If you’re an endangered Midwest Democrat, there’s no better surrogate than Joe Biden. Just ask the staffers trying to reelect Indiana senator Joe Donnelly. One night last month, they were ready to unleash Biden on a crowd of 1,800 Democrats who filled an arena on a rainy night. Biden was going to deliver a speech that was half ringing call to arms, half schmaltz. You know, the full Uncle Joe.
But before Biden spoke, another surrogate stepped to the lectern. The man wasn’t a Democratic all-star. In fact, he’d never made a political speech in his life. He was Victor Oladipo, the guard of the Indiana Pacers.
The Donnelly campaign had kept Oladipo’s appearance a well-guarded secret. (I got tipped off by The Ringer’s Tommy Alter, who’s helping Oladipo with his first foray into politics.) Oladipo had maintained the omertà, too. That afternoon, after Pacers coach Nate McMillan wrapped up practice, Oladipo hopped in a car and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indianapolis to Hammond, a town in the state’s northwest corner. For the last half hour, Oladipo was accompanied by a police escort.
With an American flag hanging behind him, Oladipo stood at the lectern and looked over a crowd wearing United Steelworkers hoodies and the odd pink, knit pussy hat. For a political rookie, Oladipo showed instincts you just can’t teach. He began by name-checking not only Indiana University, his alma mater, but Big Ten rival Purdue. “Senator Donnelly and Vice President Biden wanted me to come out here and kind of set the tone,” he said.
When athletes and politicians tell their life stories, they tend to focus on a challenge they overcame. A politician might speak of an election where he started out a dozen points behind. Oladipo’s challenge was being stuck in Oklahoma City before he got traded to the Pacers.
“My career was on the downslope,” he told the crowd. “I’m going to be 100 percent honest with you. I came back here, of all places, where it kind of all started for me ...” The crowd cheered.
Slowly, Oladipo got around to explaining why he’d showed up at a Donnelly rally. “My mother used to tell me, ‘Take what you got and use it,’” he said. Oladipo was going to take his social media following, and the weird psychic energy we invest in NBA players, and transfer it to a politician. The energy in the room, Oladipo said, shows “how much you guys care about this state. I just wanted to let you guys know I care about it, too.”
By now, we’re used to seeing NBA players practice social activism in its most unfiltered and unapologetic form. Players have worn “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts; they’ve snubbed the post-Finals trip to the White House; they’ve called Donald Trump a “bum.”
But in this year’s midterms, it has been rare to see a player work to throw the bum out—or, at least, pry a branch of Congress out of his party’s hands. Last weekend, LeBron James rocked a hat for Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Senate candidate, before a game in San Antonio. In September, Chris Paul appeared at a voter registration rally. At least among the superstar class, that’s about it.
What Oladipo was doing in Hammond was building a bridge between activism and the nitty-gritty world of campaigns. As I listened to his stump speech, I couldn’t help but think about what it means when we call the NBA a “political” league, and why more players don’t follow Oladipo to the stump. At the end of his speech, Oladipo bent down toward the mic and in his best, thundering Biden impression, shouted, “Vote Donnelly!”
Shut Up and Dribble, a new documentary that will air on Showtime, makes the argument that the current wave of NBA activism began in the dark days of the ’90s. David Stern’s dress code, the hysteria that greeted Allen Iverson—all of it created a sense that players needed to exert their agency in a world where they were often misunderstood. After the Malice at the Palace, Rush Limbaugh quipped, “Stop calling them teams. Call them gangs.” It’s not that different than the attacks leveled against James by Trump and Laura Ingraham.
The massive growth of the NBA and social media, and the particular interest James took in social issues, created a lot of elbow room for players to speak out. “For guys like Draymond [Green] or Jaylen Brown, they come into the league thinking it’s not even controversial,” said Shut Up and Dribble’s director, Gotham Chopra. “Of course you say what you mean. … It’s not like you choose to be active. It’s why wouldn’t you?”
Campaigns noticed that NBA players are now quasi-political figures, and they covet their endorsements in the same way they’ve covet Taylor Swift’s or Travis Scott’s. A player might attract votes not only to the city where they play but in every location listed on the back of their basketball card. As Rich Kleiman, Kevin Durant’s manager and partner in Thirty Five Media, told me: “For Kevin, it’s Seattle; Austin, Texas; D.C., of course; and California now—all communities where his voice rings loud. We get a lot of these requests.”
“Victor certainly speaks to younger folks,” said Donnelly’s campaign manager, Peter Hanscom. “I think also men in particular, who are much more likely to be tuning into sports. But most importantly, people who are not already tuned into politics.”
Oladipo also helped Donnelly solve a particular problem. In Indiana, a state Trump won by 19 points, Donnelly is trying to convince voters that he’s anything but a reliable Democrat. Donnelly is anti-abortion (with exceptions for rape, incest, and saving the life of the mother); he voted against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court but for Neil Gorsuch’s. “I may not be the candidate for you,” he says with a smile in a new ad. In Hammond, Biden joked that he was willing to do whatever he could to help Donnelly in Indiana, whether that meant campaigning for him or against him.
