The “Progressive” NBA Still Loves Israel

The NBA has presented itself as the most socially conscious of the major US sports leagues. But when it comes to Israel, the redlines are clear.

The Brooklyn Nets play an exhibition game against the Israeli basketball team Maccabi Ra’anana on October 12, 2023, in New York City. (Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

In November 2023, news came that Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was selling his majority share of the team to the Adelsons, one of Las Vegas’s most powerful casino and real estate families. One month later, at the end of December, the NBA announced that it had approved the deal for $3.5 billion.

Much of the reporting on the sale focused on whether the team would leave Dallas (no), whether Cuban would stay on in some capacity (he did), or whether this was a way for the Adelsons to bring casino gambling to Texas, where there is cross-party opposition to it (a developing story). Some reports mentioned that the Adelsons — the company is led by Miriam Adelson, whose husband, Sheldon, founded the company and died in 2021 — are major Republican donors, especially to former president Donald Trump.

A few added that Miriam Adelson is the publisher of Israel Hayom, a right-wing free daily newspaper distributed in Israel, and is a close supporter of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Others added that she is the main funder of the Israeli American Council. This pro-Zionist organization claims to represent the interests of Israeli immigrants in the United States. Its key campaigns include pushing for anti–Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) state laws and forcing government contractors to refrain from boycotting Israel.

Two weeks before the NBA approved the Dallas Mavericks deal, Miriam Adelson, born in Mandate Palestine in 1945, spoke at the Texas Association of Business conference in Austin. In a video of the talk, posted on YouTube, she says that “like Texans, Israelis stick to their guns and stand up for their principles and don’t give a damn if it means standing alone.”

She may not get the same reception in Dallas. Every weekend since October, pro-Palestinian demonstrators have crowded downtown Dallas, demanding a cease-fire and an end to the occupation. One of the marches and rallies, on November 4, was the largest such gathering in Dallas since the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The protesters would usually stop at the offices of Senator Ted Cruz to condemn his support for Israel. The Dallas City Council passed a pro-Israel resolution in mid-December that has been criticized by the city’s Palestinian community and their supporters. According to the Texas Observer, Texas ranks among the top five states for both Arab Americans and Palestinians. The state’s most significant urban areas, especially Harris County, which includes Houston, and the Metroplex, which includes Dallas, have significant Arab and Palestinian populations.

Given that the NBA likes to style itself as progressive and basketball media uncritically repeats this compliment, you’d think the Adelsons would be up against it.

American professional sports, run like corporations, are averse to political controversy. They side with God, country, and capitalism. But the NBA was the first sports league to embrace the Black Lives Matter protests publicly, and its stars, like LeBron James, publicly condemned police violence. NBA players were the most outspoken in warning of the dangers of Trump’s violent right-wing politics, and players have encouraged fans to vote in presidential and congressional elections. In addition, NBA coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have been outspoken critics of US gun laws.

The NBA has been less consistent on American foreign policy. When Russian authorities arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner on drug charges, the NBA lent its stars to the campaign to put pressure on the US government to effect her release. In 2017, Enes Kanter, a Turkish basketball player and former New York Knick, began criticizing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for an authoritarian power grab. For this, Kanter’s Turkish passport was revoked. The NBA stood by Kanter and helped him get a US passport. But there are limits. Before long, Kanter, who added “Freedom” to his name and whose political ideas are a mix of libertarian and reactionary, broadened his focus and began agitating around other foreign policy issues. In July 2023, Kanter told a congressional hearing that he was “blacklisted” from the league after he wore shoes with messages that highlighted China’s persecution of Tibetans and Uyghurs and called for the International Olympic Committee to cancel the Beijing Olympic Games. Kanter also claimed this activism led to the banning of Boston Celtics games in China.

Kanter is a favorite of neoconservatives and right-wingers in the United States, so it is hard to worry about him too much. But the NBA’s principles stop when they threaten its bottom line.

Red Lines, Bottom Lines

In October 2019, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong. The Chinese Basketball Association objected to the statement, and shortly afterward the Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, announced it would suspend broadcasts of NBA preseason games in China and blackout Rockets regular season games. This was followed by Chinese companies suspending sponsorship deals with the Rockets. The NBA decided to act. It quickly released a statement apologizing to Chinese fans. Pressed, it pleaded both-sidedness: “it is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.” Everyone could see the NBA’s response was motivated by losing a lucrative market that generated millions of dollars in revenue.

