“You ain't having it? Good, me either. Let's get together and make this whole world believe us’ - Jay-Z, Can’t Knock the Hustle.
Everything for the Brooklyn Nets changed on June 30, 2019. That was the day they pulled off the Clean Sweep and brought Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and DeAndre Jordan to Brooklyn. From there, the world around them changed in numerous ways. Journalist Matt Sullivan was “embedded” — his term — with the team for the 2019-2020 season and chronicled the journey in “Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow.”
Sullivan starts the book with a discussion about player empowerment. We typically tend to associate it with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the stars of today’s NBA, but Sullivan traces it all back to Curt Flood and his fight to end the reserve clause in Major League Baseball. Flood lost his battle, but ultimately players won the right to have free agency. In a basketball context, Sullivan traces player empowerment back to Julius Erving’s experience entering the NBA. The league pushed to prevent the Nets from taking over the New York Knicks’ corner of the Big Apple. Dr. J wound up going to the 76ers, and the rest is history.
It’s helpful to think of player empowerment not solely through the lens of players going wherever they want in free agency or forcing trades without getting (too much) public blowback. As players have gained more influence and power from the 1970s to now, it’s allowed them to take on bigger roles in the direction of the franchises they work for. There is still a power dynamic at play, but it’s been dramatically reduced over time through the decisions of James, Durant, etc. Just this week, we learned that in 2018, James income in 2018 reached $124 million, only about a third of which represented his NBA salary.
Sullivan quotes Joe Tsai about the changing power dynamic in the NBA:
“They’re literally megastars - very, very powerful - so you can’t treat your players as employees anymore. They’re your partners in the business.”
Within that partnership and new era, there was a rocky start, as one might expect. One thing that became apparent early on was that the organization had to change the way it did business. The team's upper management staff did not match the diversity of the players and fanbase, the NBA’s most diverse. Sure there was international diversity as Sean Marks scoured the world for talent, but for some, like Maurice Stinnett, then Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion, and Culture at BSE Global, it missed the point of being in Brooklyn:
“That was shocking: Sean saw diversity, in his mind, because he had international individuals. Culturally, you’re disconnected—you need to reflect the culture that you’re situated in, and it didn’t quite meet the mark. It was a disconnect with the people in Brooklyn, with Barclays, with the Brooklyn Nets.”
It was also something the Nets had to address last fall when Stephen A. Smith accused the Nets of letting “white privilege” influence their choice of Steve Nash as head coach. On the other hand, the Nets will note that while the GM and head coach are white, the core of basketball operations — the coaching and scouting staffs in particular — is diverse.
There were other, more subtle issues that Joe Tsai had to adjust to in addressing that new paradigm and in the context of being a first-time governor of an American pro sports franchise. Sullivan recounts there was a moment in January 2020 when Tsai wasn’t able to connect with the locker room. He and Barclays brass wanted the players to don shirts created for them by the Anti-Defamation League to protest anti-Semitism in New York. Nets management thought these shirts would have the same effect as when Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in 2014 to support protesters following the killing of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. But while the players understood the depth of the problem, they hadn’t been consulted about the t-shirts and as Chandler put it were wary of “getting sidetracked with symbols.”
For a person who hoped to advocate for his team, build connections with them and the greater Brooklyn community, Tsai didn’t get off to the best of starts and received his fair share of eye rolls. As the book progresses, though, you see Tsai improve his relationships with the players and Brooklyn as a whole with decisions like paying arena workers their full salaries and financing a $50 million Social Justice Fund focused on the borough. It’s a learning experience.
And the new “partnership” Tsai spoke of had its first moment of truth in March 2020. After a catastrophic loss at home to the Grizzlies, the locker room went into revolt, according to the book. Sullivan details the discussion players had with Kenny Atkinson as everything that had been bubbling under the surface came to light for a team that was frustrated, underachieving ... and at a crossroads. Sullivan details the work Atkinson had put in over the years and what he felt was the unfair nature of the stars having more say in personnel decisions, but he rolled with it while also trying to strike the tricky balance of keeping “The Program,” his shorthand for their rebuild, intact while adapting to the new stars he had on his squad. You never see stories of Joe Harris losing his cool, but Sullivan highlights a convo he had with Durant where even he wondered WTF was going on here.
