Meet the new NBA, absolutely nothing like the old NBA

Jay Busbee

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Morning, folks! Hey, who else is an Elvis fan? 

Sixty-four years ago, on Sept. 9, 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” for the first time. Though youngsters of the time shrieked over his performance, The King’s hip gyrations — which look positively quaint now — were deemed so obscene that he was only shown from the waist up in future performances. 

A few decades later, those shrieking kids grew up to be parents, horrified as my generation reveled in the lascivious lyrics of Van Halen (Sing it with me: “Reach down … between my legs … ease the seat back …”) and the perceived blasphemy of Madonna writhing beneath a cross.

And now that my generation has become parents, we’re tut-tutting the foul mouths and too-enticing outfits of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. I’m all for a little rebelliousness, the thinking goes, but THAT is just too far.

‌It’s a tale as old as time: every generation goes from breaking the rules of their elders to wondering why the youngsters below them can’t just behave.

That generational divide came to mind Thursday night watching the NBA’s return to the court after a four-month pandemic-induced layoff. The games themselves were as much of a rush as ever. LeBron James’ first points came on an emphatic drive-and-jam against the Clippers, and he closed them out in emphatic fashion too. Rudy Gobert — the same player whose positive test in March was the first domino in an eventual total shutdown of sports — scored both the first and final points in Utah’s last-second win over New Orleans.

The new NBA. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The new NBA. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

But everything around the court — even on it — was different, and not just because the “stands” were simply screens of Zoom’ed-in fans. The NBA has committed fully to the social justice movement, from painting BLACK LIVES MATTER on the court to allowing players to put slogans — EQUALITY, SAY THEIR NAMES, JUSTICE NOW and more — on the back of their jerseys. All four teams that played Thursday night knelt in unison during the national anthem, a sight that's still a bit of a surprise given how much heat Colin Kaepernick drew for doing the same thing less than four years ago.

The overarching message — the NBA is now firmly in the social justice advocacy business — was quite literally inescapable. This isn't the NBA of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or even Kobe Bryant. This is a whole new NBA, one pushing boundaries far beyond previous generations' imaginations.  

There’s peril here for the NBA. A sizeable number of fans just want to watch sports and don’t want social justice messaging visible in every shot. These stick-to-sports fans may get slagged off as “privileged” or worse, but it’s not wrong to tune into a basketball game and want to just see, you know, a basketball game. Many of the fans who are in favor of the NBA’s newly activist stance might not be so excited to sit through, say, their bartender espousing the virtues of the Second Amendment, but it’s the same philosophical principle.

Plus, when you shine a spotlight on others’ inequality, you’ve got to expect a spotlight will be shone back on yours. And the NBA has a glaring China-shaped hole in its flank. How can the league reconcile fighting against human rights violations at home while doing business in a nation with a deeply troubling human rights record? The answer to that question will determine just how seriously many in America will take the NBA’s social justice stance.

There will be pushback, both from longtime fans and from opportunistic hot-take merchants looking for easy way to whip up outrage. How dedicated are the NBA’s players to this new reality? How much heat are they willing to take? That’s the key question, isn’t it?

“I want it to continue,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told TNT during a timeout. “I want us to vote. I want us to get involved and stay involved … What we’re doing for our social issues, we have to keep doing it.”

The NBA’s not just a sport anymore, not just a lifestyle. It’s an entire worldview. You can still enjoy the game, but you can’t get it without a heavy dose of social-justice messaging anymore. We can appreciate that, we can support it, or we can rage against it … but we’re not getting rid of it. We’re in a new world now, and there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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