Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and is expected to miss about six weeks
Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom collected a litany of titles during his short, yet prolific life. Grammy-nominated rapper. Rollin’ 60s Crip. Community activist. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Lauren London’s soulmate. Emani and Kross’ father.
And Isaiah Thomas’ favorite artist — though their marathon, a bond dating back more than a decade, is far deeper than rap. Tattooed on the Washington Wizards point guard’s left leg are two checkered flags and an all-caps mantra, “I been fighting battles up a steep hill.”
“That’s my life story,” Thomas said shortly after the Wizards’ practice in early October. The two-time All-Star made his season debut Oct. 26 for Washington after recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He posted an impressive 16 points, three rebounds and five assists in 20 minutes in a 124-122 loss in San Antonio.
The lyrics inked on his skin derive from the now self-written eulogy “Racks In The Middle” from Thomas’ close friend turned guardian angel. Hussle was gunned down in front of his South Central Los Angeles-based Marathon clothing store on March 31. Eric Holder, 29, is facing trial in his murder. Thomas also cherishes another Hussle-inspired tat saying “TMC,” short for “The Marathon Continues” on his right shoulder. It’s an adage that defined their friendship, the similar trajectory of their careers and their ability to find strength after immeasurable grief in both of their lives. Thomas losing his sister and Hussle losing a close childhood friend within months of each other in 2017.
“That’s what it was. We had each other to lean on,” Thomas said. “We went through real-life situations that a lot of people can’t relate to.”
Hussle’s murder shook hip-hop to its core and sent emotional shock waves across the pop culture universe. His death particularly resonated in the NBA community, where he held close friendships with players James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Stephen Curry, Wilson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and several more.
“[Ballplayers] come from the same environment. They going through the same struggle. They’re just attacking it through their gifts on the court or on the field,” Hussle said in a 2018 interview. “Likewise, we’ll be in the studio and have the playoffs on mute and go back and watch classic performances. And just be like, ‘Look at the zone they was in.’ We both feed off each other.”
Hussle’s bond with Thomas was uniquely poignant. One built off similar self-made, get-it-out-the-mud, rags to riches orbits. Hussle was a child of South Central Los Angeles’ slums who had risen to the cusp of mainstream stardom at the time of his death. And Thomas from last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to undersized superstar point guard and now veteran aiming to prove that a string of injuries aren’t the final professional chapter of his marathon.
Thomas signed with the Wizards following one season with the Nuggets in July. He did so by paying homage to Hussle via Twitter through lyrics applicable to his journey’s newest chapter. As the Wizards start the season for the first time without John Wall in nearly a decade, Thomas will have an opportunity to play valuable minutes as a floor general. The eight-year veteran has coined this season his “victory lap” — an homage to Hussle’s Grammy-nominated final project. “When [Nipsey] came out with Victory Lap, I wasn’t able to play like I wanted to. I wanna show the world I can play at a high level like before I got injured.”
Hussle will be with Thomas for every game this season both in spirit and in playlist. But Thomas hasn’t yet given himself the emotional real estate to ponder how he’ll react not seeing Hussle courtside at his games for the first time since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas hasn’t let go of Hussle. Out of love and loyalty, he won’t. And out of confusion and pain, he refuses.
“I can’t even explain it. To this day it don’t seem real,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “A person that positive and that genuine to everybody, anybody, it’s like that shouldn’t happen. They always say, ‘The good die young,’ and it’s really like that.”
Every marathon begins with a first step. In the University of Washington’s locker room in the fall of 2008, each member of the men’s basketball team had a chance to be team DJ. Freshman forward Darnell Gant, a Crenshaw High School graduate, used his opportunity to put on for his South Central brethren. One of Hussle’s earliest hits, the Kriss Kross “Jump”-inspired, but code of the street-driven “Hussle In The House” had recently become the MC’s first introduction to some of his earliest fans outside of Los Angeles.
“I was playing [Nipsey],” said Gant. “Then I remember Isaiah coming up to me in the locker room.”
“Who’s that?” Thomas asked.
“This Nipsey from Crenshaw.”
From there, Gant gladly offered his fellow freshman Thomas an immediate curriculum on Hussle. One of the hardest new acts to emerge out of California since The Game dropped The Documentary in 2005. An artist with a vision for his community wise beyond his years — and whose graphic street narratives of Los Angeles were scribed with John Singleton-like precision. Gant never knew Hussle personally, but his OG’s did. All Gant was doing was paying it forward by putting his teammate onto hometown game. He had no way of knowing an otherwise innocent locker room conversation would help inspire an unbreakable bond.
