They refused to stick to sports.
“We just elected an openly, brazen misogynist leader and we should keep our mouths shut and realize that we need to be learning maybe from the rest of the world, because we don’t got anything to teach anybody,” Stan Van Gundy said last Wednesday, after Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States.
“It’s embarrassing,” Van Gundy, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations and coach, continued. “I have been ashamed of a lot of things that have happened in this country, but I can’t say I’ve ever been ashamed of our country until today. Until today. We all have to find our way to move forward, but that was — and I’m not even trying to make a political statement. To me, that’s beyond politics.”
Stan Van Gundy gets paid $7 million a year to coach and run the Detroit Pistons. He is a pretty successful capitalist. This is not the sort of talk one normally hears from $7 million per year people — and certainly not one in the sports business, where the goal, always, is to offend no one and make sure everyone still wants to buy tickets, suites, hot dogs and beer.
Yet here came Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ coach, fresh off consecutive Finals appearances, backing Van Gundy fully.
“It’s tough when you want there to be some respect and dignity and there hasn’t been any,” Kerr said Thursday. “And then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife, who’ve basically been insulted by (Trump’s) comments, and they’re distraught. And you walk in and you see the faces of your players, most of them who have been insulted directly as minorities, it’s sort of shocking. It really is. We talked about it as a team this morning. I don’t know what else to say. Just the whole process has left all of us feeling kind of disgusted and disappointed. I thought we were better than this. I thought The Jerry Springer Show was The Jerry Springer Show … This is a presidential election. It’s not The Jerry Springer Show. I’m sorry. This is my rant. I’m disappointed in the lack of respect and dignity that’s involved, and that’s the way it goes.”
Kerr gets paid $5 million in his job, which assuredly makes him a One Percenter. Of course, he’s from a family of academics, and he is employed in … the Bay Area. So … you know.
But there, in the heart of Texas, stood Gregg Popovich.
“Right now I’m just trying to formulate thoughts,” Popovich said Friday. “It’s too early. I’m just sick to my stomach. Not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenor and tone and all of the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.
“I live in that country where half of the people ignored all of that to elect someone. That’s the scariest part of the whole thing to me. It’s got nothing to do with the environment and Obamacare, and all of the other stuff. We live in a country that ignored all of those values that we would hold our kids accountable for. They’d be grounded for years if they acted and said the things that have been said in that campaign by Donald Trump.”
Popovich makes $11 million a year to coach the Spurs and, basically, makes the final call on things in San Antonio with general manager R.C. Buford. He is the gold standard of coaches, perhaps in all sports, along with Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs. There is no benefit to him in speaking out this way, where he lives, where many people happily voted for Trump because they believe he speaks to their concerns and fears, and for dozens of other reasons, too.
Yet, he did. They all did, in tones we’ve never heard before. Which makes sense at the end of an election we’d never seen before.
Theirs was not a universal view, to be sure. While the NBA is certainly, vastly, liberal, there were players who expressed disgust both with Hillary Clinton and Trump, like Charlotte Hornets center Spencer Hawes, one of a few players self-identified as a Republican. Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut, who is Australian, also declared a plague on both political houses. Many players, coaches, owners and team executives surely supported Trump and were pleased by his victory.
And some who are otherwise supportive of those who opposed Trump, like Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, have spoken out against some of the demonstrations that have taken place since the election (including where Lillard works).
But the response has been unusually pointed.
“I think it was a surprise to everyone, more than anything,” Dwyane Wade said Thursday. “I think everyone thought Hillary Clinton would be president. But it didn’t happen that way. Everyone was expressing themselves, whether it was social media platforms. Together as a group, we talked about those things, but at the same time we had a game last night. We didn’t have much time to talk about it … we did our job of voting who we wanted to be in office. It didn’t happen from that standpoint.”
There is no doubt that there are many more players and coaches who hold progressive views in the NBA than in other sports. The racial makeup of the league — 81.7 percent of the players in the league are people of color, including 74.3 percent who are African-American, according to the league’s 2016 Racial Report Card issued by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport — is a logical place to begin, if the political preferences of those players mirror in any way those of most people of color. The NBA’s international players are from 41 countries and territories around the world. Nine of the league’s 30 coaches at the end of last season were people of color.
