Instead of inspiring hoots of derision from his cohorts in the league, DeRozan triggered an outpouring. Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love penned a heartfelt essay on his own recent battles with anxiety and panic attacks. On Wednesday night, the Washington Wizards’ Kelly Oubre Jr. told a local podcast he also has struggled with mental health.
“I feel like people who are on the outside looking in don’t really understand because they see us as superheroes, but we’re normal people, man,” Oubre explained. “We go through the issues that normal people go through times 10.”
In the space of a few weeks, hoops stars had suddenly spearheaded a thoughtful conversation on mental health, an issue many won’t discuss with their own families, much less the entire world.
Yet the mental health dialogue fits into a larger reality about today’s NBA. Traditional media and politics are fraught with animus and division. Social media is a trash chute of trolling and outrage. But professional basketball — of all places — has emerged as a regular forum for talking out society’s thorniest topics. From mental health to gun control to President Trump, the NBA stars have become reflective voices amid the noise.
Last month, Fox’s Laura Ingraham’s blasted LeBron James for his criticism of Trump, telling the NBA superstar to “shut up and dribble.” James, however, did not merely clap back at the conservative commentator, who specializes in provocation, but used the opportunity to make a point about what a voice like his represents beyond the court.
“I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth. I mean too much to too many kids who feel like they don’t have a way out, and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in,” James said. “I get to sit up here and talk about social justice.”
Dwyane Wade has become a point man for the gun control conversation spinning off the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. After a victim of the shooting was buried in Wade’s jersey, the Miami Heat star dedicated his season to the school.
But the star’s advocacy predates the recent Florida tragedy. In 2016, Wade advocated for tighter firearms regulations following the fatal shooting of his cousin in Chicago. The Chicago police “are fighting a war,” Wade said at the time. “And they can do a lot better, but they can get more help as well to do better. There’s other cities that have way tougher gun laws. We have weak gun laws.”
The recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla., also inspired former NBA player Steve Nash, an eight-time all-star, to issue his own call for gun control for The Player’s Tribune.
“How can we come together on this issue?” Nash wrote. “Can we agree that there’s too much death, too much violence, too much loss? Can we come together and meet in the middle, as soon as possible, to save as many lives as possible? I know we can find some common ground — and I know that that’s where we’ll have to meet if we want to leave this continuous cycle of violence and death in the past.”
NBA teams and coaches have also offered vocal critiques of the president.
In February 2017, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank gave a CNBC interview in which he referred to the president as an “asset” to the country. Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, a contracted Under Armour endorser, pushed back to the Mercury News. “I agree with that description,” Curry told the paper, “if you remove the ‘et.”
Following the Warriors’ NBA championship victory last June, members of the team — including Curry and Coach Steve Kerr — would not commit to a victory trip to the Trump White House. The president then withdrew the team’s invitation on Twitter.
Instead, when the team swung through Washington last week, the Warriors toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a group of young students.
“If we’d gone to the White House, we’d have had the trophy there, we’d have reminisced about what we did in the past,” Kevin Durant told The Washington Post. “But this was about learning and inspiring youth, and it was amazing.”
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