Thomas took his education on Hussle far beyond UW’s training facilities. He devoured every piece of Hussle content he could find on the Internet. Thomas would tirelessly tweet Hussle’s lyrics, attaching the @NipseyHussle handle to make sure the rapper would notice the admiration. Hussle, an avid basketball fan with a respectable game himself, soon began following Thomas. The two swapped messages and months later met for the first time at a February 2009 show at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo while Hussle was on The Game’s “LAX” Tour.
“It was genuine love on both sides. He knew who I was, just from playing basketball. I knew who he was and he was up-and-coming [like me],” Thomas reflected. “He was a real genuine person and his energy just rubbed off on everybody in the room. It was dope from day one.”
Thomas and Hussle’s marathons ran at similar paces. Their progress was mutually inspirational. Thomas earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during the 2008-09 season. Hussle being featured on the 2010 XXL Freshmen cover alongside future stars J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa. Thomas firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most prolific scorers and named Pac-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore — and honorable mention All-American as a junior. And Hussle transitioning from his critically acclaimed Bullets Ain’t Got No Names mixtape series into The Marathon and The Marathon Continues.
By the summer of 2011, Thomas and Hussle had grown far beyond celebrity acquaintances. They were friends with a deep respect for the other’s craft and dedication. Days after being drafted by the Kings, Thomas took to Facebook expressing his desire to have Hussle perform at his draft party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas dreamed it, then Hussle real life’d it.
“[Nipsey] did the whole Marathon mixtape,” Thomas said still in awe. “Usually guys do a few songs, then get up out there. He did every song on there. He just showed real genuine love to my city. From that day forward, we would text, we would call. Every time I’m in L.A., I would go by the shop. He’d send me Marathon clothing. We’ve been really close since then.”
Their marathons would continue analogous paths. Hussle’s vision for music, but his growing business empire caused an entire industry to take notice despite the absence of Billboard chart-topping recognition. In 2013, Jay-Z made headlines when he purchased 100 copies of Hussle’s Crenshaw mixtape being sold at $100 per disc. The entire time, both celebrated the other’s win as their own. Thomas would bounce from Sacramento to Phoenix and to Boston — each stop establishing him as a bona fide scoring threat with unassailable heart.
“To see [Isaiah] make his moves in the NBA, go give n—-s hell last season and just run up his value. I look at his career a lot like I look at mine. His trajectory — he proved himself,” Hussle said, expressing his admiration for Thomas. “He made himself valuable. Against a lot of odds. And so I f— with I.T., heavy.”
All marathons present moments of self-doubt. And friendship has a profound way of evolving through tragedy. By 2017, Thomas was one of basketball’s most venomous scorers, averaging 28.9 points. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” for a string of heroic performances throughout the season leading the Celtics to 53 wins. The watershed campaign led to Thomas’ second consecutive All-Star berth. What had been a season-long coronation for Thomas as a true NBA superstar soon gave way to disaster. On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas, Thomas’ younger sister, died in a car accident in Washington state. Thomas, in a heroic performance for the ages, would drop 33 points in a Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls a day later. (Boston would win the series in six.) In Thomas’ corner the entire time was a familiar friend. Hussle’s texts messages about looking catastrophe in the face and continuing “run[ing] your race” provided invaluable moments of peace and motivation that Thomas needed.
“He sent a really long text to me just being inspiring to keep going, knowing that life is a marathon,” said Thomas. “He always been that type of friend. It’s always been real genuine love. A marathon is tough. Life is tough. That was probably the biggest thing that I would keep in my heart. Just keep running your race no matter what.”
Five months later, Hussle’s childhood friend and business partner Stephen “Fats” Donelson was murdered while standing outside a marijuana dispensary where he was employed. Donelson’s death hit Hussle extremely hard at a time in his life and career were trending upward toward the release his highly anticipated debut album in Victory Lap. Hussle would later commemorate Fats on the aforementioned “Racks In The Middle.” “Damn I wish my n—- Fats was here/ How you die at 30-something after banging all them years,” Hussle pleaded in 2019’s most chilling verse. “Grammy-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”
“When Fats died,” Thomas said, “I reached out to him and it was just like, ‘I’m here for you if you need me. I know you got a thousand people in your corner, but if you ever need to talk, you know I’m here.’ ”
Celebrate every victory during a marathon, because the last will never announce itself beforehand. Hussle and Thomas saw a reflection in themselves in the other. The “Blue Laces 2” MC was particularly prideful when his friend made his season debut with the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 13. Thomas smiled when seeing checkered flag emojis, symbolic for Hussle’s marathon edict, appear in his inbox.
“I know he was just about to send me some new music, actually the last time we had talked,” said Thomas.
Days after that conversation, the Nuggets were preparing, coincidentally, to host the Washington Wizards. Thomas was going through pregame routines, taking him away from his phone. By the time he returned, the news had already spread. Nipsey Hussle dead at 33. Thomas sat in a daze. The last thing on his mind was basketball. He didn’t play that night. Almost two years after the worst news of his life following losing his sister, now Thomas had another soul-piercing loss to manage. Nothing felt real.
