Bonus Episode! Matt Sullivan on KD, The Nets & Athlete Activism | Crooked Media
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July 15, 2021
Takeline
Bonus Episode! Matt Sullivan on KD, The Nets & Athlete Activism

In This Episode

On this bonus episode of Takeline, Jason talks with author Matt Sullivan about his new book “Can’t Knock The Hustle.” Matt reveals behind the scenes details about what it was like to intimately follow and talk with the Brooklyn Nets superstars while they played in the 2020 NBA bubble.

 

Transcript

 

Jason Concepcion: Welcome to bonus episode of Takeline. We’re releasing this later in the week after I did an interview with writer and editor, Matt Sullivan. He’s the author of a fascinating and entertaining new book called Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic and Progress With the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow. It’s a really intriguing and interesting conversation about the modern NBA athlete, and the experience of playing professional basketball in the year 2020 2021. Please check it out. We hope to release more bonus material like this, so make sure to rate, review and subscribe. And now Matt Sullivan.

 

Jason Concepcion: Matt, so much to get into on this really excellent book that you wrote. I have of many questions, perhaps chief among them, how you managed to write a book that contains information that happened like three weeks ago as part of, you know, like with the Nets being recently eliminated from the playoffs. Do you have a time turner? How were you able to do that? And how long you been working on this?

 

Matt Sullivan: You know, they say contemporaneous history, right? And I feel like we’re in such a, such a fucking time warp the last couple of years that my head is spinning. But I’ve got good sourcing and it’s just kind of kept rolling because the drama of the world and this team has kept going. I started on the day that Woj called quote, the “Clean Sweep” which was the beginning of free agency, 2019, and I was walking my dog that day and my neighbor was my fellow Dukey Jay Williams and we were like literally looking at our dogs poop and talking about how he has this kind of on again, off again relationship with KD. And man, these are a bunch of characters. They’ve been reported on forever but, you know, there’s a lot more there, no one’s giving them a fair shake and this is just going to be such a great scene. I started thinking about it and I my kind of mentor, now literary agent, David Granger, who is a longtime Editor in Chief of Esquire, he just sent me a weird, cryptic email saying: someone should write a book . . .—that was a subject line, then just said: about the Nets. Is Kyrie crazy? KD coming back from rehab, new owner Ali Baba, a team that actually likes playing in Brooklyn. And so I just jumped in. I knocked on the door, they gave me a press pass and said, make friends and earn trust. And the last year and a half has been you know, I fell into the history books.

 

Jason Concepcion: Well, there’s so much going on in this book, and particularly with this team that seems like it’s at the nexus of just a bunch of different forces, whether it’s the rise of Chinese capitalism and its influence in the broader economy, social justice, so-called player empowerment movement, on and on. You’ve gotten some really, I guess, unexpected and fun PR when Kevin Durant responded to an excerpt from the book about Steve Kerr trying to get him off of Twitter. Was that, you know, Cady’s an extremely online person, but were you expecting something like that, some kind of a response like that?

 

Matt Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, he claps back at the media a lot, usually it’s to correct the record and polish his legacy. You’ll notice he didn’t clap back to question the reporting at all because I was, like, extremely thorough with everything, 400 interviews deep, but also when you’re recruiting dialog, you got to talk to both sides. And I would have to kind of read this line by line to Steve Kerr to make sure that when he took them out to a drink at the bar, they said this and said that and he said this advice, fuck it. And KD remembered that. I like literally walked across the street and checked it with both sides. Like Steve Kerr’s practicing in a gym at Chelsea Piers in KD’s place across the street. Yeah, I’m glad that KD is engaged with it. I hope he reads the whole thing. I know Kyrie’s got a stack of copies. And I think the Nets strategy is to kill this thing with silence because I kind of pierced their Kremlin’esque wall.

 

Jason Concepcion: Yeah.

 

Matt Sullivan: So, yeah, I’m glad that it’s becoming a bigger conversation and not just some drama-filled back and forth rumormongering, because that’s kind of the point of the book.

