When it comes to Donald Trump, NBA players and coaches aren’t just willing to engage the polarizing president — they’re eager to. “A soulless coward” was how Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — and, it should be noted, the head coach of USA Basketball — referred to Trump after the president defended his decision to not call the families of four fallen soldiers last year by falsely stating that former President Barack Obama didn’t make calls either. “U bum” is what LeBron James tweeted at Trump last fall after the president rescinded the NBA champion Warriors’ invitation to the White House — after Golden State had effectively declared it wasn’t going anyway.
That tweet: 646,000 retweets, and counting.
So it was no surprise that on Tuesday, when players and coaches at the NBA Finals were asked about the latest kerfuffle between Trump and the NFL, they willingly weighed in.
There was James, who called Trump’s Twitter attacks on the Eagles “typical” and told reporters that no matter who comes out of this Cavs-Warriors series, no NBA team will be visiting the White House.
Told of James’ comments, Curry said, “I think I agree with LeBron.”
“It’s a lot of things that we believe in as Americans that we don’t feel that he’s for,” James said. “There are a lot of people that believe that he’s not for the people or doing things that’s right by the people. So it’s not surprising hearing the news today with the Eagles.
“But I think more importantly, as Americans and especially people in Philadelphia, we shouldn’t let that news take away from what that unbelievable team did and accomplished, what all those players did to sacrifice throughout each and every Sunday, going out and playing the style of football that they played and winning a Super Bowl the way they won it. Let’s not let that accomplishment of things that you will have for the rest of your life — and people will always call you a champion for the rest of your life — let’s not let someone uninviting you to their house take away from that moment. Because I think the championship — winning a Super Bowl or winning a Stanley Cup or winning a World Series or winning an NBA championship or national championship — is way bigger than getting invited to the White House, especially with him in there, in my opinion.”
And what about Curry? A direct target of Trump’s, Curry gracefully handled his time in the #MAGA camp’s crosshairs, declaring in September that he hoped the Warriors’ decision would “inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country, what is accepted, and what we turn a blind eye toward.” Instead of a photo op at the White House, Curry and Co. used Golden State’s lone trip to D.C. to take a group of kids to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
“You can’t control what other people try to do or try to control the narrative or things like that,” Curry said on Tuesday. “We’ve been really consistent about our messaging and understand why we decided — or I should say why I decided — to speak out on me not wanting to go to the White House last year. And every team that has won a championship since then has gone through that. Like I said, it’s hard. So many people want to chime in. How, I guess, social media is used today, the conversation can get out of control with so many different voices.
“I know a guy from the Eagles, a wide receiver who played on the Super Bowl-winning team last year, and he broke it down pretty verbatim of how his process went with his discussions with his teammates and how he wanted to keep the focus on what the conversation should be and not the anthem and not Trump’s policies and how he’s been overshadowing the NFL and all that type of stuff. So that’s refreshing that he’s educating people along the way. I think that’s important. If you focus on who is saying the right things, you shouldn’t get lost in the noise that’s going on right now.”
The Twitter-happy Trump has been curiously quiet when it comes to pointed NBA criticism. He has not responded to Popovich, a former Air Force officer. He has said nothing about James, arguably the most influential athlete in the U.S.
And he has not gone after the NBA — yet.
While the NFL fumbles its handling of its national anthem policy — and Trump’s regular responses to it — the NBA has avoided the debate. No player took a knee during the anthem last season. NBA players are more visible than their counterparts in other sports, have bigger platforms and speak to the media daily. Players have decided, largely, that using those platforms is a better way to raise awareness to social issues.
But what if an NBA player does take a knee? Would Trump pass on an opportunity to feed more red meat to his base? Probably not. Trump declared defending the anthem to be a “winning, strong issue” for him, per the Wall Street Journal, and warned NFL owners they “can’t win” this fight with him.
Would the NBA?
Commissioner Adam Silver has been consistent on this: The NBA has a rule, the commissioner said, and players are expected to abide by it. “I’ve watched what the NFL has done [and] I feel that they’re in a very different situation than the NBA is in,” Silver said. “Of course, we’ve had a rule on our books that precedes David Stern. It was put in place by Larry O’Brien in the early ’80s. From my standpoint, it’s been about respect — respect for the institution, respect for the fans, respect for the country that these players are playing in.”
But what happens if someone defies it? It’s possible. Curry admitted he didn’t know the NBA had a rule. Circumstances can change. The NFL protests began with Colin Kaepernick — and, later, teammate Eric Reid — kneeling to draw attention to police brutality in the black community. Last month, video of a group of Milwaukee police officers taking down and tasering Bucks guard Sterling Brown went viral; this week, more video surfaced of an officer standing on Brown’s ankle while others cracked jokes about the media firestorm the arrest was about to cause.
Could NBA players kneel in protest of this incident next season?
Would the NBA support its players?
We don’t know.
There is no playbook for how to deal with a U.S. president who gleefully seeks out socially divisive issues. “I think the president has made it pretty clear he’s going to try to divide us, all of us in this country, for political gain,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday. It’s a unique situation, one amplified by economics and the deafening echo chamber of social media.
There’s a roadmap for what not to do: The NFL way, which has proposed policies that have shifted between tone deaf to downright foolish, all while appearing collectively bumfuzzled at how to react to a politician seeking to use a social statement for political gain. The NFL’s latest proposal — that players will be allowed to remain in the locker room during the anthem, but any player doing anything but standing on the field during it will subject his team to a fine, a rule that was created without a word of input from the NFL Players Association — was met with strong backlash, and did little to move Trump off the issue.
Would the NBA learn from the NFL’s mistakes? Would it decide that any Fox News-fueled public backlash to kneeling was worth not poisoning its relationship with its rank-and-file? Would it understand that the Twitter fervor over kneeling is spread more by those who want to be offended than those who actually are?
Would the NBA stand up to Donald Trump?
Its players will. The league hopes it doesn’t have to. But in this volatile climate, things can change quickly. Players and coaches have made it clear they won’t be bullied by Trump. The NBA’s nightmare is the day when its owners have to decide if they will.
More from Yahoo Sports:
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• Trump taunts NFL again: ‘No escaping to Locker Rooms!’
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• Dan Wetzel: NFL gets what it deserves for trying to appease Trump