The Donnelly team has recruited reliable Democratic surrogates like Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. Sean Astin, who played Rudy Ruettiger in the 1993 biopic, chipped in a fundraising email.
But the campaign regarded Oladipo as something close to an ideal—which is to say, nonpartisan—messenger. As a Hoosier and a Pacer, Oladipo is a local hero twice over. Compared with players like James or Carmelo Anthony, Oladipo’s politics aren’t as well-known; his social media feeds tend more toward promoting his new single. Oladipo’s endorsement is “so much more valuable to me than any repetitive ads attacking a candidate over and over could be,” Hanscom told me.
If Biden’s speech in Hammond was designed to fire up the base, Oladipo’s seemed carefully designed to appeal beyond it. Oladipo never mentioned Trump’s name. He said only: “There’s a lot of crazy things going on in our world today. … At the end of the day, I just want you guys to change the world in your way. Whatever way that is.”
The Donnelly campaign was so pleased that it harvested bits of the speech to use in internet ads. “The more interesting question to me isn’t whether Oladipo can score votes for Donnelly,” Tim Swarens, the Indianapolis Star’s right-leaning opinion editor, wrote after the event. “It’s whether the Pacers star will decide to pursue a political career after his NBA run concludes.” You start out as a surrogate and then you get sized up for a Senate run of your own.
NBA players haven’t avoided political campaigns because they fear the owners. Oladipo didn’t need to ask the Pacers for permission to endorse Donnelly, because the team’s future depends on Oladipo re-signing with the Pacers three years from now.
Nor does the top tier of players worry their political work might cost them endorsements. “Any brand that would judge you for taking a stand, especially if you’re on the side of human rights,” Kleiman said, “is one we probably wouldn’t want to be in business with anyway.”
No, part of the reason more NBA players aren’t on the stump this year has to do with the nature of the midterms. It’s no easier to get an NBA player interested in midterm elections than it is your average American voter. Four years ago, less than 30 percent of Indiana voters turned out at the polls, the lowest turnout in the state’s history.
“So many of these are young guys, and you’re asking young people who are voting for the first time to endorse somebody,” Kleiman said. “Everybody knows the world’s fucked up and Donald Trump is a piece of shit. But I don’t think everyone has enough information to feel comfortable endorsing candidates on a non-presidential level. It’s one thing to know how you’re voting and another to feel informed enough to truly stand behind/endorse them.”
Asked whether more NBA players will turn out when Trump is on the ballot in 2020, Kleiman said, “One trillion percent.”
Some NBA players were raised in poor communities where it didn’t seem like elections made a meaningful difference in their day-to-day lives. Talking about police violence or building a school might be a more natural fit than stumping for Harley Rouda. As James explained two years ago, “I grew up in the inner city. … I was around a community that was like, ‘Our vote doesn’t matter.’ But it really does. It really, really does.”
People who advise NBA players say that the athletes—whose every utterance on Twitter is given a close reading—fear an endorsement for a candidate they have a connection with might come off as phony and inorganic. “Sometimes, just a retweet feels like nothing to the people who are asking,” said Kleiman. “But for a lot of people—including athletes—there’s a lot of pride in one’s beliefs and it can feel like there’s a lot riding on it because people definitely see a retweet as an endorsement.”
In 2008, James stood onstage with Jay-Z at a rally for Barack Obama and called Election Day “the most important day of our lives.” Eight years later, James was standing alongside Hillary Clinton. In an earnest but slightly awkward speech, the best endorsement James could muster was that his foundation and Clinton shared some of the same goals. When she took the mic, Clinton mechanically noted, “It was an extra-special treat to have J.R. Smith here, as well.”
An NBA player who shows an interest in politics is often diverted from a campaign into safer, nonpartisan voter-registration efforts. A program like Chris Paul’s When We All Vote is surely a worthy endeavor. But after seizing the mantle of nonpartisanship, Paul can’t hit the trail with Beto O’Rourke.
Interestingly, the biggest roadblock to NBA players appearing on the stump might be their agents. It’s no surprise to see an actor like Will Ferrell knocking on doors for Stacey Abrams in Georgia, one person who works with NBA players told me, because Hollywood agents like Ari Emanuel are major Democratic donors.
NBA agents are hardly Sheldon Adelson. But few of them are part and parcel of the Democratic machine, either. To get a player to a political rally, a campaign must navigate around an agent who’d rather talk about endorsement deals. It’s no coincidence that Oladipo is the rare player who doesn’t have a basketball agent.
While Biden spoke in Hammond, Oladipo stood offstage smiling and occasionally nodding. When the speeches ended, I climbed onto a TV platform so I could watch the postgame. After the obligatory waves to the audience, a funny thing happened. Biden and Oladipo attacked the rope line in front of the stage with the equal ferocity.
It was like watching synchronized swimming performed by politicians. Biden and Oladipo used the same bits of constituent flattery: the locked-in eye contact; the hearty, head-thrown-back laugh; the perfectly angled lean-back when posing for a selfie. If it seemed like NBA activism and campaigning had finally merged, it was because a political rookie had mastered the oldest rule of the trade. Oladipo looked like he wanted to talk to voters more than anything else in the world.