 

Jason Concepcion: Well, I’ll say the things that the Nets actually do kill it are are impressive. You talk about access and this is a team, the Brooklyn Nets, that the three star players that they have, KD, James Harden and Kyrie, wield outsized influence within the organization, probably, even within a time within an era where players have a lot of say or at least seem to within the way their teams are run. What did you encounter with regards to that in terms of the way people responded to that? Did do those players have an outside influence in the team? And like, what is the response to that? Because I think one of the things I’m struck by during this era of the NBA is the amount of panic that players with influence generate within league circles and even journalistic circles of people that have followed the sport for a while.

 

Matt Sullivan: I think people are scared of superstars. And obviously LeBron kicked off the player empowerment movement and this kind of player as pseudo GM thing where you pick up a ring chaser here and a cheap guy there and they get the final say—that much has not changed. And I think Kyrie took that playbook from LeBron, KD picked that up from his various super teams and superstar teammates, but the Nets were kind of ready for it. I think that’s the thing they built up this image publicly of they’ve got this fancy practice facility, and the Joe Harrises and Spencer Dinwiddies of the world, they picked up off the scrap heap and built them into the studs. But I think the whole plan was just get these big dogs in the door and let them run the show. And so the amount of panic that has followed it does fit the mold that I think we assume is there, but it actually is. And I think you take someone like Sean Marks, a former player, he just kind of like, OK, let them do their thing. Kenny Atkinson who’s this kind of very hands-on systematic coach who really built the nets up from nothing, he didn’t know how to play this game. He didn’t know how to lean back and let these guys be themselves. That was interesting. He once said of DK while he was hurt, you got to leave the Massarotti in the glass case. Steve Nash, when he comes in, he says, if you got a Lamborghini, it’s not meant to be in the garage. I mean, these are just like totally unprovoked answers to different questions, but I thought it shows a different style where they had the kind of force out Kenny Atkinson, in order to do things on their terms—they also had to force out certain players from last year to build the dynasty they wanted with their friends and favorite players.

 

Jason Concepcion: Let’s talk a bit about how this team came together. There’s that famous viral moment from All Star 2019, Kyrie and Kevin Durant in the hallway seeming to be scheming about something in animated fashion. Later they would deny questions that were asked about them teaming up and then of course they did. There was heavy rumors on the street that Kevin Durant would be moving eat, but joining the Knicks. I mean, this is kind of like lost to history, now, you do touch on it, but like it, everyone who kind of knew, who knows stuff was like KD’s going to the Knicks. KD’s going to the Knicks. That was, that was a widely held belief. How did they both, how did Kyrie and KD end up in Brooklyn?

 

Matt Sullivan: Well, I know that you and I, as long-suffering Knicks fans really hope that the two max slots met at the garden, but that Zapruder tape was not was not really the beginning of this partnership. There was a dinner up at Kyrie’s place outside of Boston when the Warriors were playing there as early as January 2019. Wine’s glowing and the vegan burgers and the vegan smoothies are playing as themselves in 2K, so that’s really kind of a Genesis moment. But my reporting at least indicates that KD had decided to go to Brooklyn while he was still playing in the finals with the Dubs in 2019. This is kind of when Kyrie is putting together his pieces, he’s got that kind of half GM control going on. He’s making moves that the coach didn’t really want to be making to put together some vets and stuff like that. So, I mean, what I find the funniest and just as a fellow sad Knicks fan, is that so KD had basically decided to do this thing. He got hurt, he had still kind of decided to do this thing come to Brooklyn. And yet the Knicks, they’re desperate executives, they set up this video chat with KD’s dad and they’re just like trying to lure him, even though he’s already made up his mind. So, you know, of all the recompense and hullabaloo over my book, I think the only thing that the NBA really has to look into is maybe the Knick’s desperate tampering.

 

Jason Concepcion: I mean, it’s not even that’s, they’ve tampered so much harder than that, including signing Chris Smith, J.R. Smith’s brother, to a contract in order to keep the vibes going on a particular Knicks team, there’s been I mean, this is—

 

Matt Sullivan: I mean, tampering is cool. It should be out in the open. Right?

 

Jason Concepcion: But it was due to I, it was due diligence, that was their due diligence, they had to take the shot, you have to take a shot. It would have been, I would have preferred if they would have landed it.

