Warriors get shunned by president before there could be a dialogue

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Sunday, September 24, 2017

OAKLAND, Calif. --Stephen Curry emerged from the Golden State Warriors training room with a huge grin. He'd had all morning to decide how to respond to being called out in a tweet by President Donald Trump and disinvited to celebrate the Warriors' NBA title at the White House. And as he walked over to address a crowd of about two dozen sports reporters who were all of a sudden swimming in the same strange political pond, Curry was all smiles.

"Anyone got any basketball questions?" Curry joked to break the ice.

It was funny for a moment, but as the words left his mouth, both Curry and the assembled crowd seemed to realize that all of this was probably intertwined forever now.

"The last time athletes have been this outspoken was with Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell," head coach Steve Kerr told ESPN. "That's the last time probably we've seen this kind of division in the country and with civil rights issues.

"Now all of a sudden, our country is in a really weird place, and everything is blending together."

Late-night comics are debating health care policy with senators. LeBron James is tweeting at the president, "U bum." NFL owners are issuing statements decrying the president's tweets on the peaceful protest their players have engaged in to call attention to racism and police brutality. The NFL Players Association is making videos urging its players to stand together on Sunday to protest the president's condemnations, with imagery from civil rights era protest marches.

It's all intertwined now.

The Warriors have been thinking on, and answering questions about, celebrating at the White House since June. Everyone in the organization and the league office recognized the responsibility of the decision. This would serve as a precedent for future NBA champions and a litmus test for champions in other sports.

There was a statement to make in attending a White House celebration. And there was a statement to make in not attending a White House celebration. The very least the Warriors and NBA could do was give it thoughtful consideration, which had been ongoing for months and was set to conclude Saturday morning before the team's first practice.

Then, President Trump ended all debate by disinviting the team over Twitter and criticizing Curry's public comments at media day Friday. It was a stunning end to what had been a long process among the team, the league, its players and several senior White House officials.

"Surreal," Curry said.

"Insane," Kerr said.

And yet, it's not as uncommon for basketball to enter the political arena as you might think.

Remember the players' furor over former Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist comments? The Miami Heat's team photo in hoodies to honor Trayvon Martin? The NBA's commercials to call attention to gun violence?

The NBA and its players have long been the most willing of all the major sports leagues to engage in cultural and political debate. Kerr, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy have all been publicly critical of the president since he took office. James even campaigned in Ohio for Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. But this time, the president answered back. He had no interest in hearing what the Warriors had to say. Maybe the divide had already grown too large and the rhetoric too ugly.

"The idea of civil discourse with a guy who is tweeting and demeaning people and saying the things he's saying is sort of far-fetched," Kerr said. "Can you picture us really having a civil discourse with him?"

No. That's hard to picture.

But instead of the well-reasoned, calm, decision-making process the Warriors, NBA and senior White House officials had worked for months to set up, there was suddenly no choice to attend or not attend, and no chance at civil discourse at all.

"It was an actual chance to talk to the president," Kerr said. "After all, he works for us. He's a public servant. He may not be aware of that, but he is a public servant, right? So maybe as NBA champions, as people in a prominent position, we could go in and say, 'This is what's bothering us, what can we do about this?'"

That was the case Kerr, general manager Bob Myers and owner Joe Lacob were going to make to the team Saturday morning. Maybe there was a way to go to the White House and not have it turn into a photo opp. Maybe there was a way to meet behind closed doors and discuss the issues, policies and rhetoric that so many in the organization found so noxious.

"There had been discussions between our camp and his camp all summer," Lacob told ESPN. "He knew there would be a discussion and decision [Saturday]. And that was all usurped by a tweet. I find that rather disconcerting."

Lacob said he was preparing for the team meeting when the president's tweet came across his screen.

"You don't get the opportunity to speak to the president and express your opinion very often," Lacob said. "That does not mean that I support the president or his view or his policies, his rhetoric or tweets. I'm probably very close to my players in their views.

"I'm Jewish, and I felt persecuted by what happened in Charlottesville. I saw the footage of the neo-Nazis. It would have been nice to have that discourse with the president, but that's not possible [now]. First of all, we would have only gone if we were able to speak our voice. But we never got to have that discussion."

That's the real missed opportunity here. That the discussion ended before it began. That a chance at civil discourse, even if it was just among the Warriors players, coaches, owners and executives, never took place. That the president didn't want to hear or even engage in what any of them had to say.

"It was a big opportunity as a team and an organization to talk about what the situation was," Curry said. "It's kind of funny that tweet was sent before we could meet as a team."

It's highly unlikely the Warriors would have voted to attend the White House celebration. Most of the team's players had already stated publicly they didn't want to go. Draymond Green cited the president's refusal to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists after a woman was killed during protests in Charlottesville as the final straw. Kerr mentioned the president's divisive statements Friday about NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem.

"How about the irony of, 'Free speech is fine if you're a neo-Nazi chanting hate slogans, but free speech is not allowed to kneel in protest?'" Kerr said. "No matter how many times a football player says, 'I honor our military, but I'm protesting police brutality and racial inequality,' it doesn't matter. Nationalists are saying, 'You're disrespecting our flag.' Well, you know what else is disrespectful to our flag? Racism. And one's way worse than the other."

One of the hallmarks of the Warriors organization is that it encourages debate, even with strong opinions on both sides.

"I believe it's not only OK, but it's required to have opinions," Lacob said. "I've run a lot of companies, and for me, that's what works best. I have my personal views, Steve Kerr has his views, Rick Welts has his views, Bob Myers has his views, the players have their views. And we should all get in a room and discuss and decide.

"That's why you have Steph or KD speaking their minds. Nobody tells them what to say or do. I think it's the right way to run an organization. I think we're better when we operate that way."

Sports have long served as America's town hall. Lately, there has been a lot of talking at each other and not to each other. It has gotten loud and emotional on both sides.

"I spent some time last year sort of blasting the president," Kerr said.

Then he took a step back Saturday and thought about the best way to have an impact.

"It was unanimous today," Kerr said. "We stand for the things we think our country should stand for -- inclusiveness, equality, diversity, joy and love. It sounds corny, but that's what we stand for."

Curry ended his news conference Saturday much as he had begun it. He said he wanted to focus on ways the team could do something meaningful during its trip to Washington, D.C., in late February. He said he'd continue to stand for what he believed in.

Then he smiled and said, "Oh, I had a good pick-and-roll today. I made a basket."

Back to basketball, whatever reality that is now.

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