Inside the Zoom call where Kyrie Irving tried to burst the NBA’s bubble
After hearing from Olympic protester John Carlos, a group of players tried to organize a boycott
Kyrie Irving had been hearing from players throughout the NBA — and the WNBA — who were questioning the Great Sports Comeback of 2020. They had concerns about abandoning the momentum of a social justice movement for the friendly confines of Disney World; younger and underpaid athletes were worried about not getting compensated if they refused to go. Despite voting alongside the leadership of the players’ union three days earlier to resume the season, Kyrie was frustrated that its 28 team representatives spoke for 450 players. Union chief Michele Roberts had been hurrying to canvass teams about a restart, but the rebels needed a champion for their cause. “Kyrie was and is known among the players as someone who is not shy,” she told me. “I’m not threatened by opposition or opposing voices. That’s what democracy is all about.”
A mass boycott of the bubble had a minor groundswell. An informal coalition of the potentially unwilling, dozens strong and growing, was born.
At Kyrie’s invitation, members of the coalition opened up a Zoom meeting and saw a wizened harbinger with a familiar fist, John Carlos.
Carlos left the basketball players with advice similar to what he’d told Colin Kaepernick when the two generational pioneers first met: “You have jumped into the pool of humanitarianism, and this is not in-the-moment — this is in-the-movement. You’re in the movement now. And now is not the time to go dormant with your voice. Now’s the time to turn the volume up and keep it turned up, because you jumped out there to speak up for the voiceless.”
Kyrie and his bubble-busters would have to come together as one unit, Carlos reminded players on the call, which included several title-hunters from LeBron’s Lakers, their starting point guard Avery Bradley and the veteran Dwight Howard among them. “He said this opportunity might not be available for another 50 years after this,” Avery told me, of Carlos. “There was so much pressure — other NBA players said we were crazy — but we had to find a way to reprogram everyone’s way of thinking and not just moving fast. Because this job moves fast, and some of it is on purpose, to not give you an opportunity to think, and just make impulse decisions instead. … There’s systemic racism going on in our job.”
Spencer Dinwiddie encouraged the rebels to get numbers and strike while the nation was hot. “Bro, I know how this story turns out,” he advised his teammate. “They’re gonna throw out disinformation to discredit you. And if you’re not resolute, then the movement’s going to die. Ky, you need the ayes.”
Kyrie and Avery scrambled to find player cellphone numbers and text out a mass invite for a video conference call that Friday night: Because of our competitive nature, there has been an unnecessary division amongst us. In joining together we have the ability to empower one another. We reach out to you because we want all of your voices to be heard. The eye-rolling was almost immediate, even across the court from Kyrie, KD, Wilson and Caris that day at Kobe’s gym, where Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma took a break from training and from suddenly tweeting daily about race and politics to make clear to his followers that some of us want to hoop and compete, don’t get that twisted.
Dwight Howard, at home with his family in suburban Atlanta, sent the invite to Natasha Cloud, a star of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and asked her to spread the good word. Natasha, too, was sick of talking logistics for the so-called wubble on hour-and-a-half-long WNBA union calls, so she’d interrupted restart negotiations to say their names: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. “I kinda got pushed as the radical leader,” she said. “I was the Kyrie of the WNBA.”
Natasha clicked on the invitation and saw, in the 75-plus boxes of the Zoom, the NBA’s modern-day thought-leadership hall of fame. Superstars, like Chris Paul and Russ Westbrook. Veterans, like Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala and Mike Conley Jr. The next superstars, like Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell and Malcolm Brogdon. And several Brooklyn Nets, including Kevin Durant. No LeBron. The host was a user named Ky Birving.
Kyrie’s opening remarks, from in front of a laptop at a friend’s house in North Jersey, were less rambling than usual. If everyone on the call wanted justice, he asked, how could players best unite in being present, for the movement and their Black communities? His presence from the bubble, of course, would be one of absence. He was hurt, officially, and remained skeptical of the types of NBA medical experts responsible for the league’s coronavirus response. But Kyrie believed Black players needed to put health and safety at a premium in order to fully articulate that their lives mattered. COVID-19 cases in Florida were on the uptick, and entertainers at Disney World were nonessential workers in a pandemic. They could be revolutionaries instead.
Chris Paul, as union president, warned players not to get too specific about new plans for negotiations on the call, because he knew that such details would leak to the press. But he and Roberts were already working to guarantee financial commitments from ownership for social justice and voting rights … while simultaneously recouping a couple billion dollars in player revenue lost to the virus.
If this coalition was rallying for a boycott or a strike, Carmelo asked, “What do we stand for?” Were NBA stars going to march in their home cities instead? Fight for reform in state legislatures?
“Unity,” Kyrie kept saying.
Garrett Temple found Kyrie’s entire insurrection to be rushed and relatively unnecessary. He reminded players on the call that the world was at a standstill. Baseball’s return had been stalling, the Dallas Cowboys were testing positive, and college athletes were bringing coronavirus back to campus. The bubble would offer time to discuss more demands, while players could pour their paychecks back into their communities and set an example for what Black generational wealth looked like. By the time the games began, Garrett said, people would have to watch basketball and listen to their message; the NBA would be the only thing on.
Andre Iguodala could navigate between compromisers and freedom fighters alike, a 2020 version of Stokely Carmichael if he’d invested early in Zoom, as Andre had. After KD left the Warriors, Andre flexed his player empowerment by holding out from the season for four months, until Miami had emerged as a title contender so he could finesse his trade of choice to the Heat, and he served on the union’s executive committee with Chris, Garrett and Kyrie. In 2014, Andre had prepared the Warriors to go on strike during their playoff series with the Clippers, an act of unity to help protest the vile bigot Donald Sterling. He’d encouraged Chris and the Clips to boycott with a firm stance: “Man, don’t show up. That’s powerful, right?” It was a true teammate’s duty, however, to do what was in the best interest of the group, and the internal priorities of the NBA in 2020 remained making back money. “I can’t always be so militant,” Andre told me. “But at the same time, I can slowly get that information to the guys and say, ‘OK, when we really ready, this is how we do it.’ You got to slowly bring them along.”