From Sullivan’s reporting, it appears that despite his best efforts, Atkinson just couldn’t manage the locker room any longer and it was best for the team (and for Atkinson’s own piece of mind) that they parted ways. A lot of the focus at the time centered on Durant and Irving’s responsibility for Atkinson’s departure, but from the reporting, it seems everyone felt that a change was for the best. From experience, breakups suck, but once you get over it and move on to a better situation, you’ll be grateful you got away from the situation that had stressed you out.
Politics as Usual
The book takes an international turn when we head to China with the team on its ill-fated preseason tour of the Peoples’ Republic in 2019. As the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers were on their way to China, then Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and deleted) a statement supporting pro democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The Nets and Lakers were flying into the country and when they landed, all hell broke loose. Sullivan does a good job of highlighting the situation on the ground for the Nets through the eyes of Wilson Chandler, someone who is politically active, socially aware, and familiar with China, having played there for a year. Still, even Wilson wasn’t ready for the storm that awaited the Nets and like his peers and the league office was stuck trying to figure out what to say. Complicating matters, Tsai wrote up a personal response to the situation that ultimately satisfied no one. (Fun fact: the Nets charter to Asia had wi-fi all the way across the Pacific while the Lakers didn’t know what was happening till they hit the ground in Shanghai!) Indeed, Sullivan takes the China adventures and uses it as a springboard to zero in on the limits of the NBA’s activist and social justice turns.
Sullivan takes us through those moments in the United States when NBA players spoke out against police brutality, 2018 when Sacramento residents protested the police killing Stephon Clark and 2014, when New York and everywhere protested the killing of Garner by the NYPD. NBA players were vocal in supporting protesters and even made financial contributions to the effort and to help the loved ones of those killed by police. Sullivan focuses on Garrett Temple as he wrestled with a very personal decision: should he join Sacramento residents in protest outside of Golden 1 Center or contribute to the cause in other, less visible ways. As much as they support causes to end white supremacy, gender inequality, etc., there’s only but so much they can do as individuals and more specifically within the constructs of the NBA. Sullivan does an excellent job of highlighting this dichotomy through his conversations with former NBA player David West:
“These individual gestures and individual acts don’t do very much to disrupt structural inequalities—and an athlete’s voice being the voice of a movement is gonna be just that: a voice—a face, a social statement. Change your clothes all you want.”
and Michele Roberts, head of the players’ union.
“There’s a generational piece that’s going on there. But not everybody is Malcolm X, and not everybody is Martin Luther King or Huey P. Newton. We do what we do, as best we can, and as much as we can. And so if all a player wants to do is say, ‘I support Black Lives Matter—that’s all I’m prepared to do,’ rather than say, ‘Well, fuck you, that’s not enough,’ my response is: Do what you can do, as long as you’re part of this conversation and this movement.”
It’s a conversation that non-athletes and non-activists have had as they try to find their place in a movement to right all the wrongs perpetrated in the United States and abroad.
Throughout much of the book, Sullivan decries the “wokeness” of the NBA. This is bigger than him, but I’m tired of white people using the word “woke” when discussing anything. It's tiresome, annoying, insulting, not to mention corny as hell.
In My Lifetime
“Don’t rely on basketball for your happiness, because it’s not gonna happen. You make sure you balance your life out, you have something there for yourself in life, so when the game is over, you know exactly what you want to do.” - Kobe Bryant
The key figure in the book is Kyrie Irving. Sullivan starts the book with Irving in California talking about the end of his 2018-2019 season in Boston season with Kobe Bryant and his desires to get out of Boston and back home to New York where he grew up. Sullivan explores the friendship with Kevin Durant and the frustrations they both felt with their respective situations in the spring of 2019 and how they fit into their roles as leaders here in Brooklyn.