“I just feel like coming home,” Thomas remembered telling his wife, Kayla, after receiving the news.
Around the same time, Thomas’ former college teammate Gant was getting off work in Los Angeles. The city was already paralyzed with a wicked elixir of fear, anger and depression. The two former teammates swapped messages, Gant more so checking on his friend whom he had introduced to Hussle’s music a decade earlier. He admired from afar how Hussle attended Thomas’ games, often donning Thomas’ jerseys. But now he was concerned about Thomas’ well-being.
“Losing [his sister] Chyna, I knew if he took that hard, he was gonna do the same thing with Nip,” said Gant. “I took it as he lost a family member.”
“That was a really good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He meant a lot to me. [Nipsey] was like a brother, for sure.”
With a new season underway, Thomas is excited for the opportunity in front of him in the nation’s capital. But make no mistake, Thomas is still very much grieving. He will be for quite some time, if not the rest of his life. Thomas’ eyes become glossy at the mention of Hussle’s name. He laughs at the funny memories — he refuses to say what his favorite memory of Hussle courtside is, choosing to keep that between him and his friend. But the weight of the loss visibly sits on his shoulders. How Thomas stares off to a different part of the room. How he fidgets with his hands when speaking. How he remains silent when trying to gather the correct words. Just the thought of Hussle oftentimes dictates his body language.
A natural human reaction to any uncomfortable or painful event in life is to develop tangible steps on how to resolve it. Grief, says Washington-based clinical psychologist Justin S. Hopkins, doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows, and trigger points such as birthdays or anniversaries are always looming. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that grief continues in many different forms long after a person is lost,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that you have to continue to manage, process and make meaning of losing someone and how you remember them. And how you continue to love them long after they’re gone.”
Loss has a way of clarifying the magnitude of life. Death, in particular the passing of a close loved one, is incredibly difficult to compartmentalize and move on as if it didn’t happen.
“Disbelief is a really common aspect of grieving,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to accept that someone you love will continue to have a relationship through your memories, but is no longer here physically. That’s really, really hard to take in. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time and a lot of processing.”
Thomas continues his marathon with a lifetime of Hussle-curated memories. He’s only gotten emotional once over the past seven months. That was April 11, the day he saw Hussle laid to rest. Being in the Staples Center that day was an emotional juxtaposition for Thomas. Less than a year had passed since he was with Hussle at the same arena as he performed at the 2018 BET Awards. Part of Thomas refuses to accept what he knows is the reality. He snickers at Hussle becoming a meme during last season’s Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets fight that involved Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — Courtside, goin viral when them punches thrown, Hussle rapped posthumously on Rick Ross’ “Rich N—a Lifestyle.”
“It was funny to see that picture,” Thomas said, chuckling, “because that’s what most dudes in those types of situations has been in [do] … you’re going to pull up your pants and be ready.”
For Thomas, it all goes back to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. His whole life story was on that block, on that corner, Thomas says. Every time he’d touch down in L.A., Hussle would meet Thomas at his Marathon store. Occasionally, he’d take his sons, James and Jaiden. Thomas says every time, without fail, Hussle and friends would walk him back to his car. Hussle’s message was simple, yet poignant. Be safe out here.
“That’s why I haven’t been there [since], because it’s just like I keep saying. It just doesn’t seem real for him to be taken in front of what he built,” Thomas said. “It would probably be hard for me to go back over that way because that was a real special person to me.”
Thomas hasn’t given much thought to how he’ll react not seeing his friend courtside in Los Angeles, Houston or even welcoming him to Washington this season. Hussle’s absence won’t change the way he plays, but similar to his sister’s death, he finds peace “staying on [my] marathon.” He knows that would be Hussle’s only wish for him. The marathon was the root of their conversations, their friendship and their brotherhood. Staying 10 toes down and never letting a hard time humble them doesn’t stop just because one isn’t physically here anymore. Until they meet again in the next lifetime, Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart and on his skin.
“[Nipsey was] probably the realest person I ever met. [He’s] somebody that I would want my kids to be like. Nothing about him was fake.”
D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.
It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.
Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.
Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.
Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.
Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington
Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.
Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.
The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.
More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.
“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”
This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.
“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.
The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.
During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.
In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”
Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.
Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.
The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.
Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.
“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.
“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”
‘City Under Siege’
By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.
Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.
Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.
“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”
When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.
When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.
After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.
The arrival of the nationals
Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.
Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.
Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.
E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.
“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.
“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”
But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.
“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.
“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”
No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.
LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.
On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.
The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.
These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.
When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)
China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:
“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”
That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.
What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.
James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.
Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)
James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.
“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”
Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.
I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.
I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.
James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?
On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.
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“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”
James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.
On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.
The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.
The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.