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Covering the Drama of the N.B.A., On and Off the Court

Covering the Drama of the N.B.A., On and Off the Court

The N.B.A. season begins on Tuesday after a tumultuous off-season. Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ all-star guard, declined to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, meaning that he was forbidden from playing in home games owing to New York’s health regulations. In response, the Nets announced that Irving would neither practice nor play with the team at all. (The league claims that ninety-five per cent of its players are now vaccinated despite several high-profile holdouts, including Bradley Beal, of the Washington Wizards, and Michael Porter, Jr., of the Denver Nuggets.) Additionally, Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers’ point guard, demanded to be traded, and declined to practice with his team—until his salary was withheld. The controversy has reignited the debate about whether so-called player empowerment—the increasingly common practice of the N.B.A.’s best players choosing where and with whom they play—has wrestled too much control from team owners and executives.

Last week, I spoke with Malika Andrews, the new host of ESPN’s weekday show “NBA Today.” Andrews, a native of Oakland, is only twenty-six, but she has risen quickly at the network. During the first year of the pandemic, in 2020, she reported from inside the bubble, in Orlando; last season, she provided sideline coverage of the N.B.A. Finals. “NBA Today” replaces “The Jump,” which was hosted by Rachel Nichols. Nichols’s show was cancelled, in August, after she was recorded saying that Maria Taylor, an African American reporter who has since left ESPN, was promoted because of the network’s poor record on diversity. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Andrews discussed why she doesn’t think getting vaccinated is a personal decision, her reaction to the Rachel Nichols story, and whether the Nets are still going to win the N.B.A. championship.

Early Newspaper

What did you make of Kyrie Irving’s statement that his decision not to get vaccinated was a personal decision, which also seems to have been the justification of a number of players who have made the same decision?

Well, I mean, when you get down to it, the nitty-gritty, it is a “personal decision” whether or not to get vaccinated, but it isn’t a personal decision in the effect that it has. It can be an individual decision, let’s say. It’s not so much personal; it is individual—an individual decision whether or not you’re going to get vaccinated. But it’s also an individual’s, or a small group of individuals’, decision on how they want to handle that. So we saw the Nets now decide how they’re going to handle that. Sean Marks, the general manager, said that he doesn’t want a part-time player. That’s not in the essence of what he has preached about this team and togetherness and the spirit of their goals.

And obviously if a pandemic was a personal thing then we wouldn’t have gotten to the point of it being a pandemic. That’s how these things work. That doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that it comes down to choice, of whether or not you want to get this vaccine. But the fact of the matter is we know that vaccines help curb the pandemic, and that’s important. And if you aren’t a part of that solution that’s a separate discussion.

One of the things that’s been interesting about people saying that it’s a personal choice is that it’s just stating the simple fact that the government isn’t tying people down to gurneys and putting jabs into their arms. It’s not in itself a reason not to get the vaccine.

Sure, and I also understand that Black bodies historically have been used in medical experiments. And what I hope and encourage is that, at the end of the day, folks who are citing that can seek out a medical professional that they trust—perhaps a Black medical professional that they trust—and get the most updated information on why this is different, because that is no doubt scarring, and it is valid, and it is important to recognize and to understand, but it is also important to get the facts. And that’s our job, right? We’re not epidemiologists. At the end of the day, we’re basketball analysts, but this is touching everything.

All of this is true about African Americans and how they have been treated by the medical establishment. At the same time, I think that if you just look at the statistics, young men who perceive themselves as healthy, whether they’re African Americans or whether they’re average white men in the South, seem the most reluctant to get the vaccine of any group of people. And so I’m wondering whether you think that it is actually these historical things which have made players reluctant to get the vaccine.

I’m not in these players’ heads. The conversations that I have had with various players about the vaccine—I think that they are a microcosm of the population. There are some people where it does come down to the history of—you can look at, like I said—those experiments. You can look at Henrietta Lacks and her cells being used for how we treat cancer and radiation without her permission. There are a cluster of reasons. But, just like the population, the guidelines around the coronavirus vaccine have changed a lot. And I think for the average person we have to have a level of empathy and care, [because] it’s been confusing, right? So I think there are a lot of reasons, but ninety-five per cent of the N.B.A. is vaccinated, they have said. But for those who have held out it’s a combination of factors. It really is.

This pandemic has obviously overwhelmingly affected non-white communities, poor communities, communities that are overrepresented in frontline workers or do not have access to good health care. And in that sense the effects of the pandemic are in many ways a civil-rights issue. But it doesn’t seem to me that it has registered in the league in quite the same way as other things, such as the murder of George Floyd last year.

I think that Damian Lillard made some really astute points on the pandemic. Karl-Anthony Towns made some really powerful points, obviously, as someone who was very personally touched, who lost his mother to COVID-19. So it’s hard to make any blanket statements, but I think the way that human beings tend to work is that what touches them and what experiences they have—those are the human-rights issues that folks have more passion about fighting for. And so when you know so interpersonally what it feels like to be stopped by a policeman, and to have that feeling, fighting for that comes from a place of not just sympathy. It comes from a place of “I’ve been there.” In the N.B.A., there haven’t been that many serious cases of COVID-19.

These guys have a lot on their plates, and so it’s incredible that they dig into the human-rights issues that they do. Their voices are incredibly important. Kyrie Irving has been an incredible part of the Black Lives Matter movement in many ways. He’s done a lot for Native Americans and his tribe. That doesn’t discount any of that. I think it’s just in the N.B.A. [that] the layers of this issue are still being grasped, just like for a lot of people in America. The layers of this pandemic are still being grasped, especially when you don’t need to face them and be directly confronted with them every day.

How did your experience in the bubble change the way you do your job?

The ask was to be a Jack-of-all-trades. And I think in this current job, in some ways, that applies, too. It is being the person who is digesting and breaking and giving the news. And getting to know the players in the bubble—I think that is still paying dividends now. The thing about the N.B.A.—and I’ve said this before, more so potentially than other leagues—is you have to be around. You really have to be around. And so to have players see you go through that with them, something that only so many people went through, that’s something that they can appreciate.

Covering the Drama of the N.B.A., On and Off the Court