Twelve days after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, Harrison Barnes stepped onto a podium, gripped a cordless microphone, gazed across a sea of thousands and made a gentle plea.
“Our job as protesters is important for our democracy,” the Sacramento Kings veteran told the crowd at a rally near California’s capitol building, before adding, “But if all we do is show up here to protest and don’t follow through with voting, we’re not gonna see the change that we want to see.”
For Barnes, 28, it was an empowering moment. And a new role.
He had been outspoken on police brutality and racial justice. He had attended protests like this before, including one in 2018 after Sacramento police killed an unarmed Black man, 22-year-old Stephon Clark. But now Barnes was the one with the microphone and the message.
A movement was coalescing in the wake of Floyd’s death, and here was Barnes, standing alongside former Kings Bobby Jackson and Matt Barnes (no relation), channeling a community’s anguish and rage.
“It’s people demanding justice,” Barnes told B/R. “It’s people sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Across the country, the scene repeated, one NBA player after another taking to the streets—marching, chanting, leading, demanding justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by police.
In Compton, it was DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook. In Atlanta, Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon. In Oakland, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney. In Portland, Damian Lillard. In Philadelphia, Kyle Lowry and Tobias Harris. In Washington, Bradley Beal and John Wall. In Norman, Oklahoma, Trae Young.
“I’m not used to doing this,” the 21-year-old Young said, a little tentatively, as he addressed a rally last month in his hometown. “… This country is in a messed-up place right now. I just think it’s important that we all stick together, and we stand up for what’s right.”
The world’s greatest basketball players did not set out to become social justice activists. But circumstances practically demanded it. As young Black men, they knew all too well the challenges their communities faced. So players across the spectrum—from All-Stars and rising stars to third-stringers—stepped to the front lines.
There has never been a moment quite like this.
Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legends of another era, once risked their careers fighting for civil rights. Occasionally, a lone NBA voice has taken a public stand for social justice (Craig Hodges) or against a war (Steve Nash). Yet their battles were mostly solitary and unwelcome—shunned by league officials, and by many fans.
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But the “shut up and dribble” era is over.
Today’s players are emboldened by each other’s voices, by a commissioner who overtly supports their activism—and by the NBA legend who still walks and dribbles among them and who declared, unequivocally, he was more than an athlete.
LeBron James did not birth this modern NBA movement, but he fostered it, nurtured it and created a safe space for his peers by speaking out: on Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Eric Garner in 2014, with a speech at the ESPYs in 2016 and with a pointed barb at President Donald Trump in 2017.
“When you have the main person in the sport speaking out, it tells everyone else that they don’t have to be afraid and can speak out, too,” said Etan Thomas, a former NBA player, activist and author of the book We Matter: Athletes and Activism. Seeing James take a stand, he said, sends a powerful message to every other player: “I can do it as well.”
“That’s why him doing that is so important,” Thomas said, “because he’s inspiring so many guys.”
Whether James claims the trophy or not, this year might already be the most impactful of his long and storied career.
Last month, he joined other athletes and entertainers in launching More Than a Vote, a nonprofit aimed at registering voters and combating voter suppression, especially in Black communities, ahead of the November election.
“I’m inspired by the likes of Muhammad Ali,” James told the New York Times after announcing the initiative. “I’m inspired by the Bill Russells and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Oscar Robertsons—those guys who stood when the times were even way worse than they are today.”
Now it is James who is doing the inspiring. An entire generation has grown up watching him dominate the NBA, while witnessing the steady growth of player activism he’s championed.
“We will definitely not shut up and dribble,” James declared in February 2018, responding to a tirade from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “… I mean too much to society, too much to the youth, too much to so many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out.”
That exchange was sparked by James’ rebuke of Trump, who he said “really don’t give a fuck about the people”—one of several times James has criticized the president (who, in turn, has repeatedly disparaged James). The prior year, James had famously referred to Trump as “U bum” in a Twitter post about the Golden State Warriors‘ decision not to visit the White House.
Phil Long/Associated Press
Amid the controversy, James made a simple declaration—“I am more than an athlete”— posting a photo of that phrase in neon, which hangs on a wall at Uninterrupted, the athlete-focused media company he launched with his business partner Maverick Carter in 2014.