LeBron James spearheaded an initiative to combat voter suppression and, as Election Day approached, sat down with former president Barack Obama for an interview on his HBO show, “The Shop.” Chris Paul stumped across North Carolina for Joe Biden. Players on the Atlanta Dream endorsed the political rival of Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who happens to be a co-owner of the team.
“To see this new generation without fear in speaking their mind and their conscience,” Obama told James, “I think you guys are setting the tone for a lot of young people coming up and a lot of other athletes in other leagues.”
For NBA players, this call to action began Aug. 27. After the walkout, they met to discuss how to turn protest into something bigger. Challenged by longtime NBA assistant coach Armond Hill about low turnout in the 2016 election, more than 96 percent of the eligible voters in the NBA player pool became registered to vote. They also fought to get 23 teams to open their arenas or practice facilities for voter-related activities.
“You guys have a voice and some power,” Hill said he told the players, in an interview with The Washington Post this week. “And if each one of you can get 10 people to vote, some amazing things can happen.”
Here’s how the NBA and WNBA flexed their political muscles in the days and hours before the polls closed Tuesday night.
Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards
Brooks felt a mix of emotions when he arrived at Capital One Arena on Tuesday. The Wizards coach was back at the office, not to hunker down for the coming season but to cast his ballot.
The tug of sadness he felt looking at the empty seats and barren hardwood was softened by a swell of pride. Poll workers wearing face masks sat behind plexiglass, the folding tables that served as their work stations having replaced the arena’s usual concession stands and racks of merchandise. Every so often, applause broke out in honor of a first-time voter.
“Just walking through the arena, you miss it. You miss the game,” Brooks said. “But knowing I was going to do my part to make a difference … this gives everybody a chance who lives in the neighborhood an opportunity to come vote in a great setup.”
While Brooks voted, some of his Monumental Basketball colleagues — including Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard, players Ish Smith and Admiral Schofield and Mystics player Tianna Hawkins — showed up to experience the culmination of the NBA and WNBA’s recent months of work to boost turnout.
For Brooks, being able to cast his ballot at his team’s home arena epitomized the value of mixing sports and politics.
“For the people who think that sports and politics don’t mix, that’s just shallow thinking,” Brooks said. “You don’t want to say that the only people who have a voice are the people in D.C., in local government. It’s ‘We the people,’ and it should be about everybody. … Athletes have a great voice, they can be great role models, and they can really help the younger generation to be better than the last generation.” — Ava Wallace
Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat
Growing up in Miami, Udonis Haslem never talked politics or voting with family and friends at school. Once he was old enough to vote, he often chose to hold on to his vote, waiting for the perfect candidate with the perfect platform.
“It is our right to be particular who we were voting for,” Haslem said in an interview. “But in the long run, not voting just ends up hurting us.”
It wasn’t until this year that Haslem began to realize that his influence could extend beyond being the longtime heart and soul of the Miami Heat. Understanding the importance of Florida in this election, James, Haslem’s former Heat teammate, asked him to get involved with his More Than A Vote campaign, which formed after the deadly police shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Partnering with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, More Than A Vote helped assist ex-felons — “reformed citizens,” Haslem prefers to call them — who were required to pay fees to register to vote.
“I’m tired of seeing our brothers and sisters dying in the streets with nothing happening about it,” Haslem said. “I’m tired of hearing the cries of our people.”
Since returning from the NBA’s bubble, where his Heat lost to James’s Lakers in the Finals, Haslem has been engaged in turnout efforts throughout South Florida. When former vice president Joe Biden made a campaign stop in Haslem’s home state last week, the three-time champion changed his plans to participate in the rally, alongside Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns and former NBA player Matt Barnes.
“My kids ain’t never been more proud of their dad, ever,” said Haslem, a father of three boys. “All of the things that I’ve done in my life. Champion. Leading rebounder in the organization. Just so many accomplishments, and probably the proudest moment that I had was when they heard I was going to be with Joe Biden.” — Michael Lee
Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves
Jarrett Culver didn’t have to wait long at his polling place. At home in Lubbock, Tex., last week, he pulled up to a local grocery store at 8:15 a.m. Weeks of conversations with family and watching the presidential debates had informed Culver, and on the final day of early voting in Texas, he was ready.
Inside the Amigos, which sold hot tortas for $2.97 and pre-carved Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins while supplies lasted, Culver was second in line. It took him about two minutes to fill out the ballot and, for the first time in his life, receive a red, white and blue “I Voted” sticker.
“I feel like it was important for me and my family to go in person and make sure we get our votes in,” said Culver, 21. “It’s my first time being able to vote, and I always wanted to have an impact. A lot of people don’t think it can make that big of an impact with one vote, but I believe different, that your one vote matters.”
