On Friday afternoon, a reporter on a conference call reminded NBA commissioner Adam Silver of his line spoken a few months back about how the league’s eventual return from its coronavirus-inspired hiatus would be driven by data rather than a specific target date.
Given that Orange County, Fla., which houses the Disney World campus where the league is set to resume play, has recently seen its coronavirus testing surge to a 15% positive rate, what was the data saying now, the reporter wondered.
Silver explained that there is no outrunning the virus; that realism now mandates we accept its presence and adapt to it; and that, therefore, the data suggested that the Disney World bubble was the safest way to proceed.
The most cynical among us could be forgiven for positing that the only data either the league or its players are really considering is the approximately $1.2 billion they’d stand to lose between them should the curtain be closed on the 2019-20 campaign.
“We may be the most uniquely qualified organization in the world to effect change,” Silver said. “We as the NBA have a partnership with essentially a large cohort of the best-known Black people in the world, including the greater family of the WNBA, too, and some amazing women who have been speaking out on these issues.
“So I think this is incumbent on us to not lose this moment and this opportunity,” he added. “… I certainly believe that the world’s attention will be on us in Orlando.”
Social and racial justice
The commissioner revealed that the league is now creating, in conjunction with the NBPA, a standalone foundation dedicated to helping bring about racial and social reform in the country. Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, meanwhile, hinted at other partnerships in the works between the players and the league.
She said that the viral video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis galvanized the players and spurred a collective mentality that they needed to make their return to action about so much more than basketball.
“We were all shook. Our players were shook. Not surprisingly, our players wanted to take action. That’s their mantra,” Roberts said. “But the difference was this time, they, we, all of us decided that we actually had to do something that we could begin to believe would have an impact. And so we spent a lot of time talking about, crying about, figuring out what we could do as players collectively to help with absolutely much-needed social change, and I am proud and pleased and delighted that the league is joining hands with us.
“We have come up with an agenda which I think all of us can be proud of, and we’re going to work very hard to make sure that we can ultimately make a difference in advance of some of these issues that we all have taken far too long to get resolved,” she added.
Players Association president Chris Paul referenced Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham’s infamous critique of LeBron James in explaining why players feel so compelled to make this moment about far more than hoops.
“We also understand how powerful our voice is, and so even if we’re back to playing, we understand that our voice can still be heard, our message can still be screamed loud and clear on an unbelievable platform, so just know that you’re going to continue to hear us,” Paul said. “Just know that. It’s never a ‘shut up and dribble’ situation. You’re going to continue to hear us and see us.”
Unity among players
So much discussion of how players can translate a return to the court into increased attention on the Black Lives Matter movement inevitably led to questions about whether the union is unified in this approach. After all, it was Kyrie Irving — an NBPA vice president — who organized a conference call a few weeks back in which he went against the Players Association’s public position by advocating skipping the season’s resumption so that players can remain engaged in their communities.
Paul said the public fissure provided a great learning opportunity, as it highlighted the need for their group to have better communication.
“You show me a league or anything like that where everybody has the same views. We have 450 players, and it’s always hard to get on the same page,” he said. “None of us are perfect, but what we’re learning is that … everyone doesn’t have to agree, but we all are a big family, and the more that we can support each other and listen to each other more than anything, I think the better we are as a community.”
KEY DATES IN JAZZ, NBA RESTART
Tuesday • End of transaction window; up to 10 coaches or support staff allowed in facilities at a time
Wednesday • Up to eight players allowed in facilities at a time; final team rosters submitted to NBA
July 7 • Jazz are slated to depart for secure campus in Orlando
July 30 • Jazz open league’s seeding-games schedule against the Pelicans
Roberts at one point made it a point to thank some individual players who had made it a point to express their viewpoints, including Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. She also let it be known that the public disagreement between the varying factions of players was actually a fairly represent microcosm of the everyday conversations Black people are having about how best to try and spur change in society right now.
“Can I just say, the African American community in this country has been engaged in a conversation internally about what to do — all of us, not simply the National Basketball Association players, but all of us,” Roberts said. “And the conversation, and I want to underscore that, that is happening between our players has been exactly that: ‘What do we do? How do we do it? How should we do it?’ I can’t imagine anything healthier than that. I would have been ashamed had there not been a conversation; if the players had been talking about getting back to play and nothing else, frankly, as an African American woman, I would have been disappointed.”
Change from within
While there were plenty of lofty aspirations mentioned about changing society at large, there was also an acknowledgement that the NBA itself could do more to advance people of color.
For starters, Paul said that many players were eager to discover where team owners stood on these social issues — whether they would mimic their NFL counterparts who forbade football players from kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick when he led protests back in 2017, or whether they would lend their voices to the cause.
“Us players had conversations with each other, and one of the biggest things, to tell you the truth, was [wanting] to know where their [team] governors stood on the situation,” Paul said. “There’s been a lot of hard conversations that have had to be had, and I think that was huge for players. For players, we want to know how someone feels, especially if you’re putting their jersey on.”
Paul also mentioned the relative dearth of women and people of color in leadership positions throughout the NBA: “It’s predominantly African American players; you would like to see more people hired in executive positions.”
For his part, Silver conceded “the league needs to do a better job in particular when it comes to hiring African Americans at every level in the league,” adding that the most recent Board of Governors meetings had seen specific data presented “on where there are weaknesses in our hiring practices.” He also mentioned that the G League would be utilized as a means of giving executive opportunities to people of color.
“I think the NBA can play a unique and broader role in terms of a voice for greater society, but first we have to make sure we’re doing as good a job as we can at home,” Silver said. “And so that’s where our focus will begin.”
Paul reiterated that the point of the bubble and the protocols set up within it are to make the health and safety of those involved a top priority. But he made an important point in noting that there is an often-overlooked component in that.
“When people hear health and safety, a lot of times people think about injury or they just think about COVID. While both are important, I think mental health is the biggest thing that a lot of us players think of first,” he said. “Because although a lot of us always look like we’re all together or that we’re fine, which most people do, that’s not always the case, especially coming out of quarantine and a lot of us being in situations that we’ve never been in before. And now we’re going into an even tougher situation.”
Paul, Roberts and Silver all went on to acknowledge the difficulty inherent in players, coaches, executives, staffers and referees all having to leave their families behind for an extended period of time, to have to isolate themselves in their rooms upon arrival at Disney World, to have to socially distance from one another as much as possible, to carry out basketball games in empty arenas now devoid of a human element.
“There’s no doubt there’s tremendous sacrifice that everyone is making who’s going to be part of this campus in order to restart the league, and so we’re going to have to keep a close eye on these issues,” Silver said.
Paul went on to thank Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan for their constant public discussion of mental health issues, noting they’ve done a great deal to eradicate much of the stigma associated with it, and adding that they “really gave us all more of a comfort level in speaking about this.”