Only one other country demands not only this kind of reaction, but, crucially, also loyalty from the NBA, its players, officials, and media: Israel.

Many current and former players, including legends like Rick Barry and David Robinson, and NBA officials, chief among them Commissioner Adam Silver, have made regular trips to Israel. There, they met with government officials, ran basketball clinics in the occupied territories, and met with soldiers and police. On their return, they usually gush about Israel. None of them make any mention of Palestinian suffering or the occupied territories. And, when, on one occasion, Israel insisted that there was no occupation, the NBA obliged. In 2018, the list of options for fans voting for the All-Star Game included “Occupied Palestine.” Israel’s sports minister, who had earlier called Palestine “an imaginary state,” demanded it be taken down. The NBA profusely apologized and blamed an outsourced firm. Israel claimed an Orwellian victory: “Israel’s lands are not occupied; therefore what was written was false and should have been deleted.”

The reception differs significantly from what Israeli clubs and national teams have experienced elsewhere. Israel was suspended from Asian sports associations in the early 1970s over its treatment of Palestinians, so its teams have played in European leagues since the early 1990s due to the Oslo Accords. Most European fans object to Israeli teams, though their national and continental sports bodies have been slow to act against Israel. In contrast, international and European sports bodies quickly and rightfully suspended Russia when it invaded Ukraine. European clubs are forced to play the fixtures against Israeli teams or lose the points by default. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t go according to script. On February 1, in the Euro Basketball League, Maccabi Tel Aviv played away at Saski Baskonia, in the Basque country in Spain. Home fans turned up waving Palestinian flags and shouting “Genocide!” every time Maccabi Tel Aviv players had the ball. In Ireland, the women’s national basketball team refused to stand at attention for the Israeli anthem and refused to shake their opponents’ hands.

Officially, the NBA maintains a pro-Israel line. Two days after October 7, the NBA and the league’s players association released a statement: “The NBA and NBPA mourn the horrific loss of life in Israel and condemn these acts of terrorism. We stand with the people of Israel and pray for peace for the entire region.” It offered no condemnation of Israel’s disproportionate military response in Gaza or expression of solidarity or sympathy with Palestinians.

Days before October 7, Maccabi Ra’anana, a pro team from Israel, had arrived in the United States to play three games against the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Cleveland Cavaliers. This was the second year in a row that Maccabi Ra’anana had come on a US tour. The game at the Nets was part of “Israel Heritage Month.” A report by the Associated Press (AP) described scenes in Brooklyn: pro-Israel fans at the game held up the country’s flag and signs (“New York stands with Israel”), and an Israeli pop singer performed the Israeli national anthem. “Before that, the Nets asked for a moment of silence for those impacted, saying the organization condemned the attacks and mourned the loss of life.” Outside, protesters were being kept back by police barricades.

None of this was surprising for the NBA. But it is perhaps the reactions of the NBA’s stars that are the most disappointing.

Draymond Green: Friend of the IDF?

The former six-time All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire is the most prominent of the NBA’s Israel supporters. Stoudemire starred at the Suns and the Knicks between 2002 and 2015. As his career wound down, he signed with and later bought a stake in an Israeli team. He also became a fervent supporter of the Israeli government and took up citizenship in 2017. Stoudemire filmed countless promotional videos, including for the NBA, extolling the virtues of Israel. He never, however, spoke about the plight of Palestinians. After October 7, he filmed a video where he accused BLM of supporting Hamas. “Israel is the only place in the world I can go and study Torah and eat Kosher food. Only place in the world.”

Unlike Stoudemire, Draymond Green, another multiple All-Star, still plays for the league as a member of the Golden State Warriors. In 2018, Green visited Israel on a trip organized by a nonprofit group, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The group wants to secure Israel as “a thriving homeland for Jews worldwide.” Green met with the then president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, and gifted him a signed Warriors jersey. Even more, Green visited a counterterrorism unit, shot hoops with soldiers, and went to a sniper unit where he posed in army greens and flat on his stomach while holding a gun in a shooting position. Later, he took part in target practice with an Israeli police unit. Some of the units he visited are notorious in Israel for killing Palestinians merely for protesting the occupation.

