The NBA is taking the day off Tuesday to remind citizens to vote.
It’s the first time the league specifically has avoided scheduling games on Election Day, a decision it said “came out of the NBA family’s focus on promoting nonpartisan civic engagement and encouraging fans to make a plan to vote during midterm elections.”
All 30 teams played Monday, including the Chicago Bulls’ 111-97 victory over the Toronto Raptors at the United Center.
Encouraging people to vote is a laudable idea, though some of us probably could use a little escape Tuesday night from the vote counting, analysis of voting trends and speeches from the winners, losers and election deniers. Like an NBA game, only the final score matters.
It’s also fine to stress the importance of voting, but at this point anyone who doesn’t understand the possible ramifications of the 2022 midterm elections isn’t going to change their mind and vote because the NBA is closing shop for a day. And no one really needs another reminder that Tuesday is Election Day, unless they’ve been living in a cave without Wi-Fi the last six months and have been able to avoid the nonstop political ads informing us the opponent is either “too extreme” or “too radical” to hold office.
Politics and sports aren’t supposed to mix, but the NBA took this unprecedented step while making sure not to take sides, knowing it’s not good business to align itself with one party or the other. You can probably guess that most NBA owners are voting one way and most players are voting the other way. But that’s not what the league wants to talk about. It wants to keep every fan happy and buying jerseys, shoes and other NBA merchandise, no matter their political leanings.
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The most famous example of nonpartisanship was revealed back in 1995, when former Tribune columnist Sam Smith’s book ”Second Coming” included an anecdote about Bulls star Michael Jordan’s reluctance to back a Democratic candidate in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race.
“He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues,” Smith wrote of Jordan. “And, as he later told a friend, ‘Republicans buy shoes, too.’”
That quote, often paraphrased as “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” took on a life of its own. Jordan drew some criticism for avoiding important issues of the day in order to sell his Nike brand, though he later insisted in “The Last Dance” that he made the remark “in jest” on a bus ride with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen.
You can now vote in the house that MJ built. The United Center — for the first time ever — is a super voting site in Chicago. (Youngrae Kim / Chicago Tribune)
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” Jordan said in the documentary. “But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
Some current NBA stars no longer are reluctant to speak up, no matter the reaction to their political beliefs.
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry in 2020 filmed a video for the Lincoln Project encouraging people to vote. He wasn’t worried about his shoe revenue, as evidenced by his final remark: “Vote for Joe (Biden). Your future is depending on it.”
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, who wore a “Vote or die!” T-shirt on the court in 2020, has been at the forefront of activism among NBA players.
James in 2021 led a group of prominent athletes in forming a voting rights advocacy group called “More Than a Vote” with the goal of mobilizing Black voters in local elections.
“This isn’t the time to put your feet up,” James said in an ad. “Or to think posting hashtags and black squares is enough. Because for us, this was never about one election.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr is also unafraid of speaking his mind, and after the Uvalde school shootings last May he strongly criticized Republican senators for not acting on a bipartisan bill the House had passed calling for stronger background checks for gun purchases.
“We are being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote, despite what we the American people want,” Kerr said at a news conference that went viral. “They won’t vote on it because they want to hold on to their own power. … It’s pathetic.”
Another NBA coaching legend who wears his politics on his sleeve and doesn’t mind letting everyone know exactly where he stands is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, an unapologetic liberal who in 2020 called former President Donald Trump a “deranged idiot” and a “coward.”
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During a news conference before taking on the Bulls at the United Center last February, Popovich launched into a tirade about Republicans in Texas trying to ban books. When someone asked if he felt democracy was in danger, Popovich replied: “Of course. I think we’re in big trouble. Big trouble.”
Popovich proceeded to castigate Trump, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in another extended rant on their need for “power.”
“There are no policies,” he said. “It’s all about fear, and they’re willing to scuttle democracy because they’re foolish enough to think they get it back, just like that.”
After he finally came up for air, Popovich said: “I think I’m going to stop now. This is way more fun than the game.”
I thought of Popovich’s speech Monday morning when I dropped off my mail-in ballot at a library on North Lincoln Avenue and saw a line snaking around the block at the early voting location.
Seems like the NBA didn’t need to send a message telling us to vote.
Everyone knows exactly what is at stake.