 

Matt Sullivan: I mean, why did KD, Kyrie and Dondre Jordan need to act like they had some mysterious 4:00 a.m. FaceTime call in the night of free agency, when they’ve been planning to do this since like 2016 smoking weed on a yacht at the Olympics? I mean, it’s just the ruse should be over and it sucks for the small market teams, but I think we’ve reached the point of the Harden forcing his way out of COVID-filled strip clubs in Texas and getting to Brooklyn for what, what did the Rockets get? Like Rodions Kurucs for him? I mean, I think the player empowerment arc has been so normalized, it’s just so normalized and mainstream that I don’t know why we’re hiding anything at this point.

 

Jason Concepcion: Yes, that’s absolutely true. One of the three stars of the Brooklyn Nets, of course, is Kyrie Irving, who is kind of a mercurial figure, certainly one of the greatest scorers currently in the NBA and one of the greatest Iso players. It’s, you know, key to the net success is the fact they have probably three of the best one-on-one player currently playing. But Kyrie is an interesting figure in the sense that, you know, due to various statements, probably beginning with his espousal of flat earth theory, he’s viewed very differently by the kind of general sporting public than he is by other athletes. Talk a little bit about that, about the way that Kyrie, what doesn’t the general sporting public understand about the way Kyrie, the esteem that Kyrie is held with?

 

Matt Sullivan: I think it’s come a long way since that flat earther movement, just kind of as a man. He’s big on saying “I’m young for my second career” right? And so he likes to push buttons, he likes to question the system whether that’s like the team medical staff or the government. And so the flat earther thing, I asked a dozen people close to him and they’re saying, oh, he didn’t believe it. Well, I mean, it’s kind of dangerous to espouse conspiracy theory when more people engage with your Instagram than Donald Trump and certainly like every science teacher in America, but he’s a humanitarian, like he’ll give cash out on the street to people. He’ll buy a house for George Floyd or a victim of gun violence who just says Kyrie’s his favorite player like he did like three weeks ago. And so I think he’s held in that esteem by players, but also because he calls a spade a spade and speaks up where, like the guy on a, that minimum or a guy trying to make it out of the g league, like can’t say. So when Kyrie says, I hope there’s no casual racism or subtle racism in Boston, you know, I’ve reported that in my book that he was feeling some of those vibes as early as 2017, 2018 season, but you see, that was kind of gestating. And then he just puts it out there. Right. Like Rachel Nichols asked an innocent question of what’s going to be like when you go back to Boston and he just goes off. I mean, he’s kind of speaking his mind, but he’s doing it with a little bit of purpose and I think more and more clarity so that he isn’t as misunderstood. But I think he’s kind of been all over the place in the past when he was a quote “younger man.” And I think he’s been villainized so much for that, that he’s having trouble getting through that tunnel to being a hero, right? And I think that’s a real mission of his and why he’s taking a pause for paternity leave and because, you know, precipitated by the Capital Riot and the lack of charges against Jacob Blake—know he got caught on video to maskless party, sure, but he was doing these things as a man, away from his day job.

 

Jason Concepcion: As a team, how have the Nets as players, including Kyrie, like, responded to this extremely tumultuous past 14 months that included not just a pandemic, the effects of which fell disproportionately on minority communities, but also the police violence that we’ve seen perpetrated against people of color and the ensuing protests against that? How did, how did this team respond to those moments?

 

