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Steve Kerr Reminds Us Who The NBA's Unifying Powers Really Serve

“The world is a complex place and there’s more gray than black-and-white.” That is how Steve Kerr rationalized his refusal to comment on the not-actually-all-that-complex topic of the NBA bowing to the Chinese government’s rage over an American in America exercising of one of America’s most fundamental rights. Those words and the many others that accompanied them were part of a long postgame press conference in which Kerr argued with specious eloquence why it is too much to expect a prominent, proudly outspoken NBA coach to stick up for a beleaguered colleague when doing so might be bad for business.

Hiding behind the millennia of Chinese geopolitical history to avoid comment on the much simpler present matter of the NBA’s shamefully acquiescent reaction to one man’s tweet has emerged as the go-to strategy for a certain kind of person or entity: one who’d like to preserve the perception of themselves as brave truth-tellers, but would prefer not actually having to engage in any of that risky truth-telling business. The NBA is one such entity.

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Over the past few years, the league has thrust the ostensibly courageous political-mindedness of a handful of its most prominent players and coaches to the fore when marketing itself as different. If you were to write an extended version of the league’s slogan, it might read, The NBA: Where amazing dunks and spectacular threes and also salient but generally bland comments that flatter the liberal sensibilities of the broad demographic we wish to appeal to with no concern for those we may offend (except for the people/governments we believe might actually deprive of us of the money we’re after) happen.

A former player and now the coach of the league’s best and most famous team, Kerr’s voice is one of the first that come up when the league boasts of its politically savvy figures. He is widely praised for his outspokenness, be it when speaking with passion and intelligence on the problem of gun violence or, perhaps more commonly, when offering trite dirges mourning the death of civility in our politics. He is clearly a thoughtful, curious, and intelligent man who is usually open to holding forth on topics far afield from basketball strategy, and the NBA likes to sell him and those like him as just as much a part of the game as a fastbreak. Which is what makes his ducking of direct and germane questions about the biggest story in the league so weak.

Kerr spoke for a good 15 minutes after his Warriors beat the Timberwolves in a preseason game Thursday night, time spent almost solely on the fallout from The Great Layup Forward. The press conference was a good distillation of what makes Kerr alternatively interesting and exhausting as a world-events commentator, and what makes it especially annoying that he won’t give a straight answer about the China-NBA situation.

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At times, Kerr was wry and perceptive, like when calling out the hypocrisy of the stick-to-sports crowd currently soiling their Huggies because sports figures like Kerr are in fact sticking to sports. Other times he was passionate, like when speaking about why gun safety is “very near and dear to my heart” in light of the murder of his father. A few times he was less astute, never more so than when contrasting the crass approach of our current president with what Kerr remembers fondly as the dignified, halcyon days of ... Ronald Reagan. (“There was no regard for whose side you were on politically, political party, anything like that,” Kerr reverently recalls of the time he and his mother sat in the Oval Office next to one of the country’s most ruinous presidents. “It was just, you were an American. The office held such dignity and respect, both from the people who were visiting and especially from the people who sat inside it.”) At all times Kerr came off as persuasive, earnest, accommodating, but ultimately craven for how he insisted on dodging the China question.

Kerr is perfectly within his rights to state that he doesn’t know enough about the historical situation between China and Hong Kong to feel comfortable speaking to that. But no one is asking him to. At no point in yesterday’s press conference did anyone ask Kerr to weigh in on the specific issues that have led citizens of Hong Kong to protest mainland China’s governance. Every question posed to him was either directly or tangentially related to the NBA’s handling of Morey’s tweet, and every time Kerr demurred, pointing to his own ignorance or his respect for basketball’s ability to “unify” or some other platitude to justify why he was unwilling to say what he thought about the way the league has dealt with this issue. When asked the clearest, most direct, and most pertinent question—one that requires absolutely no expertise of the Ming dynasty to address—Kerr seemed to deny the question’s very legitimacy:

Reporter: “Understanding that you don’t want to comment on something outside the United States, are you broadly supportive of NBA officials’ ability to do so? Specifically, do you believe Daryl Morey shouldn’t be fired over this?”

Kerr: “I appreciate the fact that you have to ask me that question. I get it. And I would hope that you appreciate my right to not answer that question, because all it does is create a headline and a soundbite. And I choose not to be a soundbite tonight.”

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Reading between Kerr’s intentionally squiggly lines, you can surmise something of a worldview that might explain his reluctance. Kerr truly believes that basketball is, as he put it, a “force for the greater good.” During his decades in and around the NBA, he has seen firsthand how a shared love of the game can bring together very different people from all over the world. Because of that, he could be hesitant to say anything that could potentially jeopardize the NBA’s—and thus the sport itself’s—access to and influence over the 1.4 billion people of China.

But that argument is a close cousin to the idea that globalized capitalism is inherently liberating and democratizing—a belief that episodes like this one between the NBA and China conclusively refute. Yes, basketball is a unifying force. But around which values does it unify? Clearly not the hoary virtues of democracy and freedom of speech, otherwise this scandal would’ve never even arisen. No, the values basketball has unified around today are the NBA’s amoral economic self-interest and China’s authoritarian might. Kerr is definitely smart enough to see all of this, and his faux high-minded justifications for his bottom line–protecting silence not only undermine all the ideals he supposedly stands for, but also reveal the entire league’s identity as a haven for social justice as little more than a marketing slogan.

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Let’s not lose sight of the ultimate irony that it was this situation that brought down the NBA’s façade of earnest and valiant political engagement. Morey’s original tweet was a rote meme expressing what, stateside at least, qualifies as a pretty tame message of solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. Morey’s swift deletion of, apology for, and subsequent silence over his tweet imply pretty strongly that his sentiment wasn’t exactly some impassioned plea for a cause close to his heart. In reality, Morey was most likely just reflexively sending out a message he believed would come and go with little fanfare, doing so with no real aim other than to burnish his own credentials as one of the NBA’s speaker of bold truths.

It’s kind of funny, then, that Morey’s failed attempt to claim some Cool, Socially Conscious NBA Guy points resulted in the cratering of the very idea of the Cool, Socially Conscious NBA Guy. Which in the end could be helpful if it lets us all finally agree to stop putting much stock in what people who run fast or draw good plays have to say about the world.

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