At the time, Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said: “The Israeli state has made the cooptation of American sports heroes into a key part of their strategy to appeal to demographics alienated by their human-rights abuses. The least our sports heroes can do is listen to the Palestinians asking them not to play along.”

On his return to the United States, Green went quiet. He was in the news more for breaking basketball rules and fighting with teammates. Then, about two weeks after October 7, Green felt moved to speak up again. Following a Warriors team practice, he addressed the media. He condemned the “killing of innocent people . . . Palestinians and Israelis,” and “just hope it ends” so “people get back to living their lives the way they’ve lived their lives.” Green didn’t make clear whether he meant returning to the status quo of the occupation, checkpoints for Palestinians, and a heavily militarized Israel. Green said he was motivated to speak after conversations with a Jewish friend who sends him messages “every time something’s going on.” He added that he doesn’t know much about American or global politics yet still felt compelled to speak. He made no mention of his earlier propaganda trip to Israel or speaking to Palestinians. Green grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, an hour and a half by car from Dearborn, the city with one of the United States’ largest Arab American populations.

LeBron’s Selective Solidarity

But it has been LeBron James who has been the most disappointing. In the wake of the Hamas attack and the Israeli military’s all-out assault on Gaza, James, the game’s most recognizable star, sent out a tweet with his business partner, Maverick Carter: “The devastation in Israel is tragic and unacceptable. The murder and violence against innocent people by Hamas is terrorism.” James and Carter sent their “deepest condolences to Israel and the Jewish community.” They also said they prayed for peace and committed themselves to “fight hate in all its forms.” The tweets made no mention of Palestinians or their suffering.

This wasn’t lost on fans, as Lebron had explicitly tweeted about black Americans’ experience of brutality and violence at the hands of the police before. Lebron was reminded by some fans that some American police implicated in violence against black people had visited Israel for training.

However, two former NBA players who have broken with the consensus are Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Etan Thomas. Abdul-Wahad grew up in France and went to San Diego State, where John Carlos and Tommy Smith, two track and field athletes legendary for their protest against American apartheid at the 1968 Olympics, studied. Last week, Abdul-Wahad signed a statement, “Athletes for Ceasefire,” along with several other athletes, calling for the end of US support to Israel. In an interview, Abdul-Wahad credited Harry Edwards, who organized the 1968 Olympics boycott, and Smith and Carlos for his political orientation. He told Real News that his social media posts got momentum until he was “shadow-banned”; his posts don’t appear in feeds. He hoped current NBA players would sign the statement but added they were “probably afraid that it’s going to hurt their bottom line.” Two current WNBA players — Kierstan Bell of the Las Vegas Aces and Layshia Clarendon of the Los Angeles Sparks — signed the statement.

Ironically, more than the NBA, it has been NFL players — whose owners and fans are usually seen as conservative — that have shown courage on Israel-Palestine. At least three retired NFL players signed the “Athletes for Ceasefire” statement: Kenny Stills, Jelani Jenkins, and Spencer Paysinger.

Six NFL players withdrew from a similar junket to Israel one year before Draymond Green went on his propaganda trip. The primarily black players, led by Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, refused to go on the trip because they noted the similarities between their experiences at the hands of the police and those of Palestinians. Bennett quoted Carlos: “‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in.” Kenny Stills, who signed the “Athletes for Ceasefire” statement last week, was one of the six.

In 2020, the Associated Press interviewed Oday Aboushi, a Palestinian American playing in the NFL. At the time, Aboushi was with the Detroit Lions. Aboushi, whose parents were born in East Jerusalem, an area targeted for settlement by Israel, has been praised by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for his efforts in the Palestinian cause. He told the AP: “We’re all fighting for the same thing. Palestinians are going through a very similar situation as we have here with African Americans as far as the way they’re being treated through systematic oppression.” A few days after October 7, Aboushi, who has been without a team since 2022, posted on Instagram that he was “struggling” witnessing the violence in Gaza. He hasn’t posted about it since.