NBA players, coaches, executives and owners have been more vocal about President Donald Trump than their counterparts in other professional sports. And few have been more outspoken in the basketball community than the most prominent members of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
So, it seems we’re headed for a controversial question we should’ve seen coming this past November: Will whichever team wins the 2017 title be the first in recent memory to decline a White House visit? Recently retired NBA superstar and five-time champion Kobe Bryant offered his take on that scenario:
“I probably would go,” Bryant told Politico Magazine. “That visit is more than how you feel about the current administration. It’s about the guys next to you, about the flag, about the kids out there who look up to you and the United States. But, honestly, it’s a tough call.”
When Bryant, who attended White House visits hosted by both Obama and President George W. Bush, was asked who he supported in the 2016 presidential election, he told Bleacher Report, “I think we don’t have to all randomly guess what side of the fence that I’m on. … I think you know what candidate I’m supporting.” Kobe was a longtime Obama supporter, even releasing a shoe in his honor.
When the reigning champions visited President Barack Obama two days after the election, veteran forward Richard Jefferson said on Snapchat that his Cavaliers would be the “last team to visit the White House” for a while, suggesting players would concoct “scheduling conflicts” to avoid the trip.
When asked by Complex magazine if he would accept an invitation from Trump should the Cavs repeat as champions, Iman Shumpert was more blunt than his teammate: “I’m not going to the White House.”
Cavaliers megastar LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton before the election and joined teammate J.R. Smith at an Ohio stop on the campaign trail to stump for the Democratic nominee. In December, LeBron and several other teammates refused to stay at a Trump-branded hotel in New York, and two months later the four-time MVP described the president’s proposed travel ban as un-American.
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James was non-committal when asked at the start of the season whether he would turn down a visit to Trump’s White House, if only not to jinx the repeat. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something I would cross. We’ll have to cross that road, I guess. We’ll see. I would love to have to cross that road.”
In the other Finals locker room, two-time MVP Stephen Curry essentially called Trump an “ass” this past February, when the Warriors superstar said he agreed with Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s assessment of the president as “a real asset to the country,” only “if you remove the ‘et’ from asset.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has called Trump “a blowhard” with shockingly “horrible” foreign policy who “routinely used racist, misogynist, insulting words” during his campaign, which is all quite something.
“The man who’s going to lead you has routinely used racist, misogynist words,” Kerr said the day after the election. “That’s a tough one. That’s a tough one. And I wish him well, I hope he’s a good president. I have no idea what kind of president he’ll be because he hasn’t said anything about what he’s going to do. We don’t know. But it’s tough when you want there to be some respect and dignity and there hasn’t been any. And then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife, who have basically been insulted by his comments, and they’re distraught. And you walk in and you see the faces of your players, and most of them who have been insulted directly, as minorities. It’s sure shocking. It really is. We talked as a team this morning. I don’t know what else to say. But just the hole process has left all of us feeling disgusted and disappointed.”
David West is among other Warriors who have been critical of Trump. “This whole fairy tale about this post-racial utopia that Obama supposedly created is all bull,” West said following the election. “That’s the bottom line.” Never one to back down, the veteran forward reiterated those comments in January.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has led the charge. In the aftermath of the election, he said, “We are Rome.” A few months later, Pop added, “I hope he does a great job, but there’s a difference between respecting the office of the presidency and who occupies it. And that respect has to be earned.” Finally, prior to Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, he concluded, “To this day I feel like there’s a dark cloud, a pall over the whole country. It’s got nothing to do with the democrats losing the election. It’s got to do with the way one individual conducts himself. And that’s embarrassing.”
Ex-NBA player turned ESPN analyst Jalen Rose called it from the jump in November: “Mark my words, there will be players that decline the opportunity to visit the White House under his presidency.” Fellow panelist Chauncey Billups, who won a title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, agreed with Rose.
Basketball players have turned down White House invitations from both Democrats and Republicans before, for reasons both banal and civic. Bill Russell was conspicuously absent from a team photo when President John F. Kennedy first welcomed the NBA champions in 1963. Larry Bird said of Ronald Reagan in ’84, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.” And Michael Jordan reportedly preferred golfing to attending the White House during George W.H. Bush’s presidency in ’91.
Still, should the Cavs or Warriors turn down a visit as a team, they would be straying from tradition. Although, that custom has been eroding under Trump. The Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots visited Trump’s White House, but several players cited political reasons for not attending, and the NCAA champion University of North Carolina men’s basketball team remains undecided on its visit.
So, Bryant’s comments — “I probably would go” to visit Trump — are somewhat surprising. They are, however, in line with NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s thoughts on the matter, via The Undefeated:
“To me, if a player were to choose not to go to the White House, whether they were choosing not to go to the current White House or a future White House, my response would be: ‘That’s a lost opportunity.’ Because that’s an opportunity that most citizens who have a political point of view would kill for — the opportunity to directly tell the president of the United States how they feel about an issue.
“Now, if the president were to say, ‘I have no interest in what members of the NBA think about an issue,’ that might surprise me and I might have a different response.”
Which raises another interesting question: Will Trump invite the NBA champions to the White House? Should he not, it would set off a political firestorm of its own. In the past, Trump has spoken glowingly of both LeBron and Warriors star Kevin Durant, so a non-invite would be strange, to say the least.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2013
The reporter that called Kevin Durant "Mr. Unreliable" should be fired or, at least, apologize. He is a truly great player and a winner!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2014
We should point out that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Trump appear to have mutual respect for one another. Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Arena housed the Republican National Convention in July, his Chrysler House in Detroit played host to a Trump campaign fundraiser in October, and his company pledged $750,000 to Trump’s inauguration in January. However, Gilbert and his wife each donated $75,000 to the Clinton campaign, and the billionaire also contributed to the campaigns of Republican primary candidates John Kasich and Chris Christie. Likewise, minority Cavs owners Gordon Gund and Usher donated to several campaigns in opposition of Trump during the run up to the election.
Meanwhile, Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber did not contribute to either nominee.
Almost immediately after the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship, Obama both emailed LeBron and phoned coach Tyronn Lue to extend a White House invitation before he left office in January 2017:
When @POTUS calls, you answer.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) June 24, 2016
So, with the Warriors leading the Finals 2-0 and Games 3 and 4 scheduled for this week, we may find out whether Trump extends an invite to the NBA champs and if they accept sooner rather than later.
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