And that means the white players and coaches who play with or for those players and coaches of color are having meaningful, daily interactions with people that don’t look like them. That makes them very different from the majority of white people in the United States; 75 percent of whites reported in 2014 that their network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white.
Because of that, this league is just different from others, and its coaches have a different worldview than that of, say, Alabama football coach Nick Saban. He’s just as successful as Popovich has been as a coach, and Saban professed not to know that last Tuesday was election day.
“NBA coaches are passionate about our country, league and players being represented in the right way and by leaders who value diversity, equality and women,” Rick Carlisle, the president of the NBA Coaches’ Association, texted Saturday. “We should not tolerate xenophobic, homophobic, racist and misogynistic talk from a person recently elected president. And I am proud that my colleagues are speaking up.”’
Trump’s rhetoric leaves little room for ambiguous response, either pro or con. But it is fair to ask if there would be a public backlash against coaches who spoke out as vociferously against, say, President-elect Barack Obama in 2008.
The political argument aside, the vociferousness of what the three coaches said is almost unprecedented in recent history.
Van Gundy said he noticed the team’s bus on the way to shootaround in Phoenix Wednesday morning was quieter than normal. He thought it was because of the Pistons’ blowout loss to the Clippers last Monday. Center Aron Baynes, though, told him that wasn’t the reason.
“Martin Luther King said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice,’ ” Van Gundy said. “I would have believed in that for a long time, but not today … what we have done to minorities … in this election is despicable. I’m having a hard time dealing with it. This isn’t your normal candidate. I don’t know even know if I have political differences with him. I don’t even know what are his politics. I don’t know, other than to build a wall and ‘I hate people of color, and women are to be treated as sex objects and as servants to men.’ I don’t know how you get past that. I don’t know how you walk into the booth and vote for that.
“I understand problems with the economy. I understand all the problems with Hillary Clinton, I do. But certain things in our country should disqualify you. And the fact that millions and millions of Americans don’t think that racism and sexism disqualifies you to be our leader, in our country … we presume to tell other countries about human-rights abuses and everything else. We better never do that again, when our leaders talk to China or anybody else about human-rights abuses …
“You don’t get to come out and talk about people like that, and then lead our country and have millions of Americans embrace you. I’m having a hard time being with people. I’m going to walk into this arena tonight and realize that — especially in this state (Arizona) — most of these people voted for the guy. Like, (expletive), I don’t have any respect for that. I don’t.”
After he was finished, he said he had nothing to say about the Pistons’ game that night.
But everyone didn’t have as strong a reaction to Trump’s ascension.
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo was planning for his latest community event in Chicago on Friday to help at-risk kids in that city, which has been leveled by hundreds of shootings. Rondo had mentored kids in the city before he signed with the Bulls in July.
“They have other things going on in their life that are way bigger than that,” Rondo said Thursday. “It’s sad, but it’s just the way it is. It’s reality. Helping them with that, as far as becoming young men and what they’re going through in the home, it’s a whole different ballgame. The election is big as well, but what they’re going through in their daily lives, I’m sure they probably don’t even care, really. They’re avoiding getting shot, pressure to be in gangs, single family homes. They don’t know what they’re going to eat. So, that’s real … whether that makes a difference, who’s in the office or not, they still have to go home at night and go to that situation. That’s my focus.”
None of us knows what will happen in the next four years. Perhaps President-elect Trump will reach out in ways that he didn’t during the campaign, and strongly condemn the rash of racial incidents that have occurred to people of color since election day. Perhaps he will be a more inclusive president. Perhaps the country won’t continue to be roiled and divided. We have, after all, survived a Civil War, two World Wars, a depression. We survived Watergate and Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination.
But it will take men and women who are not afraid to speak their minds to lead the way, in every way.
Debate is better than silence. And speaking up is always — always — better than sticking to sports.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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