The NBA’s once-promising return plan isn’t quite doomed, but it’s facing significant resistance from many of its players including Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who also serves as vice president of the NBA Players Association (NBPA). Irving reiterated his stance in a conference call attended by upwards of 80 NBA players Friday night, directly opposing the league’s plan to resume play in Orlando amid growing concerns over isolation, the spread of COVID-19 and social unrest brought on by the recent death of George Floyd.
“I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls--t,” the All-Star point guard argued on a call that included a slew of high-profile names including teammates Kevin Durant and Spencer Dinwiddie, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Donovan Mitchell, Dwight Howard, Joel Embiid, C.J. McCollum, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. “Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”
Ongoing protests against police brutality and the subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter poses arguably a larger obstacle to the league’s return than even the coronavirus, as Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Friday that players—a large majority of them African American—are concerned about the “optics” of isolating players in a de facto “bubble” for months on end to “entertain the masses and ease the league’s economic burden” in a time of uncertainty. The NBA hadn’t anticipated this challenge when it began putting together a blueprint for a 22-team, Orlando return, which was approved by both the league’s Board of Governors and Players Association last week.
Howard and Avery Bradley, both of the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers, expressed views similar to Irving, voicing their doubts about the league’s hasty return plan. Bradley, who was the second player to speak after Irving on Friday night’s conference call, implored his fellow players to “play chess, not checkers,” while Howard argued that returning to the court this summer could distract from more pressing issues including the fight for racial and social justice. Donovan Mitchell, one of the first players to be diagnosed with COVID-19 back in March, suggested the long layoff may lead to injuries that could impact players headed for contract extensions or free agency. However, Mitchell pushed back on a report that he’d be willing to sit out, tweeting “Stop it” in response to a post from Bleacher Report.
Notably absent from Friday night’s conversation was LeBron James, a four-time league MVP and unquestioned face of the NBA. While James understands why certain players, including a number of his Lakers teammates, are showing reluctance, the superstar forward doesn’t think playing in Orlando and promoting social change have to be mutually exclusive.
Irving said he’d be “willing to give up everything” for social reform, but not all players are heeding his call to action. In fact, most aren’t as only 80 players—about 20 percent of those invited—logged on for the hour and 40-minute Zoom call Friday night. It may be too late for the league to backtrack now, but Irving and others of his mindset have certainly made their voices heard.