Though much of the attention was on the NBA’s bubble, the urgency to vote still resounded within the eight teams that weren’t there. The Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx created Pack the Vote, an initiative for voter education and registration. Last month, Culver registered in his hometown, recorded PSAs that encourage wearing masks and donated meals to first responders through his family foundation.
Ahead of his second year in the NBA, Culver is trying to find his voice. And Friday, he joined the chorus of NBA players in their call to vote.
“In the NBA you see it, in the WNBA you see it,” Culver said, “that people’s voices are being heard around the world.” — Candace Buckner
The Atlanta Dream
As they prepared to return to the court in June, the WNBA and its players decided to dedicate the truncated 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement, fighting for social justice and promoting voter participation.
Then, one of their own objected.
Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, decried the association with BLM in a letter to league Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, accusing BLM of harboring anti-Semitic views and promoting violence and destruction across the country.
Dream players went to work. They reached out to Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, learned his platform and wore T-shirts that read “Vote Warnock” in the bubble. Other WNBA teams wore the shirts, too.
After the season ended, the players were determined to keep the pressure on. But that was more challenging for WNBA players, many of whom head overseas during the offseason to supplement their WNBA salaries. Without the ability to be physically present, many voted absentee and flooded their social media feeds with reminders to vote. Meanwhile, the Dream’s Renee Montgomery, who opted out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice reform, hosted an election eve rally, and former No. 1 overall pick Chiney Ogwumike worked the polls in Houston.
Loeffler’s race, a special election, is expected to go to a runoff next year. Dream center Elizabeth Williams, a member of the players’ union’s executive committee, said the Dream was disappointed but also understood the timing and strategy behind Loeffler’s actions.
“Weird is one of the words I used to describe the situation,” Williams said, “just because you own a team in a league that’s predominantly Black women. There’s a lot of gay women. It’s kind of like peak minority and peak not conservative. It’s very ironic in many ways.” — Kareem Copeland
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
For most of his NBA career, Kyle Lowry has lived and worked in Canada. He was in Toronto when President Trump took office. He there the following year, too, when Trump issued a travel ban on seven countries with large Muslim populations, and Lowry told Canadian media it was “bulls---."
On Tuesday, though, Lowry was back in his home country. After a morning workout in Philadelphia, Lowry headed to the polls, casting his vote with the unique perspective of an American athlete living as an expatriate.
“I’m glad I’m American. I love my country and everything about it,” Lowry, who lives in a suburb north of Philadelphia, said in an interview Tuesday. “But to be led by a person like that, I’d rather be in a country [like] Canada and do my job and kind of speak from a sense of being an outsider looking in.”
The importance of voting in the swing state of Pennsylvania was not lost on him. Four years ago, Trump narrowly won the state. This time around, the president tried to cast Philadelphia as a city known for voter fraud. When Lowry heard these comments during the first presidential debate, he urged his hometown to vote.
“It’s a very pro-Democratic place. I think that’s Philadelphia in general, and I think that’s why Trump called [out Philadelphia], because we’re not pro-Trump here,” Lowry said. “The state is going to do a good job of making sure every vote is counted. And that’s a big thing, especially with us being a big swing state.” — Candace Buckner
Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
In 2012, when Harrison Barnes showed up for his introductory news conference with the Golden State Warriors, former team broadcaster Jim Barnett was so impressed by his attire that he playfully compared his looks to that of a U.S. senator. After a while, as Barnes began to display the polish and character of someone seeking political office, the nickname “The Senator” stuck.
Barnes grew up in a single-parent home with a mother, Shirley, who openly discussed politics with her children. “And that really trickled down to my sister and I,” said Barnes, whose sister, Jourdan-Ashe, has interned at the U.S. Senate.
But Barnes has never been this engaged. He spoke at a protest in June, served as an ambassador for the nonprofit organization When We All Vote, was among the first to vote early at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center and welcomed California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to the arena when he voted.
“We’re in a pivotal time, where a lot of people are frustrated. A lot of people are fed up and want change,” Barnes said. “The biggest thing for me is continuing to push for change. Change happens very slowly. The Election Day is not the end all, be all.”
Barnes doesn’t want his activity to be confused with being an activist.
“To be an activist is a true commitment and somebody’s life work,” Barnes said. “So I don’t want to say that I am an activist, because that would be like someone attending a game and saying, ‘I’m an NBA player.'” Barnes said.
As for any future political aspirations, Barnes wouldn’t rule it out.
“After I’m done playing, there’s no question I’m going to continue to be involved in the community,” Barnes said. “Whether that’s an official campaign or anything like that, it’s way too early to tell. But for me, I think the biggest thing is always understanding the platform that I have and giving back in the best way that I can.” — Michael Lee