Matt Sullivan: Well, you know, I was out in the streets of Brooklyn, there were lots of protests around Barclays Center and the management said it’s like, you know, the town square and that’s all great. I’ve investigated like every police killing in America in a the previous journalistic life, and so I care about this stuff, I talked honestly with guys about it. I don’t mean to be divisive about it, but I do think there are two camps. A guy who, this really smart, professor, Left Loggins at Berkeley, who’s advised a lot of players, including Kaepernick, Jaylen Brown, he explains there’s like the difference between the Hovites, it’s almost like the JayZ-style, kind of like mega celebrities who play it safe and do things behind the scenes. And like the Kaeptivists, the Kaepernick-style guys who are willing to go all the way. And so I think you’ve got the NBPA, play it safe, get the donations from the owners, like the corporate version of activism, advocacy, really. And then you’ve got the wannabe activists who are sick of the re-tweets and yet who don’t have a plan. And so I thought the whole kyrie bubble-busting coalition of the unwilling with Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard, like Dwight Howard has never been political in his life, but all of a sudden he’s like, this is a bad look to go to the bubble. And so John Carlos was telling me that these guys sought his counsel, but he was saying this isn’t about symbols anymore. You’re like in the pool of this, you’re in the moment, hit them in the pocket, hit the owners where it hurts. And I think, you know, Kyrie could get his, couldn’t get the eyes, so to speak, and so that whole call, the disrupter, was definitely a shit show, but there wasn’t a lot of follow-up either. And so it’s like movements have been forever, right? There was Martin and Malcolm. There’s a, it’s a divide. It’s still a problem with the movement now. And I think the NBA hasn’t figured out that kind of mini schism. Everybody’s fighting the good fight. But it’s interesting to see the Nets have that almost internecine thing where, you know, Kyrie didn’t want this guy Garrett Temple back on the team because Garrett was playing the very like, you know, union brass card, whereas Kyrie is going a little rogue, which is his style. And I think people would say once the Bucks went on strike, like, well, he was right all along.

 

Jason Concepcion: Yeah. What was the, what was the vibe between Kyrie and Garrett as that was going down like chemistry-wise within the team? Was that an issue?

 

Matt Sullivan: I don’t think it, like it’s weird how guys can be in the corner of the gym together as the veterans who know what they’re doing one day. And then this is obviously been a tumultuous year and tons of history unfolding before us, but I just thought it was interesting what Garrett was telling me. This is on Election Day, he was changing his newborn son’s diaper and we’re talking about player empowerment. He says players have a lot of say nowadays in this league. And then I’m like, yeah, but Kyrie and you didn’t really agree on that controversial call. And then he wanted to go to the bubble and get the owners to give money and get on one knee and raise your fists in the air. And he was like, yeah, but I haven’t talked to Kyrie since then, you know? And not even, they’re both on the union, they’re both VPs of the NBPA. They hadn’t talked. Like Kyrie hadn’t been on all those calls since then because he was doing his own thing. And so Garrett told me, quote, “players in the leadership, if you go against what they want you to do, then they won’t want you back. If that’s the case and I don’t want to be on this team, but Kyrie is the enigma of the century, so who knows?” That’s the thing. It’s like, who knows, right?

 

Jason Concepcion: Wow. So, I mean, we’ve been talking about player empowerment and it is a discussion point and will continue to be one for many years, I think, for various reasons. But I think, you know, as, again, long-suffering Knicks fans, I think the thing that that I’m interested in is from your reporting, how does one lure an empowered player to a team? What is the pitch? Because player empowerment essentially means that you’ve got to make a pitch now, it’s not just like you’re going to trade for a guy. You’re going to throw a bag of money on a table. What else? What else is there in this opportunity for the player that makes them feel like they’re part of the process? They can, they can, and they can reap the benefits of the team’s success in a way that’s more equitable, that’s not just money, that’s also influence, et cetera. So how does the team go about doing it?

 

Matt Sullivan: I mean, I think the playbook is evolving, right? Like LeBron sort of choose the Lakers and Rob Pelinka is awesome and knows how to build a great franchise, but they didn’t have it quite figured out yet. You know, Daim Lillard doesn’t know really where he wants to go because who’s going to give him both the ball and the vibe and go home? I think the Nets have been, again, just kind of a crucible for that. And I think Steve Nash is really figuring that. Like Sean Marks knew how to promise you can build the team you want, here is a nice city, nice facility. Kyrie comes home. KD gets to do what he wants. But what Kenny Atkinson didn’t do and we got fired out, fired for and forced out for is that he didn’t know how to baby sit, but do it with authority. And so I don’t know if Steve Nash ever let this out this year but his motto internally was quote “protect the group. Right? And that that meant building this insulated bubble. KD likes to call it Nets world. Right? And that’s what NBA, Twitter kind of calls this. But but it really means insulating Kyrie from the media. It means letting KD hoop in an empty gym without the noise. And I think that also means not just Steve Nash leaning back and say, OK, let Kyrie disappear for a couple of days and don’t grumble about it. But it’s also saying, yo, your boy DeAndre Jordan is washed. He’s not getting these minutes anymore, and I know because I’m Steve Nash! So it’s a balancing act in addition to the attendant luxuries and the blank checks and get whatever the hell you want, go take the team plane and fly private, disappear—like it’s a lot of juggling act. I think that’s why you see a lot more like players in front offices, big-time stars, the Jason Kidds of the world getting these jobs to handle the growing Luka personality. I think you’ll see a lot more former players in these high-profile roles and hopefully more diversity for them, too.

