It was nothing more than a joke, but it perfectly encapsulated not only the current political climate, but the unlikely intersection between the NBA and politics.
"Actually we won all of those games," Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said before Wednesday's loss to the Celtics (the Rockets are 3-6 for their last nine games). "I'm going with that alternative fact thing."
The NBA has not attempted to hide the fact that it has become the professional league of social justice. The only openly gay player in any of the major U.S. professional leagues was an NBA player. The league forced the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers after racist remarks of owner Donald Sterling emerged. The league pulled its All Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina after the passage of that's state so-called restroom law.
But then came the election of 2016. Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (and teammates) campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Ohio. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called Donald Trump "batshit crazy" and campaigned for Clinton. After the election, numerous teams began boycotting Trump's hotels. And Turner Sports, one of the NBA's broadcast partners, used its first pregame show after the election to discuss the disappointment of the anchors and analysts with the outcome.
D'Antoni was only the most recent NBA coach to speak up. First was the Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy. Then Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr (whose father was murdered by Islamic terrorists in the 1980s) talked of how he thought America was better than this. But no coach has been as blunt, forceful or eloquent as Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. Popovich, a veteran who considered a career in the CIA and has a degree in Soviet Studies has, since the election, compared the U.S. to Roman republic.
“And there's a majority of people out there, since Hillary won the popular vote, that don't buy his act,” Popovich said Saturday. “And I just wish that [Trump] was more — had the ability to be more — mature enough to do something that really is inclusive rather than just talking and saying, ‘I'm going to include everybody.’ He could talk to the groups that he disrespected and maligned during the primary and really make somebody believe it. But so far, we've got (to) a point where you really can't believe anything that comes out of his mouth. You really can't."
In many ways, the NBA is appealing to its core audience. The players are predominantly African-American and the league's fan base is located in primarily liberal urban areas. It's base which has faced the brunt of racism and fought against it over the years, which was one of LeBron James's stated reasons for supporting and Clinton and for imploring his fans to vote.
The NBA itself also acknowledges the role the league can play in what it sees as a push for equality. It's this push that led the league, backed by the players, to pull that All Star Game from Charlotte.
“We have been guided in these discussions by the long-standing core values of our league," the NBA said last year. "These include not only diversity, inclusion, fairness and respect for others, but also the willingness to listen and consider opposing points of view.”
Golden State's Kevin Durant added that “[d]iscrimination of any kind cannot be allowed.”
For the most part, the other professional leagues have attempted to steer clear of the election controversy. The Chicago Cubs, instead of waiting for the summer when the team would be in Washington, D.C. playing the Nationals to visit the White House, instead went earlier this month while Barack Obama was still president. And there was Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protests (joined by a few other NFL players), and Rex Ryan campaigned for Donald Trump. Yet Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been hesitant to discuss their relationship with Donald Trump. And while Houston Texans owner Bob McNair led the NFL owners in donating to the GOP (along with contributing funding to Houston's anti-HERO forces) and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson contributed money to Trump's campaign (earning Johnson an ambassadorship in the process) there were no NFL owner equivalents to Mark Cuban.
But the NBA hasn’t been quiet. Its coaches have spoken out. Its owners, players and TV partners have all made known their distrust of Trump. Perhaps the league is able to do this because it’s somewhat insulated in ways the NFL and MLB are not, since those leagues have fan bases more evenly spread out between urban and rural, liberal and conservative areas. Or maybe it’s just because the NBA, as a singular entity doesn’t care what conservatives think.
Whatever the reasoning, when it comes to the resistance, the NBA is not backing down.
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