Doing The Work

Why NBA players have what it takes to change the world

My brothers and sisters in the NBA and WNBA aren’t striking because any of this is new. They’re striking because it isn’t.

When I was eight years old, I loved to watch cartoons, but on a night I’ll never forget, my television showed something else: Four officers from the Los Angeles Police Department taking more than fifty swings with their batons at a man named Rodney King. I couldn’t understand everything I was seeing, but I knew it wasn’t right—and I had a question on my mind I could not get past: Why?

Why would they do that to another human being?

Now, I have five children of my own, one of whom is eight years-old himself. And I have to be honest: My wife Adrienne and I are doing the best we can to shield him from the darkness of the world. But no matter what we do, I know one day soon he is going to see an image not unlike the one I saw when I was his age—and he’s going to ask the same question: Why?

The tragedy is that I won’t have an answer for him. I could tell him about slavery and segregation; about how our country’s schools, courts, and neighborhoods are designed to hold back Americans who look like him—and everything I’d say would be true. But those answers would be intellectual: They’d explain how our country became the place it is today, but they wouldn’t actually answer why.

Because how do you rationalize to an eight year-old child that there are human beings who will hate him for no reason other than the color of his skin? You can’t—not in a way that will satisfy a child who is still finding their place in the world. Which is one of the many reasons it’s so tragic that Jacob Blake’s three children were in that car, the sound of seven bullets ringing in their ears. 

These kids had to witness that. I couldn’t even watch the video—and I’m an adult, a seven-foot former professional basketball player at that. Because if you’re Black in America, images like these have the power to bring you to your knees in sorrow, no matter how tall you stand. That is why I’m so proud of my fellow basketball players in the bubble: Because in a country providing them with so many reasons to be resigned—in a country where regardless of how much money you make or how famous you become, some people will still define you by your race, as Sterling Brown and Masai Ujiri have seen first hand—they refused to be defeated. 

Instead, they decided to speak up because Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake continue to be shot by police officers without justice. And now, everyone is listening.

The only question is what comes next.

Anyone who claims to know what the world will look like in a week, not to mention a month, is lying. So I won’t make any big predictions. But here’s what I will say: The flame these athletes have lit in our hearts will not be extinguished anytime soon. Because it’s a flame as old as the NBA itself.

It’s a flame that led Elgin Baylor to boycott a game in Charleston after Black players weren’t allowed to stay at the same hotel as their white teammates in the 1950s. “I’m a human being,” Baylor said. “I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.”

It’s a flame that led Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to spend his life redefining what it means to be an athlete—and inspiring the next generation of basketball players to follow in his footsteps.  

And it’s a flame that led a team of basketball players in Miami to don hoodies when a young man by the name of Trayvon Martin was murdered after going out to buy skittles and iced tea. Because we knew that if a few breaks hadn’t gone our way, our lives could have ended like his.

That’s what’s unique about players in the NBA: Many of us have seen the worst and best of this country—raised in poverty, one injury away from everything falling apart, until our dreams become our reality. Those memories shape us. They’re the reason injustices that take place far away from the places we live now still hit us close to home—because we know, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And they’re the reason why, despite everything in our way, we still have hope that change is possible if you’re willing to work for it.

Because each and every player in the NBA has already defied the odds. We grew up being laughed at. We were told the league was out of our reach. And we had every reason to believe the pessimists were right. After all, for every million people who pick up a basketball, the number who make it to the NBA could fit on one hand. 

But we didn’t listen. We kept the faith. And we kept grinding until we became the exceptions to the rule. That’s how you achieve the impossible, on- and off-the-court: You climb the steepest mountains on earth without looking down or letting yourself wonder what will happen if you fall—and you make progress inch-by-inch, day-by-day.

Every single basketball player in the bubble knows what that is like—and they are calling on all of us to follow their lead. This work isn’t easy. Trust me: There are days when you wake up at 5:00 a.m. to shoot baskets on a hoop without a net, hoping your hours of practice will pay off with a spot in the NBA, and ask yourself if you’re any closer to the mountaintop. And I want to be clear: Removing the stain of racism in the United States is a hell of a lot harder than being drafted in the NBA.

But the game plan is the same, and it can be summed up in three words: Do. The. Work.

Do the work every day. 

Do the work when no cameras are watching.

Do the work when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And look for people who will do the work with you—because in the battle for justice, there is power in numbers. And together, we can change the world. 

Which brings me to my final thought: 

One day, before long, my eight year-old will have an eight year-old of his own—and as a Bosh, I’m sure he will have a lot of questions about the world. 

I hope one of them is how we were able to make so much progress. 

And I hope my son will be able to tell my grandson it’s because of the players who stood up in the bubble—and because of all of the Americans who marched with them.