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The NBA’s Bubble is Bursting Preconceived Notions about Leadership and Sports – Part 1

By October 14, 2020February 12th, 2021No Comments

AKA Why I’m Writing About Basketball for the First Time In My Life

Growing up I was never really a “sports person.” If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be so excited about the NBA I would want to write a blog post about it I would be pretty confused.

That being said, I am from Ohio where having some knowledge of sports is pretty much mandatory in order to carry on a conversation with some folks. It’s also a place where LeBron James has been a topic of conversation for a while with a roller coaster ride of hope for a championship, frustration when he left for Miami, but then excitement again when he came back to win it for Cleveland in 2016 with his famous line, “Cleveland, this is for you!”

In 2018, I fell in love with my partner. He had a conversation with me in September of that same year warning me about his love for the NBA. I didn’t realize I would be getting a crash course on so many teams and the history of the league. We had started dating at a time when the Warriors were still in Oakland (where I live now) and winning championships, so there was no escaping basketball.

In watching this sport more closely over the last two years, I saw players speak honestly to the media about social inequities. So many players have used their success to give back to their communities and set an example for others. For the first time I started to understand a love for sports, and even felt it myself.

Coming back to this 2019-2020 season, I saw the value in the NBA through their embodiment of transformational leadership by prioritizing a collective mindset through their commitment to their players, community, and social justice.

On March 11th the league shut down all games when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID. It was when the reality of the pandemic set in, but this act showed responsibility in wanting to step back and make sure everyone was healthy.

In July the league decided to finish out the season, but with many precautions in place including a bubble in Florida where the players would be secluded for the remainder of the season. Acknowledging the current political landscape: “NBA, players union say sparking social change will be the goal of league’s restart.”

It’s now three months later. The Lakers won the championship and the bubble experiment has ended. We’ve seen that the NBA’s approach has been successful on many fronts. There were no COVID outbreaks and the organization has prioritized the movement for the protection of Black lives.

This realization of the NBA’s support of a social justice movement sunk in on August 26th, after the muder of James Blake, when the Milwaukee Bucks made a collective choice to sit out their game that day. This caused a ripple effect in the organization. They set the example and the rest of the league followed suit. Initially folks considered ending the bubble completely. Big names were on board, as they did not want their actions to downplay the importance of these movements.

Everything halted, and it wasn’t just the commissioner making decisions. Players, team representatives, and coaches had long meetings among themselves to determine what they thought was best as a league moving forward. There was the acknowledgement of their power as a collective, access to ongoing media coverage, and a direct line of communication to the public, especially for some players who might not have the same amplification without the bubble.

Along with their decision to move forward, they had also created a plan of action to address voter suppression, keeping the work beyond just basketball moving forward and released a statement:

“All parties agreed to resume NBA playoff games on Saturday, August 29 with the understanding that the league together with the players will work to enact the following commitments:

1. The NBA and its players have agreed to immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.

2. In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.

3. The league will work with the players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

These commitments follow months of close collaboration around designing a safe and healthy environment to restart the NBA season, providing a platform to promote social justice, as well as creating an NBA Foundation focused on economic empowerment in the Black community.

Here we have seen an emergent process play out in real time. The NBA’s swift reactions in a national crisis shows us that systems can change and create opportunities for community justice and growth. With massive obstacles, the NBA stood rooted in their beliefs, navigating turbulence with grace, and looking at the entire system – healthcare in a time of COVID, voter suppression in an election season with racial justice at the heart of it all – they were able to make massive systemic changes. The league has a history of progress, and has made that a priority, not just recently, but historically. These conversations have been on-going, and with these shut downs and boycotts there were opportunities to dig deeper. What is working? What can we do? Challenges demand that we look inward, understand our relationships, and move forward with strength. That’s exactly the example the NBA has set for us as a country.

Hell, even Collin Joust called it out on a recent episode of SNL:

“NBA Commissioner Adam Silver “has my support for president,” Jost said. “He somehow built a bubble that is better than anything our government could come up with. Instead of stopping the bubble once the season ends, why don’t they slowly expand it until it covers the whole country…”


Rae Miller, Associate Consultant and Facilitator for Prospera Partners