 

Jason Concepcion: Yeah, Mavs just, well, this is not going to fill that particular checkbox, but it makes sense for this team, the Dallas Mavericks, of course—recently hired Dirk Nowitzki to be a consultant. And you can translate that to Luka whisper, essentially. I think you’re right, that’s as players and their influence grows, you’re just going to need people that understand their particular experience that work within the team.

 

Matt Sullivan: Well, that’s why it’s become accepted that your best friend is going to be a rebounder on the team payroll, which is just kind of par for the course at this point.

 

Jason Concepcion: I’ve heard when you mentioned don’t disappear and don’t say anything, when Kyrie went on, he took a certain amount of time for personal days, like mental health, I think was eventually the thing that they landed on. But what I heard was that nobody knew where he was for a number of those days, like the first part of it, nobody was really sure exactly where Kyrie was.

 

Matt Sullivan: It’s an open secret that Kyrie disappears from teams. And he is very open, not secretly, about his mental health being part of that, that it’s OK to have what Jackie McMullen’s called a mood swing. He said that’s normal. It is. When he was in Boston, it would be one day, maybe two. Maybe that rubs some guys the wrong way who weren’t used to it. Because guys were used to that, he wanted to go somewhere where that was not frowned upon. During his shoulder injury in late 2019, early 2020, he disappeared from the team. There were many people, like the most high-ranking people in the basketball operations group did not know where he was. Kenny Atkinson wondered if he should skip his own game, not head coach an NBA game, to go fly on Kyrie’s plane, to go to his second, third, fourth opinions in Phoenix or whatever. He legitimately wondered that. He regretted not doing it. And so this is the level of headache that he is to management. But it’s a cost-benefit for even Joe Tsai, who—

 

Jason Concepcion: Right, of course.

 

Matt Sullivan: Has been frustrated with some of this stuff. So you flash forward to early 2021, Kyrie’s having a kid. Totally cool. It goes with his—or it’s just normal—but it goes with his particular outspokenness about: basketball is my day job, I have a life, I have another career, I’m a family man, I’m a dad. Which he really is a very hands-on dad. Like he’ll be in his, he would be in his penthouse in Brooklyn, like with just his kid and his nanny and put his kid to bed every night and then just watch film and go to bed. I mean, he’s a really hands-on thing, not no longer single dad anyway. January 2021, he’s got this sort of pre-planned pseudo paternity leave, but the team didn’t really communicate well with him and he didn’t communicate with them. Then the Capital Riot happens. The lack of charges against Jacob Blake, which is kind of that Kyrie was right all along, bubble thing. And then he goes into his home life and the Nets are kind of scared of piercing his bubble. They texted people, wondering where he is, and the maskless birthday party kind of screwed him over. Like that’s its own Zapruder tape that extended the absence, that extended the what his family and friends describe to me very recently as a spiritual, mental and emotional break—which is cool. And it just got extended because of the NBA finding and having to look into that video. And so I think that rubbed some people higher up the wrong way. And he had to apologize, got a slap on the wrist. And look, I think it got out there somewhere that I thought he would be traded or something. People were whining about it, which is rare from the Nats brass. They usually are pretty buttoned up. So I thought that was noteworthy, that that grumbling. But I think it will make him lock in more. And I think it’s like he’s had his final big disappearing act. I think it’s time to lock in and get these three guys healthy and win a fucking championship already.

