Today’s NBA stars can play in Europe and avoid America’s virulent racism
Other forward-thinking Black people left, including James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Richard Wright
Last week, we witnessed something truly astonishing: a group of NBA players refusing to play as a protest against racialized police brutality in the United States. The Milwaukee Bucks players made the initial stand in response to an officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back at point-blank range, partially paralyzing him. Other NBA players, and then athletes in other leagues, followed, sparking the most profound and widespread instance of athlete activism in American history. What we witnessed was absolutely unthinkable just a few years ago.
Prepare yourself for what may be coming next: basketball players deciding against playing in the United States altogether and instead choosing to play professionally elsewhere. This may, at first blush, seem fantastical and unrealistic. But is it?
History, both distant and recent, has taught that being Black in America is dangerous and exhausting, and Black people of all stripes have made the decision to take a break and live elsewhere. After the 2016 election, a “#Blaxit” movement formed, with Black Americans opting in increasing numbers to leave America and take up residence in other nations. The 2020 presidential election, depending on the outcome, could further fuel that movement. And the phenomenon is not a new one.
Decades ago, during some of America’s darkest racial days, great Black artists such as James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Richard Wright famously chose to flee America and set up shop abroad, giving their talents the opportunity to bloom in a less perniciously racist environment. No place is perfect, and racism is certainly a global scourge, but recent events have reminded every Black person living in America, including its most talented basketball players, that America’s strain of racism is particularly virulent. That is what led to the work stoppage protest, and that is what could lead current NBA players to seek professional playing opportunities outside the NBA.
After all, there are other options. Basketball’s global footprint is rapidly growing. It has become a truly international sport. Competitive professional leagues exist throughout Europe and in Asia. Indeed, the most lucrative women’s basketball leagues are based abroad, and hundreds of WNBA players have played in them. Doing so is less common for elite male players, but it is not unheard of. Some have chosen to play overseas rather than in college for a year as they await NBA eligibility. Brandon Jennings was a trailblazer in this regard, playing in Italy for a year between finishing high school in 2008 and entering the 2009 NBA draft. He was drafted 10th overall and went on to have a long NBA career. R.J. Hampton (New Zealand) and LaMelo Ball (Australia), who are projected 2020 lottery picks, have taken a similar path. Other players have chosen to play abroad toward the end of successful NBA careers and have enjoyed resurgences. Stephon Marbury, for instance, chose to play in China, fell in love with the experience, won two national championships, became an icon and has been honored with a museum in Beijing devoted to his career. Marbury now coaches in China and has invested in a professional American football team there.
No NBA player in his prime has yet chosen to play overseas, but what’s to stop it? Marbury would certainly endorse the overseas experience. So, too, I’d imagine, would some of the NBA’s greatest stars, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, who grew up and played professionally in Europe before coming to the NBA.
Two major reasons NBA players are likely loath to leave for Europe are compensation and competition, both of which are unquestionably highest in the NBA right now. But there is no reason to be certain that will always be the case. There is already money to be made and strong competition to be found in some of Europe’s best leagues, such as in Spain and Turkey, and Europe offers EuroLeague play among the best teams on the continent (similar to the UEFA Champions League in soccer), which provides an added dimension of competition. If just a few high-level NBA players begin to opt to play overseas, and if a few international players, such as Antetokounmpo and Doncic, opt to stay in Europe to play, norms may start to shift.
Perhaps one league in Europe — Spain’s Liga ACB, for instance — will grow into the epicenter of non-NBA basketball, and as the league’s profile and its competition level rise, league revenues and player salaries will follow suit. As more NBA talent streams in, competition and salaries will rise further. And if one or two American born and bred megastars — who have already made fortunes in the NBA and who seek a reprieve from America’s boiling racism, a decreased likelihood of race-based police assault and an opportunity to raise children in a different cultural context — decide to give it a shot, perhaps the floodgates will open and an NBA talent drain will begin in earnest. Liga ACB, like many leagues in Europe, has limits on the number of non-European Union players on club rosters, but let’s not be naive. If the NBA’s best start knocking on the league’s door, those rules will change.
One would think that the powerful, intangible force that ties us all, on some level, to home would prevent the scenario I lay out. Maybe so. But maybe, as of late, America has felt less like home to these players. Less safe, less secure, less comforting. LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, one of a handful of Black coaches in the NBA, said last week through a cracking voice: “We keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” Maybe Black NBA players, like so many other Black Americans, are running out of love to give. Maybe the well is dry. If so, the link to home starts to fray, and searching for something else grows more palatable.
You may be saying to yourself, “… Nah, I just can’t see it.” OK, fair enough. But how much of what has happened thus far in 2020 did you anticipate? I suspect not much. Nostradamus would have been flummoxed by what we’ve seen over these past several months. America and Americans — athletes and nonathletes alike — are in entirely uncharted waters. Anything could happen. After last week’s events, American sports will never be the same. And none of us can say with any certainty or authority what they will look like going forward.