As LeBron James sat with director Gotham Chopra and watched old footage of Isiah Thomas being interrogated on national TV during the 1987 NBA Finals, all he could do was shake his head.
In the raw footage that Chopra’s production team had unearthed, that’s more or less what Thomas did when the interview ended—bowed his head in exasperation and disbelief.
“As a basketball historian, LeBron knew of it, but it was still jarring to watch,” Chopra told Bleacher Report, recalling an extensive sit-down interview with James for their upcoming Showtime documentary on the tradition and evolution of social activism in the NBA, Shut Up And Dribble.
“We both sat there and watched Isiah get sort of ambushed in the interview,” Chopra said. “And as he’s taking off the microphone, he puts his head down and you see what a guy like that had to deal with.”
The moment when Thomas was taken to task on live TV by a white sportscaster over the infamous comment that if Larry Bird had been black, he “would’ve been just another good guy,” was one of many flash points in the documentary, which debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.
“I think for LeBron, as one of the most culturally influential basketball players ever, making this statement was very important to him,” Maverick Carter, James’ longtime business partner and co-executive producer of the film, told B/R.
“The statement we wanted to make is that basketball really, truly is America’s sport,” Carter said. “If you study American life—music, fashion, cultural issues—basketball has had more of an impact than any other sport by a long shot.”
The three-part documentary is directed by Chopra and co-produced by James’ company, SpringHill Entertainment, and Chopra’s Religion of Sports. Part II airs Nov. 10, and Part III on Nov. 17, all at 9 p.m. ET.
From Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson to the Golden State Warriors refusing to visit the White House after the 2017 NBA Finals, the film traces the inexorable link between basketball players and their role in responding to social injustice.
It opens with scenes of the Warriors clinching their second championship in three years, and Stephen Curry saying of a potential White House visit, “I don’t want to go.” It is through this prism that Chopra, James and Carter explore the rich history of social activism in a league that has become the flag-bearer for it.
“I want people to connect the dots,” said Jemele Hill, narrator of the film. “I think we have a tendency in today’s fast-food, microwave culture to forget that a lot of the things that seem new and different have actually already happened.
“We talk about learning from history,” she said. “But if you watch this film, you see that we don’t. We keep making the same mistakes over and over.”
And despite its title—taken from conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham famously slamming James and Kevin Durant for criticizing President Trump—the documentary actually was conceived as something quite different.
The concept that James and Carter had originally pitched to Showtime was to explore the story of NBA players “on, off and beyond the court,” Chopra said, using the generational drafts of 1984, 1996 and 2003 as guideposts. The work began in 2016 and evolved in real time as the American political climate grew ever more contentious and NBA players became more comfortable using their power and platform to speak out.
“Once Laura Ingraham told LeBron to ‘shut up and dribble,’ the project took on an even more elevated meaning,” Hill said. “She gave it some bite and edge that it didn’t have before.”
Chopra, a lifelong basketball fan who grew up in Boston and directed the 2015 Showtime film Kobe Bryant‘s Muse, joined the project about two months into production.
“While it was supposed to be equal parts on, off and beyond the court, the social-impact bucket felt like the most relevant one to me,” Chopra said. “I sort of dragged it in that direction, and LeBron and Maverick were supportive of that.”
The 2016 election, player protests in the NFL and the Warriors being uninvited to the White House shaped the film and gave it a living, breathing context for telling the decades-old tale of basketball players as activists.
“Bill Russell was playing with a team and during a time when he couldn’t even eat in same restaurants or stay in same hotels as his teammates,” Hill said. “That being said, fast-forward to when Brent Musburger interviewed Isiah Thomas about comments that [Dennis] Rodman made about Larry Bird, and Isiah sort of defending his teammate. He wasn’t interviewing Isiah Thomas; he was berating him.
“Fast-forward to questions that were being asked of Allen Iverson and what people were saying about NBA players after the Malice at the Palace, and it was like nothing had been learned,” Hill said. “It was completely fashionable and OK to say NBA players were thugs. And there were no real checks and balances with that.”
The film also explores times in NBA history when players’ voices were perhaps not as loud as they should’ve been. Asked during the 1992 NBA Finals about the Rodney King beating at the hands of the LAPD, Michael Jordan’s response was, “I need to know more about it.” Years later, James mimicked Jordan’s political detachment when a teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ira Newble, was trying to collect teammates’ signatures on a petition denouncing genocide in Darfur.
In 2007, James said he didn’t have enough information to sign the petition, a misstep that was not mentioned in the documentary. But in 2012, James began to find his political voice when he openly denounced the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, tweeting a photo of Miami Heat players wearing hoodies and gazing downward in honor of Martin and in protest of the shooting.
“It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing to create change?'” James said that night. “We all have to do better.”
“I think it’s just the natural evolution and growth of a man,” Carter said. “It’s just purely that; nothing more, nothing less than a man growing.”
Jordan was asked to be interviewed for the documentary, but he declined, Chopra said.
“It’s complicated,” Chopra said. “Not only is Michael from a different era, he’s a different guy. He grew up in the South, and his generation was taught, ‘Don’t get in the mud because it’s dangerous.’ LeBron is of a generation where not only can he be outspoken, but he’s celebrated for it and doesn’t jeopardize his Nike deals.”
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press/Associated Press
This was not the case for one of Jordan’s teammates, Craig Hodges, who alleged in a federal lawsuit against the NBA that he was “blackballed” for wearing a traditional African dashiki to the White House after the Bulls’ championship in 1991. Nor was it the case for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who protested during the national anthem long before Colin Kaepernick did.
“It’s a different world we live in,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who won championships with Jordan’s Bulls and now wins them with the Warriors while speaking freely in his criticism of the current occupant of the White House. “I think the players are well suited to speak their minds and handle themselves, and they’re well supported by Adam Silver and the league and the owners in this league.
“There’s no question it took some time for everybody to get to this point. I think it was a combination of social events, political events, societal change, social media for sure. And Trump has sort of accelerated everything. He’s just blowing everything up.”
Durant, targeted along with James for his criticism of the president, said he wants to be a “voice for those people who can’t really speak up. That’s an amazing thing to do with your platform.”
“The way that guys throughout our league have taken advantage of those opportunities is really empowering,” Curry said. “We all have each other’s back in any type of issue that comes up. It’s a great time to be in this league and be able to kind of raise awareness or shed attention on things that need the light put on them.”
Janie McCauley/Associated Press
What the documentary accomplishes as much as anything is that it connects the eras and generations of activists in the NBA. While demonstrating just how long it took to get here, it also shows how much more there is to do.
“No, players today are not drinking out of separate water fountains than their white teammates, but there is still a level of that in our society,” Hill said. “You have a president who called LeBron ‘stupid.’ He may not have been using the word Negro, but he took somebody who represents one of the best American success stories that we’ve ever seen and called him dumb.
“Even though politically and socially a lot of things have changed, there is a consistent theme that black athletes have faced. They have always been told ‘shut up and dribble.’ Laura Ingraham didn’t start that; that started long before her.”
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.