The NBA season — the first one to tip off without any sort of bubble since November 2019 — begins on Tuesday night, and I’m not sure the league has ever been more fun to watch. It’s got everything right now:
• A transcendent, joyous superstar who just won his first championship and looks poised to be even better this year (Giannis Antetokounmpo).
• The increasingly accepted greatest player right now with a long and drama-filled history in the league, heavily favored to win the first title that would be truly considered his (Kevin Durant).
• The Greatest Of All Time, coming off an injury-plagued season but still the favorite to win his conference and potentially his fifth title, even if it has now been long enough that we can all admit the Space Jam reboot was terrible (LeBron James).
• The return of the player your kids and your friends’ kids are still pretending to be in the backyard (Stephen Curry).
• Jeez, the 76ers drama, MVP Nikola Jokic, Zion, Ant-Man, those giddy Suns, Dame D.O.L.L.A., Luka Doncic’s ascension, Trae Young and the Hawks, the play-in tournament, Mike Breen, Doris Burke, the league’s 75th anniversary … all of it.
This has also been preceded by a truly thrilling WNBA season that ended with all-timer Candace Parker leading her hometown Chicago Sky to its first ever title just three weeks after re-signing with TNT as one of its top NBA studio analysts. Never has the WNBA-to-NBA transition been smoother and more inspiring.
Shoot, even the Knicks are good. What’s not to like?
But here’s the problem: As the NBA season is beginning, none of the above topics — none of the things the NBA wants you and me to be focusing on—are headline stories. Instead, the NBA is as jammed up with politics as any league since a certain former president was screaming for NFL owners to “drag the kneeling sons-a-bitches off the field.”
The current chatter is all about Kyrie Irving, and vaccine holdouts, and China, and “woke” athletes, and low TV ratings, as the most bad-faith actors among us claim the NBA is falling apart because it has gotten too “political.” Whereas the NFL has mostly left the ugliness of its political battles behind it (fairly or unfairly), and people have generally forgotten how much time they spent this spring yelling at Major League Baseball for moving the All-Star game out of Atlanta, the NBA is spinning its wheels in the political mud. It’s not 2020 anymore. But in the NBA, it sure does feel that way. The NBA currently cannot win for losing.
The vaccine-holdout narrative is the perfect example of this dynamic. The NBA should be — and internally is — proud of the vaccination rate for its players. As of the end of last month, 95 percent of NBA players had received at least one vaccine shot — not quite as impressive as the WNBA’s near 100 percent rate, but higher than the NFL’s 93.7 percent and much higher than MLB’s 90 percent. (The Boston Red Sox, still alive in the MLB playoffs, never reached the league’s suggested 85 percent threshold.) We should all be so lucky to have 95 percent of the people we’re coming into contact with fully inoculated. But you don’t hear about the NFL’s vaccine-holdout problem, or MLB’s. You only hear about the NBA’s — specifically that of Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ star point guard who will be unable to practice or play with his team until he is vaccinated. Irving — who not long ago was encouraging his fellow players to skip the bubble to protest racial injustice in the streets — has now become a cause célèbre for people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr., of all people. They’re not really supporters of Irving, of course; they’re simply using him and his celebrity as an NBA star as a way to hoist the league itself on its own petard: You wanted people to listen to what NBA stars wanted to say … so why don’t you want them to listen now?
That Cruz and Trump Jr. are as disingenuous as ever — they’ll turn on Irving the second he starts talking about social justice again, or gets vaccinated, whichever comes first — does not change the fact that this is not a situation the NBA would like to be anywhere near. It is up for debate as to whether or not the league’s growing television-ratings problem — numbers were up last year from the pandemic season but down considerably from the last season before the pandemic — has anything to do with politics. But there’s no question that ratings are down, and there’s also no question that the usual suspects will pin the blame on wokeness. This is surely frustrating to the NBA, but an inevitable by-product of its embrace of politics in 2020. The political engagement was driven by the players, who went so far as to boycott playoff games to protest police violence, but in a league that has doubled down on player empowerment, institutional support was almost a given. It’s why the league fully supported the More Than a Vote movement, LeBron James’s organization that explicitly fought against voter suppression in the Black community during the 2020 election. The NBA may not have wanted to look like it was picking a side. But it clearly was.
In a sense, it has picked sides since then, too. As soon as the 2020 election was in the rearview mirror, the NBA stopped tweeting out links to More Than a Vote, despite the fact that voter suppression in Black communities continues to be a major problem. In fact, the general vibe from the NBA since the summer and fall of 2020 has been to dial back on the politics altogether and get the focus back on the court. But after last year, it’s difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. And that then leads to constant needling about the league’s ties to China, about being “woke,” about kneeling, about “turning off conservative fans” — all of it.
I am not sure any of these criticisms are fair (other than the China one), but they prompt the continued filtering of any NBA story through the political lens, unlike what any other league has had to deal with. Witness again the Irving vaccine story, which had many criticizing the league for not instituting a mandate that it does not, in fact, have the power to institute. (The NBA players union has to approve one, and, like most leagues’ unions, it won’t.) When a league has become as personality-driven and star-focused as the NBA has — for good, justified, even moral reasons — those stars end up driving every narrative. Thus, more people are paying attention to the fact that Kyrie Irving isn’t playing than they are to the fact that Luka Doncic is. (And there is no way Donald Trump Jr. has ever even heard the name “Antetokounmpo,” let alone tried to say it.) Which is all of course the opposite of why the NBA was focusing on players in the first place: to show off the amazing individual things they can do on the court and sell those personalities off it.
This is what the NFL was dealing with during the Kaepernick-Trump battles, but the NFL had the advantage of, well, being the NFL: It could always muscle through problems like this, and its fan base was decidedly tired of politics. The NBA, however, has fully embraced the mantle of progressive sports league. Can it dial it back now? Does trying to do so hurt it rather than help? And what about the players who, by all accounts, will be just as active and outspoken during the next election cycle as they were in the last one? The NBA is stuck in the middle: not as political as both its critics and its defenders want it to be. It would like its salvation to be found in the glory of the sport itself. But it needs to get people back paying attention to that sport first. Maybe some actual games will help.