In the NBA, foreign players try to understand social issues
Andrew Bogut grew up in a richly diverse area of Melbourne, Australia, and has estimated that he went to school with people from nearly 100 different nationalities.
He has fondly referred to his home as a tolerant and inclusive community, one largely devoid of racial tension that many of his NBA teammates faced growing up in the United States. But Bogut and other international players have been on the periphery, if not part of, discussions in locker rooms as their teammates address social issues like police brutality and racial profiling, concerns that prompted Colin Kaepernick to begin kneeling during the nation anthem in September.
When Bogut reported to training camp with the Dallas Mavericks and the subject of anthem protests started to surface, he said he couldn’t really identify with the plight of some of his African-American teammates who were considering joining the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and others in the demonstrations.
“I think it’s a country that prides itself on free speech,” Bogut said of the U.S. “And if ... they want to do that it’s more than their right. On a personal level, I know there’s a lot of history here that goes centuries back that I don’t really relate to too much growing up in Australia.”
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic, who is from Slovenia, doesn’t fully grasp it either.
“It’s kind of hard for me to understand, since I’m coming from a different country,” Dragic said. “But if those things were happening in my country, of course I would have something to say — while being true to the country, because that’s where I grew up and they gave me everything.”
Officials in teams’ front offices and at league headquarters have had ongoing discussions with the players union about what do. Both sides appear to be more focused on developing programs to address social injustices rather than demonstrations like Kaepernick’s public displays during the anthem.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be protests as the league tips off its latest season on Tuesday night. The NBA has long embraced a reputation for being the most socially conscious league in the United States, but there is a rule in the collective bargaining agreement that requires players to stand respectfully for the anthem.
Many of the roughly 22 percent of the league’s players who come from outside the U.S. are white Europeans or Australians and do not have the same perspectives that their African-American teammates had growing up here even though racial inequality is a problem that exists throughout the world.
Dragic had conversations with several of his black teammates before the Heat decided to lock arms during the anthem in the preseason in a show of unity. It is sensitive, complex ground to navigate and requires a deep understanding of the issues before teammates feel comfortable enough to put themselves out there.
“I understand that we’re putting a message out there for society to be better,” Dragic said. “But at the same time, we don’t disrespect the flag or the national anthem and I think that’s good. We don’t want to be too aggressive but at the same time we want to let people know that something wrong is happening out there and we want to correct those things.”
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade got things started with a call for action at the ESPY awards in July, and Anthony organized a town hall forum later that month. There have been many other efforts, including the Chicago Bulls hosting their second annual basketball tournament geared toward creating dialogue between the police and the community and new Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale helping revive the city’s Police Athletic League, which helps mentor law enforcement on how to become coaches in youth leagues.
“I’ve thought a lot about this, and (NBPA executive director) Michele Roberts and I have talked a lot about these issues, that there may be no organization in our society better positioned than the NBA and its players to try to have an impact on these difficult issues plaguing many of our cities,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week.
It isn’t just foreign players and African-Americans in the NBA who are engaging.
“For me, I can’t personally understand what some other players go through,” said Minnesota Timberwolves center Cole Aldrich, who grew up in the predominantly white Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. “I grew up differently than (Serbian Nemanja Bjelica) or (African-American) Karl-Anthony Towns or whoever. I personally love ... trying to broaden my (horizons) on that.”
Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, a Turkish citizen born in Georgia, said he has spoken to his new teammates about the current climate.
“Draymond (Green) said it the best. We can show as much about this as we want but question is, what is going to be done to fix the problem and fix the issues?” Pachulia said. “That’s the message already sent by individuals and by groups. Now what? Whatever we do, we do as a team.”
Several foreign players remain conflicted. Many left their native countries and have found great success and wealth in the NBA. But they also understand that the path some of their teammates took to get to the same place came with difficulties — and still deal with issues — that they could never imagine.
“I understand from an African-American’s point of view or a teammate’s point of view if they didn’t want to stand and be part of that kind of protest,” Bogut said. “But at the same time, I’m thankful America’s provided a lot for myself and my family. It’s a tough one. I’m very supportive of my teammates. But at the same time, the country, much like Australia, is built on free speech. Everybody has an opinion on different types of things.”
AP Basketball Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami and Brian Mahoney in New York and AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon in Dallas and Janie McCauley in Oakland, California, contributed to this story.