BASKETBALL, to quote Basketball (and Other Things) writer and Spurs superfan Shea Serrano, IS VERY GOOD.
For a long time, I didn’t know this. Growing up during the Dream Team/Space Jam/1998-99 lockout era, I knew basketball was big, but doing that growing up in Wyoming, I didn’t have a franchise that was automatically mine. Sure, I could have taken the Denver Nuggets for my own (Colorado gives Wyoming most of our sports fandom possibilities), or even the Utah Jazz (which, considering my aunt illustrated a locally published book for them in 1994, I probably should have? Sorry, Kristi!), but that would have taken more intentionality than 11-year old me had the capacity for. Also, I have had, since I was very young, one single, tiny superpower, and that superpower is looking away from any sports-adjacent thing the moment anything interesting or important happens. Anything. Like, the two seconds it takes for Olympic divers to flip and spin between board and water. Like, the five seconds it takes to replay those dives twice. A 48-minute basketball game? Played with dozens of breaks and timeouts over the course of two hours? HA. Can’t trick ME, basketball! I know a losing proposition when I see one.
Cut to: February 2017. The first Black History Month in the Trump presidency. Less than a year into Kaepernick’s protest in the NFL. I’m scrolling Facebook (I know, I know, I’m sorry) and a college friend has shared this quotation about the importance of the NBA promoting Black History Month, from some old dude, Gregg Popovich, who I’ve never heard of but apparently is associated with the league (he is the San Antonio Spurs’ longtime, winningest coach, OK, don’t @ me, I know this now!):
“I think it’s pretty obvious. The league is made up of a lot of black guys. To honor [Black History Month] and understand it is pretty [simple]. How would you ignore that? We live in a racist country that hasn’t figured it out yet. And it’s always important to bring attention to it, even if it angers some people,. The point is that you have to keep it in front of everybody’s nose so that they understand it, that it still hasn’t been taken care of and we have a lot of work to do.”
To quote Serrano again: nobody better than pop.
Cut again, this time to November 2018, where I have the Spurs app front and center on my phone, a calendar of all the nights their games will air in my region, and a healthy obsession with tracking how the Spurs as a franchise, and the NBA as a league, are rising to the challenge of advancing an anti-racist, anti-misogynist agenda in their one small corner of American culture. Because, it turns out, BASKETBALL IS VERY GOOD. Not only does enough happen in the course of a 48-minute game that not even my superpower can keep up, but teams like the Spurs have a strong, egalitarian culture in which every player props up every other player and never stops learning, and the NBA Players Association gives players greater agency as employees than other professional sports. It also turns out that Coach Pop is not the only member of the NBA more than willing to be both clear-eyed and vocal about the execrable state of racism in America today—he is just one of many, all representing the latest, most progressive evolution of the NBA’s stuttering history of processing the impact of race and politics on sports since the league’s all-white inception in the 1940s.
It is this history that LeBron James, contemporary NBA superstar and exemplar of how to invest in your local and national community as a professional athlete in 2018, takes as the subject of the three-part Showtime docuseries Shut Up and Dribble.
The timing of the series, like its title—taken from the sneering words of Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, in response to an interview James and Kevin Durant did with ESPN’s Cari Champion that hit on Trump’s racist lack of interest in the American people—its choice of narrator—commentator Jemele Hill, famously suspended from ESPN for tweeting that Trump is a white supremacist—and its choice of title song—The Prodigy vs. Public Enemy vs. Manfred Mann’s “Shut ’Em Up”—is steeped in intention. Wielding the historical receipts from Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor’s (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) rocking the white boat in the 1950s and 1960s; to Larry Bird’s Great White Hope and the Detroit Piston “Bad Boys” in the 1980s; to Michael Jordan’s corporatized neutrality and the league-imposed dress code in response to Allen Iverson’s introduction of hip-hop culture in the 1990s; to the modern epidemic of state violence against black men that has prompted James and the rest of the current generation of NBA players to engage in politics on and off court, the series argues that the politics of race has never not been a part of the NBA’s DNA.
For good or ill, that is, race—and racism—has dictated how not just the sport and the league, but the American culture in reaction to both, has evolved.
This thesis is argued best in the first of the three installments, which starts with Russell joining the Celtics and ends on a Michael Jordan-sized cliffhanger, and which benefits from the fact that a historical narrative is always easier to understand from a distance. The NBA isn’t so old that the series can’t tap some of those original players to comment on their memories and experiences, but it is old enough that the footage of fans, reporters and coaches being grossly, blatantly racist can be played without threatening modern fans’, reporters’ and coaches’ sense of identity. Those people were bad, we can say, looking back at the suits and flare-leg pants and disco hair of white people drawing many of the same bigoted conclusions about black athletes staying in their lane as Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and plenty of average Joe and Jane spectators do today. Once the series reaches the 1990s and turns to interviews with people like retired NBA commissioner David Stern, legendary sports anchor Bob Costas, and retired players and celebrity fans still in their 40s or 50s—people, that is, with greater personal investment in what the NBA’s evolution has meant—the narrative starts to fuzz.
But, importantly, it never unravels. In fact, the fuzzier it starts to get, the more obvious it becomes that the fuzziness is the point. “Being a political athlete isn’t always about grabbing a microphone and doing a discourse about race and oppression,” as SBNation’s David Zirin says in the second episode. “Being a political athlete can also be about how you represent yourself.” In the current NBA era, this means players like James founding schools and producing documentaries and calling the President a bum, and players like Steph Curry saying “No” to a White House visit for no other reason than he doesn’t want to go. It means Abdul-Jabbar being a vocal cultural writer and commentator, and coaches and former players Pop and Steve Kerr (of the Golden State Warriors) calling the President’s and the country’s racist attitudes out every chance they get. (“What you’re seeing is, the athletes are showing patriotism through their community service,” Kerr told a gameday scrum this summer. “The President is turning all of this stuff into a political game. And a ratings game. And it’s a blatant display of nationalism. Patriotism is helping your fellow citizen, whether it’s what [Kevin Durant]’s doing or what we did when we visited Washington. What the [WNBA franchise Minnesota] Lynx are doing today. That’s what patriotism is about.”)
What it means, then, above all, is that anyone in the NBA who wants to talk about race and politics should absolutely talk about race and politics, and that for a thousand different but connected reasons, shut up and dribble is the last thing that anyone should say to any of them.
I’m still working on understanding what the different kinds of fouls in basketball are, so I’ll understand if you don’t want to quote me on that Big Conclusion. But maybe you’ll listen to Abdul-Jabbar, who was thoughtful and engaged enough as a teenaged Lew Alcindor to tell a reporter this: “If you’re in a racist society and you’re being discriminated against, it’s up to you to do something for yourself.”
With Shut Up and Dribble, LeBron James is taking what he knows about basketball and doing something.
Basketball—it is very good.
Shut Up and Dribble airs Saturdays on Showtime at 10 p.m.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.