In 2014, as they neared a vote on who would be the next executive director of their union, dozens of NBA player representatives and members of the executive committee convened at Aria in Las Vegas to interview a few finalists. David West attended in an advisory role, and his main focus was to question the candidates on one issue: What do you think about Group Economics?
Few in the room had any idea what West was talking about. Some even snickered. “I was used to that,” West said. “Like, ‘Oh, this dude is crazy.’ But I think that’s where guys may have first heard the term.”
Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver and Heat wing Andre Iguodala were also in the room; Tolliver remembers thinking it was a joke. About a year later, he started to read up on the topic and quickly came around. Iguodala, along with several other players, joined him.
“It was worth saying what I said even if the people who were auditioning for the position didn’t really understand where I was coming from,” West said. “I always say it’s worth [speaking out] if you reach one person.”
Which brings us to today, nearly six years later, when Tolliver and Iguodala, as members of the NBPA’s executive committee, advocated for “Group Economics” to be included on the list of social justice messages players could wear on their jerseys once the season reopened in Florida. Three players chose it: Tolliver, Iguodala, and Kings forward Jabari Parker. (“Black Lives Matter” and “Equality” were the two most popular options among players, per an NBA spokesperson.)
The chuckles West heard in that meeting continued in group texts I had with friends and colleagues: What does ‘Group Economics’ even mean? How does it communicate an antiracist message?
Broadly speaking, the term refers to groups of people who pool their resources to accomplish something they otherwise might not be able to as individuals—in the context of the Black community, it has often been used to talk about the importance of creating and supporting Black-owned businesses that in turn support the larger Black population. West defines the idea as follows: “I think it’s something Black people used to practice and don’t practice anymore. And our communities haven’t shown a positive result from us not practicing it. It’s creating a mechanism where their resources are tied together and they’re being moved in a position to positively help the communities we come from.”
One example West gives relates to food deserts in minority neighborhoods. “Those are areas that, if you look at an economic opportunity, just one guy saying I want to build grocery stores. But if you have a group of players that are equally invested and they say this is an issue that we want to specifically address, we want to create more healthier food options in more communities around the country—if you can work economically together, then you can do something about that.”
Tolliver chose “group economics” after spending the past few years reading up on how past efforts in Black communities to band together economically were suppressed by bigotry.
“I look back at our history and see that that has happened in the past,” Tolliver said. “Black Wall Street in Tulsa, and multiple other instances, where when we banded together and implemented group economics to better our lives, it was burned down. And so that for me was another piece of this whole pie: not only representing and encouraging that again, but also bringing light to the history of us doing it and it being literally taken away from us, for nothing.”
Tolliver’s jersey is already sparking curiosity among other players. Grizzlies guard De’Anthony Melton “asked me during a game, ‘Hey, what is Group Economics?’ ” Tolliver said with a laugh. “We were literally walking out of a timeout and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ll, uh, I’ll tell you later. Interesting time to ask me this.’ ”
More recently, Tolliver has been reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, an award-winning book that details how the federal government authorized racial segregation. Tolliver initially wanted to wear “Redlining” on his jersey to highlight that history, but the committee’s consensus was that the broader “Group Economics” could suggest more types of injustice without limiting the need for thought and action around any of them. And once Tolliver really started to think about it, Group Economics touched every area of the civil rights movement he could think of, from police reform to balancing our lopsided education system.
“Property taxes fund education,” Tolliver said. “If you give people opportunity financially and they make more money, they’re going to put more money into their houses, which increases their value, which increases their taxes, which betters their education.”
West first heard that “Group Economics” could be worn on a player’s jersey when Iguodala told him, about a day before the options were announced. “I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s dope, Dre!’ ” he said. “I just know it’s a powerful message, and economic justice for African Americans in the 21st century is what the community needs, but also it’s what this society needs so we can create a better balance in the end.”
West’s thoughts about Group Economics started to evolve when he played for the New Orleans Hornets, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged south Louisiana and he saw Black Americans get abandoned by their country. “Nobody wanted to pay to send the resources down there to help American citizens in a time of crisis and disaster,” West said. “We already know about the institutional racism that persists in the government. We need to have safety nets for our communities specifically, so we shouldn’t have to depend on the government first.”
The idea to stitch social justice messages on NBA jerseys was never meant to solve any of society’s core problems. It was to maintain an ongoing fight and spread awareness. The decision to include a less obvious option like Group Economics does that as well as any of the others.
“There’s a lot of words we chose that would’ve been fine,” Tolliver said. “Equality, peace, justice. So many great concepts. But that’s not going to spur on a conversation.”
Originally Appeared on GQ