 

Jason Concepcion: Well, of course, that that did not happen this year. The injuries played a major factor. But, of course, the Nets did lose in the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks. It seemed from the outside looking in just from social media that there was no shortage of glee at the, at the, upon the defeat of the Brooklyn Nets within the league. Was there a similar glee at the loss that the Nets, that the Nets suffered?

 

Matt Sullivan: I think you hear players being like, damn, even the Nets lost! And it’s not that whole Warriors, like it’s unfair running up the score thing. I think it’s just like, damn them? Like, really? And so I think there was an era of just relief across the league, but I think. I don’t know, the Nets might not have been ready for, all injuries aside, for that real dynasty run, and they just, it’s been such a weird two years. And I think players, while I followed the 2019-2020 season when everything was happening, I think this past season was just, the players don’t get enough credit for getting through all the testing and getting shit stuck up your nose like right before tip off and being able to hang out with your friends.

 

Jason Concepcion: 100% agree, year.

 

Matt Sullivan: And I think it was just a distraction upon a distraction. And people called these guys a distraction and villains. And Steve Nash is out here in one press conference being like, we’re the villains, rar! But I don’t, I’m not sure they want to be the heels of the NBA, but I think they’re OK with it if need be. And so I think their definition by other people means less and less to them by the day, even though people get on KD for being soft and clapping back on Twitter about it.

 

Jason Concepcion: I mean, he’s, I actually love how outspoken he is about it. One of the things that I think I’ve noticed—.

 

Matt Sullivan: It’s totally normal.

 

Jason Concepcion: It’s totally normal! I think one of the things is really hard to miss about the way we talk about today’s NBA is that as we get farther from the influence of Michael Jordan and his gigantic footprint on the league, which extends even to, even though they’re quite different players, to the way we talk about LeBron, we still talk about LeBron within the archetype of the way we talk about Jordan. KD, Kyrie—a lot of these younger players that are coming up in the, in the post-LeBron player empowerment so-called era, don’t fit easily into that mold. Whether it’s Giannis not being the guy in the fourth quarter on his own team, Kyrie being a mercurial, KD being out loud with the way he responds to criticism from people—which is the thing that, of course Jordan didn’t do. Now he didn’t have social media in his day, but still. Have we,—and this is kind of like an ethereal question—but do we just not understand how to talk about this generation of players separate from the way we talk about michael Jordan, Magic Bird, LeBron, etc.? Because it feels like part of the criticism that we lobby against these players is essentially they are not like Michael.

 

Matt Sullivan: I wonder if as legendary as our current generation, the LeBron, CP, Melo, Banana Boat generation will be forever known—if they’re almost a bridge generation, you know? Like they had to get us through this technological revolution, now through this historic pandemic, through racial reckoning that’s obviously long overdue and has been in the NBA. But you look at the next generation, the Bronnys, the John Kuminga—who I got to know and wrote a lot more about before I had to cut it out, because the history happened after, you know built the second half of my book. And you look at like Emani Bates and these guys live on the Gram, they’re outspoken in a way that is just second nature to them, to not hold back about their politics and worry if they’re not going to get a shoe deal because they got shoe deals when they were in diapers. And there’s a transparency. There’s a, quote unquote, “authenticity” that I think we get on LeBron and KD for having. And they’re really, really good at social media. But they’re like, you and my age, they kind of had to get through from Jordan to Bronny. And I think it’ll be really  interesting to see how they follow in the footsteps of all the hate that was thrown these guys’ way for basically choosing where they wanted to work, and what they wanted to be known for. Which I think is tremendously unfair. And I wonder if when people read my book in like 15 years, if they’ll be like, what was all this shade about?

 

Jason Concepcion: It’s tremendously normal, right? To to want to be able to choose where you would work, who would employ you? I think that’s an extremely normal and relatable thing. Within sports of course, it’s reacted to quite differently. The kind of criticism of player empowerment, what’s behind it? What are the different strands all wrapped up within this kind of broad denouncement of a movement within sports for players to have more say within their careers? Your read of it?

