There was steel in his gaze when Lebron James arrived to meet the media shortly after practicing with his team on the eve of Sunday’s NBA All-Star match. Immediately after he had settled into his seat, it became known why.
During the extensive media engagement James, one of the foremost basketballers in the world, waded into Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham for what is being widely perceived as a racist taunt a couple of days earlier.
As the story broken by USA Today related, it all began with James and his colleague in the All-Star game Kevin Durant, expressing opinions adverse to the current political dispensation in a video in their show Uninterrupted.
"The number one job in America, the person appointed is someone who doesn’t understand people," James had said in the video, which was supported by Durant.
This provoked Ingraham to mock James and Durant for extending their interest beyond sport. She said the duo should "shut up and dribble" and keep the political commentary to themselves, leading to a war of words between the two.
— Thomas Bishop (@bishopk0s) February 16, 2018
James was quick to respond via a hashtagged tweet that read #wewillnotshutupanddribble which soon went viral and the exchange between him and Inghraham rapidly snowballed into an offline altercation.
The Fox News anchor questioned James’ credentials to talk on politics, saying he didn’t even have a college degree. This was a demeaning statement which did not go down well within the basketball fraternity (Durant said it was a racist view) and also outside.
Ingraham attempted some kind of backtracking by tweeting that she was ready to host James on her show and discuss matters with him, but by then the horse had already bolted the stable. America had a new national controversy on hand.
The hows and whys of this obviously upstaged anything James may have had to say about the All-Star game. The star player obviously knew what was in store when the media engagement began and virtually preempted the questions, by not only reiterating what he had said in the video, but also talking about race and social tensions in America which "everybody knows."
Live: LeBron James speaks at NBA All-Star 2018 Media Day ahead of 67th NBA All-Star Game https://t.co/iZ7J5zWRGC
— NBA (@NBA) February 17, 2018
Support for James came from sundry quarters. Players from his own team (like Durant) as well as opponents (like Stephen Curry, who captains the other team in Sunday’s match) rallied strongly behind as would be expected from fellow African Americans.
But even NBA commissioner Adam Silver pitched his tent in James’s camp. In a press conference later in the day, Silver was unequivocal in his support. "I'm incredibly proud of our players for using the platform they have as players in the NBA and on social media to speak out on issues that are important to them. And I was proud of LeBron and Kevin's response to the comments that were made about them," he said.
"Just because they have enormous opportunity in the way maybe Bill Gates did or Mark Zuckerberg to create wealth for themselves and their families certainly doesn't mean they don't care about an education," Silver continued.
"Many of them go on to continue to educate themselves, whether through going back to school in the summer, taking courses, doing things post-playing career.
"I should also say it's not lost on me or anybody in this room that there is enormous amount of racial tension in this country, enormous amount of social injustice, and I do see a role for this league in addressing those issues."
What seems bizarre is that Ingraham should even have instigated this controversy considering that sport and politics — especially the fight against racism and for equality — are inextricably intertwined in modern American history.
Since mid-2016, African American stars in the National Football League have protested against police brutality and racial inequality by kneeling instead of standing during the playing of the national anthem before matches.
Going back in time, in 1968, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and silver medal respectively in the 200m, gave a raised Black Fist Human Rights Salute on the podium to protest against the status and treatment of African Americans.
Most significant, perhaps, was the role played by heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in fighting racial inequality — apart from refusing to fight the war in Vietnam — that made him arguably the most iconic sportsperson of the 20th century.
Against the backdrop of the James-Ingraham controversy, there was some good news for basketball fans in India. The NBA is likely to have a pre-season match in the country fairly soon, according to NBA Commissioner Silver, to promote the sport further.
"One of the things we're looking at, which we hope to do relatively soon, is bring a pre-season game to India. A little is dependent on the arena infrastructure, but we've heard some good news from the market in terms of Delhi and Mumbai about plans of new arenas. I have a feeling we’ll get it done in a few years," said Silver.
The NBA has seen India as a country of great opportunity for over a decade now and has stealthily built up a base for a 'big push' down the road, of which an academy for nurturing young talent will be a crucial ingredient.
"It's worth the investment for the league to have an academy in India, to take the existing infrastructure with the Indian Basketball Association, with FIBA, of young people who are playing the game, trying to bring them together, bring over coaches from the NBA, other retired players who have a fascination in some cases with the Indian market and some who just want to help train and develop players and work together in the communities there," said Silver, giving some insight into long term plans.
If that does not excite basketball administrators, patrons and aficionados in India, nothing else will.
Meanwhile, Downtown Los Angeles, where Staples Centre, the venue for the All-Star game is located, wears a festive look. Basketball fans and the media have converged from all over the world for this marquee match. Sunday evening promises to be a treat.
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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2018 12:31:55 IST