Spencer chimed in on Kyrie’s call: If a mass of players opted out of returning this season, the owners could lock them out, right after the bubble. Ownership could even hold back those long-awaited paychecks from their work in Disney World as leverage to cancel next season, if not two seasons, demanding that the players give up their fifty-fifty split of NBA revenue shares. A total of $1.2 billion in player salaries was in jeopardy.
“I’m willing to give up everything I have,” Kyrie said. If a coalition of players had to compensate those who wanted to opt out of the bubble, he figured, the top earners could cover the little guys.
“I didn’t believe him,” Garrett told me. “It’s easy to say that when you’ve made what you’ve made and you’ve got the Nike money. If you’re coming into the league and haven’t made a dime yet, then that would be a totally different story — and you had other big guys randomly just start talking about social justice, and it seems convenient because they have tens of millions of dollars in the bank.” Even if Kyrie could support the paycheck-to-paycheck players who wanted to work on social justice, rookies and grinders like Justin Anderson were still working to earn a spot in the league as their workplace reopened early. They deserved the option to conjoin protest and play. By the end of the back-and-forth, Garrett said, “there was no new plan, because most guys that didn’t want to play did not have a plan. They just said, ‘We’ll sit out, and something will happen.’ ”
Toward the end of the call, Renee Montgomery’s Zoom box filled the screen. The women of the WNBA had led for so long — she and the Minnesota Lynx had T-shirts for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling back in 2016, and had already refused to talk about anything else in media appearances — but they didn’t appear, to many non-believers, to have the same hit-’em-in-the-pocket power as players in the NBA. Renee now played for the Atlanta Dream, which was co-owned by the Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, who used her own team’s activism as a race-baiting reelection tool. Women were on the front lines of the movement in the world at large and the sports world, once again, as the Dream and the WNBA players’ union tried to force out the owner. Renee was willing to risk her season to get out there on CNN and MSNBC talking about racial injustice, instead of going to the wubble to finish the season and get paid — and she only made $109,000 a year.
Kyrie was shocked to learn more about the wage gap in the WNBA, where the maximum salary was $215,000 and players often had to work a double season by playing abroad, and he was willing to ante up for them, too. “We need to protect our queens,” Kyrie said.
“It was like a Black Panther call, in the best way,” Natasha Cloud told me later, “because we were empowering one another as kings and queens. As the NBA and the WNBA, we’ve been separated for far too long. We’ve been completely separated. They didn’t want us in communication.”
The call may have had a bit too much communication, because the revolution had been tweeted by reporters within minutes, spewed back out to fans who considered Kyrie a forever villain. Some players accused ESPN of bias for wanting sports back on TV for its bottom line, and so for labeling Kyrie as the Disruptor.
Closing the laptop at his friend’s house, Kyrie ate a sandwich and laughed a familiar, fed-up laugh at Twitter. A radical on top was on the right track, he believed, when the system was trying this hard to sabotage your best intentions underground. “It won’t happen to Kyrie, but it’s similar to what happened to Kap with that narrative,” Andre said. “It’s almost like they’re infiltrating our system — like what happened to the Black Panther Party.”
Kyrie and Avery Bradley remained disappointed, though not surprised, that their insurrection failed. They did not exactly convince anyone new that evening to join their mass boycott, and they felt that their list of demands — for franchises to hire more diversely in front offices and coaching staffs, to partner with Black-owned arena vendors and local businesses, to donate a lot more money — went largely unread at the time.
John Carlos had told players in the coalition to expect that it might take the media and fans decades to realize they were right, but the rebels never reported back to the wise man. “I’m a bit embarrassed of how we handled that entire situation,” Avery said, “because I don’t feel like we did what he wanted us to do. The opportunity for us to take advantage of that situation was there, and we missed out on it — we didn’t know who was together. And I know everyone’s pushing for change, but the NBA had a big opportunity, because everybody else woulda followed suit — every other sport — if we made the right move.”
Dwight Howard called Craig Hodges, the freedom fighter blackballed by the Bulls and the NBA after he’d been up in Michael Jordan’s business 30 years earlier, and confessed to his elder that he felt lonely and confused in picking up the mantle of athlete activism. Craig told him to go win a championship with the Lakers, then come back to his Atlanta community in the offseason.
“This generation, you don’t have to boycott,” Craig said. “You can have your social media to put on heavy, heavy pressure, and you can still play the game. “But what is the game?” Craig asked. “Our goal has to be defined by us who have been part of the oppressed community, but now it’s time to redress it to the point of solutions. The only thing that this white power structure realizes and considers is somebody pulling their tail economically. Slavery was economics. Going down to the bubble is economics. Opening up the economy is economics. The bottom line is the green … and this whole structure don’t wanna look at the power that underlies their power. The NBA’s power structure is Black athletes, but they don’t wanna give those Black athletes equity. When you go down to the bubble to play, Black people are still being murdered, today, when you’re opening up your season. So what has really changed?”
Later the night of Kyrie’s call, at a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in his car, and woke up to police officers questioning him. After they tried to arrest him, he grabbed an officer’s taser and ran, and was shot by one of them twice in the back. Brooks was 27 years old.
Excerpted from the book CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow by Matt Sullivan. Copyright © 2021 by Matt Sullivan. From Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.