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The NBA moves forward as North Carolina drifts back

Does House Bill 2 mean less social justice and inclusion in this Southern state?

Not even its storied basketball history and inevitable disappointment for legend and Charlotte Hornets chairman Michael Jordan could stand in the way of North Carolina’s rightward drift. The NBA has moved the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte, making it hardly the first but simply the latest and surely the highest-profile casualty of House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which regulates the restrooms transgender folks use – and so much more.

“The Boss” Bruce Springsteen’s concert cancellation did not hurt this much.

NBA MVP Stephen Curry is upset he won’t be playing in front of a hometown crowd. Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, for once on the same page with rival North Carolina coaches, called the bill an “embarrassment.”

Led by commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA decided “we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2,” and a vague promise to re-consider Charlotte for the 2019 game does not look hopeful as stubborn politicians dig in on both sides, though federal court challenges might solve the issue by then.

It’s hard to believe this is the same state labeled “New South” since the 1960s, when it seemed to reject the divisive racial politics of its neighbors for a more moderate and economically rewarding path. An overwhelmingly white Charlotte elected Harvey B. Gantt as its first black mayor in the 1980s – though in the 1990s his quest to become U.S. senator twice ran into the throwback buzz saw named Jesse Helms fueled by a “white hands” ad that set the standard for dirty politicking.

Still, the state solidified its purple-trending-blue status when President Barack Obama narrowly won it in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012, the year Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention, presided over by an African-American chief of police and African-American Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Did the changing of the leadership in the city and state cause a backlash? Was it that the cities were going their own way, and perhaps, setting the image of North Carolina in the eyes of the country and the world?

It just proves how quickly a hard-fought progressive label built up over decades can disappear, taking in this case an estimated $100 million of lost revenue with it.

Protestors gather across the street from the North Carolina state legislative building as they voice their concerns over House Bill 2, in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 16, 2016. House Bill 2, also known as the Bathroom Bill, which requires transgender people to use the public restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate, has received the attention of national media and the White House.

Protesters gather across the street from the North Carolina state legislative building as they voice their concerns over House Bill 2 in Raleigh, North Carolina on May 16. House Bill 2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” which requires transgender people to use the public restroom matching the gender on their birth certificate, has received the attention of national media and the White House.

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

Just when the NBA, its players and management continue to become more prominently and visibly political, North Carolina moves in the opposite direction. NBA superstars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James made a public statement at The ESPYS and WNBA players incurred fines and rebuke for donning black shirts to protest violence. While back in North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory denounces the NBA’s decision to move its All-Star Game as “total P.C. B.S.,” fueled by the media and the Human Rights Campaign.

McCrory definitely misread the mood of businesses and celebrities who have decided to stay away until North Carolina catches up to the more progressive policies of, say, South Carolina. Who thought anyone would ever say that? The incumbent may have also jeopardized his chances in what was already shaping up to be a tough re-election race against Democrat Roy Cooper, the current state attorney general who has refused to enforce the law – passed quickly in a special session and signed immediately by McCrory – calling it unconstitutional.

From afar, it looks simple: The backward forces of a Southern state revert to form. But up close, the bill itself is more complicated, as is the story line of how it all came to pass, and where North Carolina will go next.

North Carolina may seem solidly red in 2016, with a state legislature and U.S. congressional delegation dominated by conservative Republicans. But the numbers show a state more evenly divided, with the biggest differences in political view between cities and more rural areas. Pick an issue, and usually you will find Charlotte, Greensboro, Asheville, Winston-Salem and the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill on one side and eastern Carolina and other parts of the state on the other.

The conservative domination owes much to redistricting, now being fought in the courts. But the state legislature has wasted no time in edging its way into local politics from the city council to the school board to airport management in Democratic-led cities.

This is how House Bill 2 became that line in the sand. Passed in reaction to a Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance, the bill said that in government buildings transgender people must use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate. It also took away the power of the state’s cities to enact their own nondiscrimination rules or a minimum wage. Even smaller cities across the state resented the intrusion.

Ironically, it is the cities that have lost the most – from the All-Star Game to tech and finance companies such as PayPal deciding to expand elsewhere.

Expect the fight over House Bill 2, and the loss of the NBA All-Star Game to bring a greater scrutiny to other North Carolina policies – such as contested voter ID requirements that opponents say discriminate against minorities, the poor, the elderly and young people in an important election year.

Will activists such as state NAACP head the Rev. William Barber ask prominent sports figures to put their power and prestige on the line for other issues of social justice and inclusion in a Southern state suffering growing pains?

Though sports have placed its political and social divisions in the spotlight, much more is at stake in North Carolina’s future than a basketball game.

Mary C. Curtis, columnist for Roll Call and NBCBLK and contributor to NPR, has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. She is a child of West Baltimore, based in Charlotte, N.C., and can sing the entire score of “Hamilton.”