On September 10, 2001, after a pickup game in Chicago, Michael Jordan teased a proto-Decision to a group of journalists who had come to ask the question on everyone’s mind in the sports world: Would the greatest of all time make another comeback? The news report was published the day after. In a matter of hours, the question had become irrelevant. Two weeks later, he’d officially announce his return and the donation of his $1 million Wizards salary that season to the victims of 9/11. Jordan had long stood as a monolithic figure in American culture, but in a comeback riddled with fits and starts, he was just another peripheral figure in the shadow of the 21st century’s defining moment.
Soon after announcing the return, the Wizards agreed to host D.C.-area police and firefighters who were a part of the relief efforts at the Pentagon for an intrasquad scrimmage. Jordan wouldn’t play—he had tendinitis and needed the rest—but that wasn’t the issue. As Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy describes in his book When Nothing Else Matters, the issue was that Jordan had no interest in addressing the crowd. After some cajoling from coach Doug Collins, Jordan finally agreed to speak. “But when he took the microphone, he uttered not a word about the horror or the heroism, saying only that he regretted he would not be playing because his foot bothered him and he had a long season ahead,” Leahy wrote. “It was left to his teammates and, in the days ahead, to his rivals, to stand up in arenas and express sympathy for the victims of September 11, and appreciation for rescue workers. He would give money but say nothing.”
LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the two best players in the NBA today, have both spoken out recently about the tragedy that occurred at the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, noting Donald Trump’s culpability:
Hate has always existed in America. Yes we know that but Donald Trump just made it fashionable again! Statues has nothing to do with us now!— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 15, 2017
“Leadership trickles down to the rest of us,” Durant told ESPN’s Chris Haynes. “So, you know, if we have someone in office that doesn’t care about all people, then we won’t go anywhere as a country. In my opinion, until we get him out of here, we won’t see any progress.” Durant said he will not be visiting the White House should the NBA champion Golden State Warriors be invited.
Using their platforms as some of the most visible athletes of our era, James and Durant are rewiring the expectations of the modern NBA superstar, just as Jordan did in his time. The monumental success of the Jordan era turned basketball into something that could be almost be deemed noble. Jordan was an obsessively driven athlete, mastering basketball through a single-minded discipline like one would in martial arts. Past icons like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar staunchly aligned themselves with sociopolitical issues, but Jordan was a blank slate of excellence, and his apolitical bent played a significant role in his universality. In times of prosperity, that singular focus on sports becomes worthy of idolatry. But his comeback and what he’d hoped would be one last tour of greatness felt discordant in the midst of the nation’s grieving and reckoning in the aftermath of 9/11, where the standard for heroism had been raised a hundredfold.
Transcendent athletes can define eras within their respective fields, but when zoomed out, an athlete essentially marks time. Jordan was not a product of the information age’s true boom; the internet and social media did not factor into the way he saw the world or the way he represented it. Today, the mass transit of information and misinformation is inescapable; the interconnectedness and intersectionality of every facet of public life is a matter of truth. James and Durant can’t stick to sports because they are human beings in 2017. When sentiments of white nationalism and supremacy—and therefore black suppression—reemerge in the mainstream headlines, there is no ignoring that when basketball is one of the few realms in dominant American culture that widely celebrates black identity.
“LeBron is supposed to be content with the millions of dollars he’s making,” Abdul-Jabbar said facetiously to Larry Wilmore on an episode of Black on the Air about Charlottesville and athlete activism. “Don’t you know that? ‘Shut up and go drive your Cadillac.’ That’s where that thought process starts. ... And I think it is very revealing what that means, how people react to [LeBron’s activism], because they still have the same paternalistic reaction to a black athlete that they did in the 1940s.”
As much as we look for distractions in tumultuous times, it means something when our most visible icons express their disquiet like the rest of us. Even Jordan reached his breaking point last year, amid the many deaths of black Americans caused by police shootings. “I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late,” he said. “I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent.”
Ultimately these statements are gestures, but there is power in solidarity trickling down from the top. “This is about the morality of our nation,” Abdul-Jabbar told Wilmore. “It has nothing to do with politics.” There is also power in knowing that, with James and Durant at the forefront of the NBA’s dialogue with the country, there won’t be any convenient silencing—the league can’t hide from the discourse like it did with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the ’90s—and voices will likely emerge elsewhere. Earlier Friday, DeMarcus Cousins, a product of Mobile, Alabama, went on record calling for all Confederate statues to be taken down.
The tradition of greeting NBA champions at the White House started 54 years ago with John F. Kennedy welcoming the 1961-62 Celtics; it seems likely the tradition will skip a year—or four—for the Warriors, if Durant is correct in believing the rest of the team shares his sentiment. Two of the greatest NBA players of all time—and perhaps the greatest team of all time—have openly rejected the values of the current administration. These days, the notion of transcendent athleticism, too, has changed a hundredfold: It requires the power to reallocate one’s influence into something greater than the sport itself.