Hornets' Spencer Hawes proud to use political voice

The vocal conservative's views are in stark contrast to many NBA peers

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The idea of staying with teammates at a hotel named after the President-elect last week was rejected more forcefully than an Andre Iguodala layup by LeBron James, which of course made headlines in this heightened age of athletes taking bold political and social stances. By choosing to check-in elsewhere, it was yet another in a series of public protests by basketball’s most influential player, whose whims are loyally lapped up by a media anxious to shove a soap box underneath his hi-tops.

Meanwhile, down in Charlotte came a lone voice in the NBA wilderness offering a dry-humored rebuttal to LeBron’s tweaking of Donald Trump.

“I’ve stayed at Trump Hotels,” Spencer Hawes said. “I like them. Matter of fact, it has the most diverse room service menu of any hotel I’ve ever stayed at. That’s my answer.”

He smiled as he said this, perhaps realizing he trails LeBron by 33.7 million Twitter followers, three championships and more than a few dollars. One man is a global sports Goliath, the other a backup center on the Hornets hoping to stretch a nine-year career to 10. Yet politics have a way of balancing the scales in this country if taken on a one-person, one-vote basis.

And here’s the irony: If LeBron, given his robust profile, represents the coastal elite, then Hawes is flyover country. The person LeBron aggressively stumped for in the election suffered a devastating loss in November, while Hawes punched his ballot for the polarizing winner.

Hawes is a fish out of water in the NBA, a proud conservative Republican in a league undoubtedly loaded with Democrats among those players who are into politics. Although Hawes does take slight exception to that lopsided ratio.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the only conservative,” he said, “I’m the only vocal one. There are others but they’re afraid to step forward, for some reason, out of what people might think or maybe because of business interests.”

He also makes it clear he doesn’t drink every last drop of the conservative fruit punch, nor does he check every stereotypical box. For example, as someone who works in North Carolina, he’s strongly against the state’s transgender bathroom law, which twisted the arm of the NBA and forced the league to move All-Star 2017 to New Orleans.

“Absolutely pitiful,” Hawes said. “Whatever you think of the practicality of a law like that, it divides us and it does not include a segment of the population that has the right to be included. It’s unfair. It’s out of touch.”

For those who say athletes should shut up and play, well, that genie left the bottle once the Clippers wore their warm-ups inside out to show their disgust for Donald Sterling, whose ownership ID card was revoked by a new commissioner who endeared himself to the country. When a kneeling quarterback for the 49ers makes the cover of Time, and something as traditional as standing at attention for the anthem becomes optional, athletes have built a platform, fair or not.

Speaking of the anthem: Last week while visiting the Hornets, the Pistons players and coaches stood with locked arms. Across the court, the Hornets simply stood at attention. One player in particular covered his heart.

“It’s the way I was raised, the way I grew up,” Hawes said. “I’ve always been a hand-on-my-heart guy. There are a couple of players on our team like that. That’s how you show respect for the anthem. I think the locking arms and stuff like that is obviously not how we do it, but if teams want to do that to show unity, more power to them. That’s just not how I was raised.”

As for Colin Kaepernick, who was the flame that lit the anthem torch, Hawes is fine with the message but of course not the method.

“I give him credit for being the first one to do it,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with what people are doing but you have to respect them for putting themselves out there and dealing with the repercussions. I think the guys who have joined him make it seem like it’s more about them than the cause. It’s the anthem. It’s not about you. It’s about something that’s so much bigger than you.”

“I’m glad the election is over with. The tone, the negativity, the divisiveness, I don’t think that was good for our country and for discussion. It divided friendships, families. That’s what I didn’t like.”

— Spencer Hawes

The NBA, with the blessing of Adam Silver, has become a leader in the social and political movement in sports. Players dressed in hoodies in a show of support for Trayvon Martin. LeBron and others defied the league dress code and wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts during pregame warmups instead of team-issued gear and weren’t fined for it. Suddenly, the media felt obligated to seek players’ opinions on certain subjects that normally were left to social activists and political pundits.

It didn’t matter if some players weren’t as well-versed or informed. They had visibility and a voice and it resonated within a segment of the country.

That voice happened to be overwhelmingly liberal, which understandably reflected the core demographics: African American men, whose life experiences prior to NBA riches reflected more humble beginnings. They could relate to the causes felt by people who looked like them, even if they no longer shared the same ZIP code and tax bracket. The rise in unarmed black men shot by police? A woman running on the Democratic ticket for President? Those were layups for the league.

Anyone offering a dissenting view ran the risk of being branded an outcast, both outside and inside their locker room, and so finding a conservative hot take was harder than finding a volunteer to guard Russell Westbrook. All of which makes Hawes an outsider of sorts.

And his story gets stranger: He developed his views while being born and raised in Seattle, a liberal nest. As a nephew of former NBA player Steve Hawes, he was one of the country’s top high school players as a senior, but had the bad timing of graduating a year after the NBA stopped the high-school-to-pros pipeline.

The political bug bit during the 2000 election when he and his father couldn’t decide whom to vote for and settled on George Bush. The son has voted Republican ever since.

For much of the 2016 campaign he directed his energy into attacking Hillary Clinton. In the week leading up to the election, he wore a Jail Hillary shirt while conducting a post-game interview. He was not, however, a Trumpaholic, and stared at his ballot momentarily before settling on the Republican. He said it was more of a vote against one candidate than for another.

“I’m glad the election is over with,” he said. “The tone, the negativity, the divisiveness, I don’t think that was good for our country and for discussion. It divided friendships, families. That’s what I didn’t like.”

Hawes didn’t worry about how his views would be digested with teammates. From the outside, it would seem a conflicting contrast: A white conservative in a locker room with majority black players. As for any racial issue, there apparently is none; Hawes has played alongside and lived among black players most of his life.

And there’s this from Hornets veteran forward Marvin Williams, who’s also from Seattle:

“He’s a fun guy, great to be around, one of my all-time favorite persons. He’s very educated. He can talk politics, the football game, anything. A fun person to have dinner with. You can’t find one player in this room who’ll say anything bad about him. He’s always saying something funny. Great teammate.”

He’s a political magnet, willing to debate with anyone, and a junkie for news shows rather than 24-hour sports TV, although the steady diet of political talking heads does make him queasy at times.

“They all want to exaggerate everything,” Hawes said. “The talking points, the stances people take on TV, it’s all about extremes. You can’t go on those shows as a panelist unless you lean far to the left or the right. They’re not going to have someone whose opinions are right down the middle. It doesn’t make for good ratings. Nobody will watch them. People don’t watch them for that kind of calm, moderate thinking. And yet the views represented that are far left and far right are not how most people feel, how they think. The majority of us are closer to the middle.”

In professional sports, where the media magnification is now multiple-times larger than ever before, the political and social soap box comes with an amplifier. Some choose to plug it in, others go mute. Some fans would rather they stick to sports, others would like to know where their favorite athletes stand, provided that athlete is informed enough on a topic to address it.

“One of the great things about what we do for a living is we get an opportunity to converse with and debate with people from all walks of life, not just people from different social-economic positions in our country but people from all across the world with completely different perspectives,” Hawes said. “It allows you to grow and develop opinions. You’re exposed to so much.

“We as athletes have a platform. If you’re willing to put yourself out there for what you’re willing to stand up for, I think that’s commendable. Guys go into it knowing that whatever you say is going to tick off 50 percent of the fans, but at least you stand for something.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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