As we go through the book, we see Irving grow into a leader who develops a greater understanding of his life as he tries to find himself following immense personal losses, doing the work and using his voice — and actions — to speak on issues affecting Native and Black Americans; to manage his new responsibilities as being one of the guys who leads an organization; being a dad; exposing the history of racism in Boston, etc. There were plenty of bumps in the road for Irving as he got himself in trouble for assessing the roster’s championship aspirations following a loss, yelling at teammates on the court, dealing with injuries, and the eventual stress of a pandemic combined with the continued injustice of the world around him.
As the season shut down thanks to COVID and talks of the “bubble” format got cooking, Irving stood out. Sullivan highlights the role Irving played in discussing whether the bubble was worth it for the players and if the NBA was taking away from protest movements that were gaining steam over the summer following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Aubrey, among others. He and other players opposed to the “bubble” consistently challenged their brethren on what they would do, should do, to support protest causes across the USA.
That dynamic played out even more in the “bubble.” Sullivan discusses the frustration everyone had as it relates to what plans players had, if it was a good idea to paper chase even as there was a racial reckoning happening all over the country, how to address the racial injustice while the players were in the “bubble,” etc. Ultimately, the group led by Irving couldn’t convince the others to sit out the “bubble” and while he was right, it didn’t lead to the changes he was hoping for in the NBA and beyond.
While Irving was doing that, he did things big and small for his community: producing a special about the police killing of Breonna Taylor, buying a home for George Floyd’s family, sending an autographed jersey to a young man who lost his in a fire, building a disability-friendly home for a young victim of gun violence. sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in food aid to everyone from his father’s old housing project in the Bronx to his mother’s tribe in South Dakota, providing financial support to WNBA players that didn't go to the “wubble,” and joining protesters on the front lines across the USA.
Irving gets hell for a lot of stupid reasons, but through Sullivan’s reporting, we see the story of a person who simply looks to do right by people and is finding his place in various personal situations and larger movements. Sullivan gives us a fulsome look at a person whose motives are misconstrued at every turn and allows the reader to see him as a full person and not some spacey, out there dude. Irving doesn’t get that level of respect very frequently and it was refreshing to see a fair-minded, expansive look at one of the game’s brightest stars, not some cartoonish character.
What it Feels Like
Many in Nets fandom are pissed at Sullivan for his promotion of the book, which has included him talking about who didn’t stand for the national anthem (not included in the book); whether the team set up players’ girlfriends —”side somethings” — with housing (not included in the book ... and offered with neither foundation nor detail); a possible Kyrie Irving trade rumor (not included in the book and something that he had to walk back); and stories about Durant smoking a lot of weed (legal in New York and 18 other states). Also, as important as Jay-Z was to the Nets and popular culture on the whole, there was more focus on him than needed in a story about the 2019-20 Nets.
All the questionable promotion aside, the book itself is a great read for any Nets fan. Sullivan puts together a well-crafted, well sequenced story that explores in great detail how the NBA and Brooklyn Nets in particular are adjusting to a brave new world. Irving and Durant are the headliners, but Sullivan does a great job focusing on other key figures such as Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, and especially Spencer Dinwiddie. From his battles with the league office, his growing frustration with Atkinson and the Nets coaching staff, his push to get the respect and compensation he deserves, to his ideas on how to help the NBA maintain fan interest during the worst of the pandemic, Dinwiddie’s story gives the book even more energy and allows us to think deeply about just how the NBA does business.
At 15 chapters and 342 pages, it’s an easy read and a good conversation starter as well. Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, you can like the book and enjoy the discussions and topics related by Sullivan. And the bottom line is that for all the nit-picking about who did what to whom, how this or that evolved, there’s a larger truth here: the Nets franchise is now in the forefront of the sports world. Period. It’s hard to imagine a writer getting as much out of any other team in the NBA or maybe even all of pro sports. That alone makes it fascinating.