There were moments of regret throughout the last year for NBA players. There was often progress in the social justice initiatives the Miami Heat and others championed, and progress was always met eventually by the harsh realities of a world too slow to change.
When police killed George Floyd in the spring, Kyrie Irving pleaded with his fellow players to skip the 2020 NBA bubble out of protest, ESPN reported at the time. When police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake about three months later, play temporarily halted and George Hill admitted he regretted coming to the NBA bubble at all. After the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, players, including Bam Adebayo and former Arizona Wildcat Andre Iguodala, lamented how little progress they felt had been made on racial issues despite the league’s year of activism.
“We still,” Iguodala said Sunday, “have a long way to go.”
After a year of efforts ranging from slogans on the backs of jerseys to massive effective voter registration initiatives, Martin Luther King Jr. Day — always an important day around the league — takes on added significance in 2021.
If 2020 was defined by awareness for social justice issues and combating voter suppression, then 2021 can be about progress in other areas like police reform, NBA players hope.
“You see some progress, obviously, with the number of voters we have come out,” Iguodala said. “It’s not particularly who you align yourself with politically, but just getting out to vote. I don’t think people get the gist in terms of what voter suppression is. A lot of the work we were doing, a lot of the brainstorming and a lot of the meetings we had were primarily on raising voter suppression awareness. A lot of people didn’t have that understanding, and just getting people out to vote and opening arenas was a huge part of that. That initiative seemed to have a large effect and we met that goal, and we’re still going to continue to push forward.
“We have another initiative we’re pushing on something very dear and close to our hearts, particularly with the George Floyd bill that we’re trying to bring awareness to dealing with the Senate, so a lot goes into it that’s not seen. I think the guys that are working on it behind the scenes understand that and are perfectly fine with not getting any credit or people not knowing the actions that we’re taking. As long as the results where we need them to be, we’re happy with that.”
Certain NBA players and people had been activists long before Floyd’s death in 2020. His killing, however, was a wellspring of activism from all corners of the country with the NBA and Women’s National Basketball Association chief among them.
Power forward Udonis Haslem spoke in front of crowds at the Floyd protests in Miami. Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours to Atlanta to lead a protest in his hometown. Members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream endorsed and campaigned for Senator-elect Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) as he successfully unseated Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the Dream.
When the players agreed to resume play last year in Lake Buena Vista, they did so under several conditions. Players wore “BLACK LIVES MATTER” shirts during warmups and the phrase was printed on the courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. On their jerseys, players names were accompanied by slogans like “EQUALITY” or “GROUP ECONOMICS.” After every game throughout in Walt Disney World, Adebayo finished his postgame press conferences by saying, “Black lives matter, people.”
He still does it now.
“Like I always say, we just want to be treated equally,” Adebayo said Jan. 6. “That wasn’t equal at all. That showed what it was.”
More important are the tangible changes the league has contributed to. The league partnered with Vote.org, turned dozens of arenas into polling places and helped the 2020 United States presidential election achieve record turnout. After the Blake shooting, owners of all 30 NBA teams vowed to contribute $300 million across the next 10 years to the NBA Foundation, which was founded last year to “drive economic empowerment in Black communities through employment and career advancement.” The league and the National Basketball Players’ Association have also formed a social justice coalition, which will advocate for police and criminal justice reform.
“We understand a lot of the things that occur in our lives, good and bad, that we try to spread those good messages to others and also try to work with the league in terms of how we’re feeling, and hopefully they’re receiving some of those things and implementing some of the things that we brought to light,” Iguodala said. “Slowly but surely, it’s happening within and outside the game.”