 

Matt Sullivan: I think a lot of people would say there’s a resentment as small market team fan bases are eschewed in favor of national, international social-powered personality A-listers, right? But a lot of that individualism goes back a ways. And I had a really interesting conversation with Dr. J., who actually forced his way onto certain teams back in the day, just like Wilt did, like Kareem did—and he was saying quote “there’s a responsibility that comes with the territory, the building of the super teams, what happened in Miami, what exists now, is definitely player-driven and very self-serving. I’m not hating on it, but there’s a difference. Service to yourself and service to the game.” And he went on to say that LeBron in particular: has empowered himself to empower other people, been generous with his platform. So I think there’s like player empowerment in the kind of, oh, that’s annoying he ditched us for the Bay kind of a thing. And then there’s the real player empowerment, which is pushing it forward to that next generation, to the broader world. And I think how you negotiate that is two-fold. Do you do it in the safe, mass audience-friendly President LeBron kind of away? Or do you do it in that kind of badass Kyrie fist in the air kind of a way, where you know you’re so empowered you’re not going to lose that Nike deal, just go for it and call out the haters, the racists, whatever you want and not worry about the backlash? LeBron says he’s not worried about the backlash, but he’s trying to kind of guard the entire league from that. He’s like a big halo shield. And Kyrie is just like coming up from the back, guns blazing.

 

Jason Concepcion: And then finally, just what was the most surprising anecdote you think that you, that you learned in the course of writing this book? It’s Can’t Knock the Hustle, which is available now wherever you get your books, please support your local bookstore if you can. It’s, the author is Matt Sullivan, who I’m talking to now. What was the most surprising thing you learned through the course of this?

 

Matt Sullivan: I was always watching the anthem just because at Bleacher Report, I’ve done a lot of reporting. Our friend Rembert had written a big piece with me about Kaepernick and just kind of thinking about the arc of that. I was surprised how much the NBA had cracked down on the anthem without us knowing about it. Adam Silver was really worried that players would take a knee after Trump went after the Warriors, and Kaepernick, this kind of crazy weekend when Kaepernick gesture was really watered down. Like Jerry Jones was taking a knee, and for a lot of players was like, uh, OK. But guys got over the anthem. And I thought it was interesting how players would talk to me, you know with the deal that I wouldn’t tweet about things for two years, that it feels like we’re looking at a flag that’s kind of like the Confederate flag. Wilson Chandler was alluding to how this country hasn’t done any more for him than the Confederacy did and—not apples to apples, but like that. And then just watching this year, even as my book was heading to the printers like Kyrie, KD, DeAndre Jordan, other guys around the league, would just disappear after a couple of layup lines, the lights would go down and they come back out for starting lineups as the lights came up like nothing had happened. Which they’re not really trying to make some huge statement but I’m just, it’s interesting to me how this performative patriotism has become just a thing that guys eye roll at. And so as such a divisive part of our kind of political activists, cultural mélange, I feel like that fight is almost over, and these guys are learning the limits of advocacy and activism and figuring out how to really get shit done. And it’s kind of a ‘know your role’ situation where, I am not an activist in the streets, I am not the president of the United States, what do I do with my clout other than tweet? And I think that question is unknown, and I think it’ll be interesting once we get out of this weird injury-plagued, still COVID-filled season if they can pick back up the mantle going forward.

 

Jason Concepcion: Yeah, I think that’s a, it’s a great way to put it. I also think that there’s something of, there’s something about a window in time as well too, right? Where it’s certain things, certain ways to push the envelope, those things are only available during a certain window of time that exists within the broader conversation around social justice and things that are happening with the country, and other times, those protests around the anthem, etc., are going to be judged in a different light than they will be as protests are going on, etc. Yeah, I mean, it’s a fascinating, it’s a fascinating book. It’s a fascinating account. You did a masterful job. And it’s great to talk to you.

 

Matt Sullivan: You too man.

 

Jason Concepcion: Matt Sullivan is an editor at The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Esquire and Bleacher Report. And he has written a fantastic book, an account of the rise of the Brooklyn Nets super team, called Can’t Knock the Hustle. Get it wherever you get your books.

 

Matt Sullivan: Thanks, man. Go Knicks!