John Carlson – Tommie Smith kind of statement. I remember sitting in my press seat thinking ‘You’re kidding me, they’re going to play???’ I was devastated, I actually teared up. I was stunned. I thought that throwing out the jerseys thing was pretty weak. That was their time to make a historical, history book statement that they let Adam Silver make for them.”Mark J. Spears, The Jump
Unfortunately, NBA players have a chance to make such a statement again. The tragic death of George Floyd demonstrated that not a lot has changed. Players have been protesting and pledging support to organizations that promote racial equality, but should they do more? Some players think the answer is yes.
“Snoop hit me about it, ’cause I’d had talked to a few players, not to name any names. He [Snoop] said he had talked to a few guys from the Lakers and Clippers. There are some whispers about some teams not being comfortable. Some guys want to play, and some don’t want to play.”Matt Barnes, “Dunk Bait”
There’s more than one way of fighting for change, and each player has to decide what’s best for his moral code. Some may feel like they need to send a message by not playing, and we can’t blame them if they do.