LeBron James will retire as the best player in the history of the NBA, and of course, as so much more. His contribution to his league, his community and his country can never be quantified by statistics, packaged into a sneaker deal, or tucked into a clause in his contract.
As gun violence has prompted America’s youth to take to the streets and police shootings of African American males have outraged and emboldened citizens, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar has repeatedly these past several months stepped to the microphone, ending a streak of silence.
He refused to pull a Jordan. He spoke up, spoke out. He ignored the potential pushback from his corporate sponsors and his fan base, and as the pre-eminent player of his generation, led his peers back to the table and into the national conversation about racism, misogyny, gender discrimination and social injustice, in all its ugly forms.
Late Tuesday evening, after protesters reacting to the fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s south Sacramento backyard again surrounded Golden 1 Center, players in both locker rooms addressed the matter.
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“Hopefully (the protests) keep the conversation going on in all sorts of communities, not just here,” said Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki. “It’s just unfortunate that things like this (shooting) continue to happen. Communities need all the help they can get.”
To those players raising their voices? To Kings veterans Vince Carter and Garrett Temple, who has been particularly vocal and involved?
Don’t stop now. Dirk is right. The communities need all the help they can get.
There also is an important tradition to uphold, one that was virtually neglected during the league’s golden era, the 1980s, and the ensuing three decades. Except for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, journeyman Craig Hodges, and a few others, players during that period seldom felt a need or a desire to publicly invest in social causes.
“The civil rights and anti-war movements led to tremendous progress,” said Wayne Embry, the NBA’s first African American general manager and team president. “I thought we had finally reached a point where our country was respectful of civil rights and human rights. But I was reading something again yesterday about the woman (Fox News host Laura Ingraham) who said, ‘Shut up and dribble,’ and I thought, ‘What right does she have to deny us our first amendment rights?’ So, yes, I am really encouraged to see our players speaking up again. The league has had a long history of being progressive and trying to do the right thing.”
Embry has a particular interest in the developments in Sacramento. Though he considers himself a Boston Celtic, he spent his first eight seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, now known as the Sacramento Kings.
In a phone conversation Wednesday, Embry, currently an adviser with the Toronto Raptors, cited Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain among the game’s pioneers, and related now familiar stories about the conditions black players – many eventual Hall of Famers – endured in college and the NBA.
Elgin Baylor was voted homecoming king by students at Seattle University, but asked by the school president to skip the party because some of the parents were appalled at the thought of a black man dancing with a white homecoming queen; Baylor capitulated only after school officials bankrolled a separate party for blacks. Lenny Wilkens once was refused service in a St. Louis restaurant, and very quietly, as is his nature, stayed for hours and until he was served. Russell, whose voice resonated loudest, often talks and writes about being banned from hotels and restaurants because of his race.
Yet, as Embry suggests, the black players’ most influential allies were their white teammates.
Jerry West, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey and the late Jack Twymann, who became Maurice Stokes’ legal guardian after his teammate became ill with a fatal case of encephalitis, walked out of restaurants, bars and hotels that excluded black players, and on occasion, boycotted NBA games.
“Elgin, Oscar, Wilt and Russ were always very vocal,” Embry continued, “but remember now, I was the only black player on the Royals until Oscar got there in 1960. And if you didn’t have job security, and I didn’t, you were threatened if you complained. When Oscar arrived, we all became more outspoken and began going to ownership, demanding change with travel, hotels. And, actually, ownership was responsive. The other thing that keeps the NBA at the forefront, through the years, is that our commissioners have been very progressive. Maurice Podoloff, Walter Kennedy, Larry O’Brien and then David (Stern), of course. And now Adam Silver has been very vocal and supportive of the players.”
Embry, whose most successful seasons were spent alongside Russell and Cousy, and who co-authored a powerful book in 2004 entitled “The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA," applauds James for providing the leadership and his peers for following his direction. Additionally, he noted that several NBA coaches have been active critics of the shootings and ineffective gun control measures, among them Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Stan Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle.
“The greatest thing about the game, even back when I was a rookie 60 years ago,” Embry added, “was that players came together for a common cause. It was a model for society then, and can be one now.”
So let it be.