Will current NBA stars #staywoke after Obama leaves office?
In 1835, a small group of Episcopalians founded a church in lower Manhattan, New York City, named St. Bartholomew’s — St. Bart’s for short. And as the parish grew, the church moved, finally settling in its current home on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st streets in 1918. And it is here where on Sept. 23, 2009, one of the greatest moments in U.S. history took place: Reggie Love, a member of Duke basketball’s 2001 national championship team, got his shot blocked by President Barack Obama.
That momentous and truly transformative moment was not only captured by history in a photo but said photo was framed and prominently displayed in the west wing. Now keep in mind it is customary to have pictures documenting a president’s time rotated out every few weeks or so. Love said the photo of Obama blocking his shot stayed up for over a year. So not only could the head of state ball, the president wanted to make sure members of Congress, heads of state and especially Love, who was his special assistant until 2011, saw the receipt.
“It’s clearly a foul,” Love joked. “But look, he’s from Chicago … It’s a physical game.”
In his defense, there is contact. Though you would think the 6-foot-4 Love wouldn’t be bothered by it considering he also played football at Duke on a scholarship, tried out for the NFL and is 20 years younger. On top of everything else, Obama is wearing what appears to be a pair of Walmart track pants and Asics, so it’s hard to feel sorry for the man — especially given Love is 20 years younger.
“It’s one of his better basketball moments ,” Love said.
Other great, but not as highlighted moments, may include playing pickup with Basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and LeBron James, then of the Miami Heat, for his 49th birthday. Appearing on ESPN to share his Final Four picks, where he picked the eventual champion once, North Carolina in 2009. Pretending to teach Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry how to shoot in a public service announcement on mentoring.
While sports have long been woven into the White House fabric — presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding were avid golfers, John F. Kennedy sailed, Jimmy Carter and both George H.W. and George W. Bush ran — photos of presidents blocking jump shots have hitherto been nonexistent. Perhaps it has something to do with the age of the men who take office. Since basketball was invented in 1891, only four have been in their 40s when they were inaugurated, including Obama. That’s not to say you can’t ball at 60 — only that you probably shouldn’t be photographed doing so.
Or maybe the other reason that basketball has become more visible during the Obama administration is because the greatest basketball player of all time played for the president’s adopted hometown and the NBA has the highest share of black viewers of any sport. If you think about it, it had to be impossible for a middle-aged black dude to get his haircut in Chicago in the 1990s and not talk about Michael Jordan.
Hell, I can tell you from personal experience it’s hard to do it now.
The president’s love of the game, ease with its vernacular and understanding of the cultural significance of sports (from church leagues and the pre-1950, all-black basketball teams, known as the Black Fives to shaved heads and baggy shorts), is why seeing NBA players interact with Obama registers as genuine. And perhaps that authenticity explains why we’ve seen NBA players — particularly the black players — use that interaction politically. During the Obama administration, we’ve seen black athletes, particularly NBA players, wade into waters that have not been sailed since Jordan’s reported remark, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Holding a fundraiser to get the first black president elected is one thing. Doing a public service announcement promoting the Affordable Care Act, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent memory, would normally be considered Q-rating suicide. But less than two years after the ad ran on ESPN, ABC and TNT, James signed a record-breaking, billion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike. This after joining fellow MVPs Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Garnett in wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in protest of the death of Eric Garner; Bryant also tweeted support for Jason Collins, the league’s first openly gay player; Amar’e Stoudemire changed his Twitter avatar to a picture of himself wearing a hoodie to express his frustration surrounding Trayvon Martin’s killing and the National Basketball Players Association called for the arrest of his killer George Zimmerman.
Again doing a public service announcement encouraging kids to stay in school is politically active and unquestionably safe. But some of the issues a number of NBA players have been voicing their opinion on during the Obama administration have decidedly not been safe.
But it has been refreshing.
Muhammad Ali left us on June 3 and coincidentally he arrived, so to speak, on June 4. Flanked by Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, Basketball Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), among others, Ali was at the center of a 1967 news conference in which he spoke of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. His fellow superstars were there in Cleveland that day to support him. The following year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised leather-clad, clenched fists on the Olympic podium. With the noted exception of the delusional then-college football player O.J. Simpson — who worked tirelessly to make white America forget he was black — that was a time in which high-profile black athletes not only embraced black pride, they were willing to make sacrifices in an effort to improve the treatment of the larger community.
This is why, over the decades that have followed, we’ve heard Brown, Abdul-Jabbar and others call out their apolitical successors for not using their platform to impact social change. In fact Abdul-Jabbar is still taking shots at Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers, too” remark from 1990, saying in the fall of 2015, “He took commerce over conscience … but he’s gotta live with it.”
One can only assume that with some of the league’s biggest stars involved with health care and criminal justice reform that criticism of their disinterest in politics won’t follow this generation of NBA players quite as closely. Though I do wonder, what will come of their voice once the defacto Baller-in-Chief is gone? Will James and company still have an appetite to use their platform to engage in controversial policy discussion or will their interest in such things fade the way MSNBC’s interest in black political commentators fades with each day we get closer to Obama’s farewell?
It’s a different sort of gut check of sorts. One that sports agent Bill Duffy of BDA Sports Management isn’t too optimistic players will pass.
“It’s a very unique set of circumstances,” he said. “[Obama] is very approachable, he knows and loves the game … plus he’s a brother. There’s a level of trust there because they have similar experiences.
“I would like to think the guys who have felt comfortable using their platform to bring awareness to things will keep doing so but to be politically active you have to do more than just bring awareness. You have to get involved and I’m not sure if the players will do that once President Obama is gone.”
Understandable considering neither presidential candidates Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump seem like the kind of people who would play a game of pickup. But if James and company need the president of the United States to be black and/or an NBA fan in order for you to care about police brutality, then perhaps this isn’t an awakening after all. Current love fest notwithstanding, Ali certainly didn’t enjoy the cover of the White House when he became politically involved, so it would be very disappointing if that turns out to be the only reason NBA players rallied to fight injustice.
It’s been 20 some years of seeing black athletes cocooned in a self-serving slumber … I was hoping #staywoke would be a lifelong mantra and not a two-term hashtag.