The oddly political Brooklyn Nets

Deron Williams's shoes from Friday night's game.
Deron Williams’s Air Jordan X ‘Steel Grey’ colorway[note]h/t Nick Metallinos of Starting 5 Online[/note] sneakers from Friday night’s game.

Before their 108-100 overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns Friday night, the Nets made a different kind of statement. In pre-game warmups, most of the team donned one of two shirts produced by the “End It Movement,” dedicated to raising awareness about and eliminating present-day slavery. Deron Williams also wore a Red X on his sneakers, pictured above.

It was a reminder of the odd tug-of-war that exists in the Nets’ public facade. In a cultivated league that subsists on the entertainment value in three hours of suspended reality, political statements are anathema. No one wants to hear Immortal Technique at a rave. But in the past year, the Nets have built a paradox, mixing a heavily branded sports experience with political progressivism.

No team is more brand-conscious than Hello Brooklyn/We’re In Brooklyn/We Are Brooklyn. When reflecting on the trade that brought Kevin Garnett & Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov maintained how good it was for the “brand.” When Jason Kidd demoted Lawrence Frank, it was because he had to do “what’s good for the brand.” Every inch of Barclays Center is sponsored, right down to the back entrances — sorry, the EmblemHealth Entrances on Atlantic and Dean Streets. The second quarter of Brooklyn Nets basketball, which is brought to you by SW24 Security, is then brought to you by Rocco’s Tacos.

To be clear: this is in no way a criticism of the team’s advertising abundance. Advertisers pay the bills[note]Buy Verizon FIOS![/note], and a team that lost $144 million in basketball-related income last season needs to recoup somehow. Whether or not you think it’s overdone does not detract from how carefully it’s crafted. The mere innovation is something to marvel at, even if it’s sometimes reminiscent of the satirical dystopia in the Academy-Award winning short film Logorama[note]Go watch that. It’s great. And probably NSFW.[/note].

But it’s hard not to double-take when a sports team’s warmups — brought to you by the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge — are then juxtaposed with an off-brand progressive message from the entertainers themselves. Even when the cause isn’t antagonistic — no public figure is on the other side of the anti-slavery movement — just the act of bringing light to a dark truth is a risk in a heavily moderated entertainment venue where “stick to sports” is right around the corner.

Williams got involved with the End It Movement through the NBA and former teammate Kyle Korver, now with the Atlanta Hawks. He was introduced to it last year, when he wore a red X on his hand against the Denver Nuggets.

This year, Korver texted with Williams the week before about the opportunity, and sent the team a box of t-shirts to wear before Friday night’s game. “Everybody was on board,” Williams said.

Williams said he watched videos on YouTube about the End It Movement, which connected with him. “It’s really sad to think it’s happening here, moreso in other countries. To think about a parent losing their kid at an early age and never seeing them again. Never knowing where they are, but they’re over there drugged up in a camp, and really have no control over their life, their body. It was just kind of to raise awareness for that cause. To bring light to it.”

“I’m sure a lot of people don’t know that 27 million people are slaves,” Williams added. “That’s crazy to think about.”

B4YAQZYCAAAKYirIt was not the first time the team made a pre-game political statement. On December 8th, Deron Williams, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, and Kevin Garnett donned shirts with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” following in Derrick Rose’s footsteps to raise awareness for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died in an altercation with police. Jack also supplied “I Can’t Breathe” shirts for Cleveland Cavaliers players LeBron James, the league’s preeminent icon, and All-Star Kyrie Irving.

It was a high-profile night. Prince William & Princess Kate Middleton came to Brooklyn for that game, and brought viewers with them; that night’s game against the Cavaliers was the highest-rated YES Network Nets broadcast of the season.

Nets coach Lionel Hollins doesn’t seem to mind. “They should be political,” Hollins said back in December. “They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. They don’t think there’s justice, or they feel like there’s something that they should protest, they should protest. That’s their right as citizens of America.”

Jack, who also spoke with Korver prior to wearing the shirt, said the movement itself compelled him to participate.

“Everybody should be able to be free,” Jack said. “Able to live a free life, have the choice to do and live their life as they so choose. You shouldn’t be under the scrutiny of another person trying to allow you to do certain things.”

It is not the responsibility of athletes to spin the wheels of history. That onus belongs on politicians, civil rights leaders, and the public at large. But at the very least, each conversation about human rights issues begins with a spark. The Nets have a public platform in one of the largest markets in the world, and they’ve used that platform to open conversation.

Jack has no reservation about speaking on global issues, after he’s learned about them. “I try to be educated on it first, and then if I feel strong about it, and it resonates with me –”

Jack paused.

“It doesn’t even have to resonate with me. If it just resonates to us as a people, I feel like it’s something that needs to have light brought to it, I’ll be a part of it. No matter what nationality, gender, it doesn’t matter.”