But like many young Black men, when it came time to vote in 2016, Bamba passed.
“Now, looking back on it, it was crazy to me that I didn’t,” said Bamba, a center for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. He views not voting “as a huge mistake.”
Now Bamba, along with players across the NBA, plans to change that. And not satisfied with increasing the turnout on just their rosters, the players and league are using their power to push a singular political message between now and next month’s election: Vote.
Their campaign may have the vibe of a corporate-friendly branding effort, with public service announcements shared on social media and airing during playoff games and players wearing identical T-shirts before games with “VOTE” across the front. But the advocacy goes deeper.
Teams have held drive-in registration events, installed ballot drop boxes on their privately owned sites and scheduled Nov. 3 as a paid day off for employees. And while other leagues, notably the NFL and WNBA, have promoted voting, the NBA has pooled its resources for what will be the most organized and largest political effort executed by a professional sports league, with 22 of 30 teams turning either their arenas or practice facilities into polling places.
It’s a show of corporate strength expected to continue through the NBA Finals and into the offseason. But it has largely been the players, reckoning with their past apathy while realizing their power as political influencers, who have made increasing turnout this election a personal issue.
“Yes, the league has been engaged on this issue, but all of that was because the players were already behind it. It wasn’t the other way around,” said Sherrie Deans, an executive with the National Basketball Players Association. “They’re pulling every power lever that they’ve got. … Whatever happens in this election, it won’t be because they weren’t present.”
A turnout problem
Voting became a priority for NBA players in the league’s “bubble,” the Disney World campus where its season was resurrected after being shuttered by the novel coronavirus in March. At least 10 players chose to display “Vote” on the back of their jerseys. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul, the players’ union president, also invited NBA and WNBA players to join former first lady Michelle Obama on a Zoom call, during which Obama encouraged them all to vote.
This newfound enthusiasm came with an asterisk, though: Despite being considered some of the most outspoken athletes in sports, very few NBA players voted in 2016. Among the eligible voters within the league, only 22 percent cast ballots, according to statistics provided by the players’ union.
Some players faced unusual obstacles to casting their ballots: They were in the middle of the season during the November election, and many play in markets in which they are not registered. But in a league in which 74 percent of players identify as Black, the low turnout spoke to a broader issue: Only 37 percent of Black men under 30 voted in 2016, a turnout rate 23 points below the country overall, according to a Washington Post analysis of the Census Current Population Survey.
“I always talk about how Black kids and Black people in the community don’t believe that their vote matters,” Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James told reporters last month. “We grow up or we don’t think that our vote actually matters for who becomes the president. I mean, we’ve seen recounts before, we’ve seen our voice be muted, muted over our whole lives.”
Over the past four years, players and coaches have begun to find their political voice. Some, such as James, have spoken out: In 2018, James referred to President Trump as a “bum” when Trump said he would not invite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the White House. Before the midterm elections that year, Paul joined Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote coalition to compel young people to vote.
But that presented the union with a challenge. Recognizing that others would follow Paul into voting advocacy, the union wanted to ensure its players were living the life they were advocating.
The union made a push to conduct voter registrations for all 30 teams. It started last offseason, registering players at the NBA Summer League and during the Rookie Transition Program, the mandatory three-day event that helps new players adapt to the NBA. Then union officials moved from city to city, registering individual players.
They had visited only nine teams when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the league in March. But during the four-month hiatus that followed, the union set up an online portal for players to register in their home counties. And when teams moved into the bubble, the NBPA worked with the league to embed the information into the campus app so players could register to vote in the same place they could find out what was on the dinner menu.
A month before the election, 85 percent of eligible voters in the NBA are confirmed to be registered, according to the players’ union. Eleven teams have 100 percent registration on their rosters.
Power in the bubble
Since the league’s restart in late July, NBA players have wielded their power in unprecedented ways, most notably when Milwaukee Bucks players refused to take the court in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by a White police officer in Kenosha, Wis. Other teams followed, and the NBA postseason briefly came to a halt.
It’s the latest proof that this generation of players is picking up where previous generations left off, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said.
“If you look at the ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s, we were all very vocal,” Thomas, 59, recalled. During his playing days, Thomas marched the streets of Detroit to protest crime and spent time with Nelson Mandela. But in his view, advocacy left the NBA in the 1990s, the era when Michael Jordan, in jest, justified his neutrality by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
“The champion always spoke for the voiceless, and there was a drop when the champions didn’t speak,” Thomas said. “And to this generation’s credit, when they came along, they started getting more engaged into not only the political arena but also reengaging with our communities.”
Often, the players have been led by James. And with Black voter rights under assault, James has zeroed in on protecting them. In the weeks following the unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, James, partnering with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix, launched More Than a Vote, a nonprofit that combats voter suppression in the Black community.
The coalition’s goal is to get young people to serve as poll workers in communities that lacked volunteers. On Wednesday, More Than a Vote announced it had attracted approximately 10,000 volunteers. During that night’s Finals game, Barack Obama showed up as a virtual fan and urged people to become poll workers, earning a shout out from James.
James’s focus on voting has ignited his peers. Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum narrated a poll worker recruitment ad for More Than a Vote. Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. starred in a PSA that aired on BET for National Black Voter Day. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who had never voted before, recently joined D.C. election officials to urge other first-time voters to join him at the polls.
Teams got involved, too, pressing to see their arenas converted into polling places. That’s not easily done. It takes buy-in from local election officials, which the Miami Heat learned when Miami-Dade County rejected the team’s efforts to open American Airlines Arena to voters. But most were successful. The Atlanta Hawks’ arena will be used as an early and Election Day voting site, with 300 booths available. The Sacramento Kings pledged their Golden 1 Center as a voting site for the 11 days leading up to Nov. 3 and Election Day itself.
“I hope that all of the efforts that individual players and teams and the league itself as a whole are making do make an impact in this election,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said.
Amway Center, the 875,000-square-foot arena in downtown Orlando, also will open for early voting. When it does, the 7-foot Bamba will be there, volunteering as perhaps the nation’s most towering poll worker.
“I thought it was best for me to step in and show the community,” Bamba said. “And, honestly, show the world that I’m kind of putting my money where my mouth is.”
Bamba insists the players’ plea to vote is a nonpartisan message.
“It’s just weird to me that if you’re an athlete and you’re preaching, ‘Vote, vote, vote!’ that you’re automatically assumed to be a [Democrat],” he said.
But many players, including several superstars, have made their allegiances clear. Paul signed a letter demanding former vice president Joe Biden select a Black woman as his running mate, and he recently joined Biden at a Black Economic Summit in Charlotte. Warriors star Stephen Curry and his family spoke virtually at the Democratic National Convention.
Others haven’t publicly endorsed a candidate and won’t. But their push to get more people to the polls, especially young Black voters, probably would help Biden. This wasn’t lost on one conservative organization, which used James’s image in a deceptive social media campaign to heighten fear about mail-in voting in battleground states. James called out the ads as acts of voter suppression.
“I personally want to see just the voter turnout to be historic. I want to see historic numbers not just for people my age but for people, period,” Bamba said. “I think from there, then I would really know my platform and my voice — that people really listened and that I made a difference.”
Scott Clement contributed reporting.