On the court and off, Canadian basketball star Steve Nash has come through in the clutch once again. In the midst of their second round NBA playoff series against their bitter rivals the San Antonio Spurs, Nash and the entire Phoenix Suns organization spoke out against law SB-1070, which has been described as ‘legalizing racial profiling’. Not only that, but last night the team donned special ‘Los Suns’ jerseys on the occasion of Cinco de Mayo to celebrate the Latino community in Arizona and the United States. Los Suns won the game, but this victory goes way beyond the basketball court.

This public stand was initiated by the Suns owner, Robert Sarver, and supported by general manager Steve Kerr and all of the team’s players. Democracy Now! has an interview today with radical sports writer Dave Zirin, explaining the signficance of the Suns move:

“Anybody who believes that sports cannot be an effective platform for social justice need only to have watched the game last night and they would’ve been forever changed. The broadcast alone last night, it started with one of the NBA reporters outside the arena covering a civil rights march that was taking place outside the arena. And then the in-studio hosts, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, Chris Weber, all former players, took turns taking shots a Governor Jan Brewer and the law. And Chris Weber, former player, even cited “By the Time I Get to Arizona” and John McCain and his former support for boycotting the holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King. So it’s politicized this entire arena. And what the Suns did yesterday, is entirely without precedent.”

It’s unusual for pro athletes to take political stands, but they are being spurred on by a broad and dynamic protest movement that is taking on Arizona’s anti-immigrant politics.

The fact that Nash — a 36 year-old point guard and two-time NBA MVP from Victoria, B.C. — is the Suns leader on and off the court is not insignificant in terms of the way the team has reacted. Back in 2003, Nash, then playing for the Dallas Mavericks, made waves by using the platform of the NBA All-Star Weekend to denounce the war in Iraq. Wearing a t-shirt that read ‘Shoot for Peace’, Nash made his opposition clear and never backed down, despite criticism from some of his NBA peers, fans and the media.

It isn’t easy to be up front with anti-war politics in Texas, or pro immigrant rights politics in Arizona, so Nash and, in this case, his teammates deserve credit for speaking up. The norm is for pro athletes to dodge hot button issues, or to outright endorse right-wing politicians. Michael Jordan infamously explained his lack of opposition to the racist Jesse Helms by stating, “Republicans buy sneakers too”. 

Canada’s Jordan is without a doubt Wayne Gretzky, who described George W. Bush as “a wonderful president” back in 2003. At the time, I wrote an article contrasting Nash and Gretzky: similar in their creativity and brilliant athleticism, but opposite in their politics, “Given his performance off the court in the growing spotlight, one might just be forgiven for believing — amidst all the well-founded cynicism about today’s pro sports world – that all of this success won’t spoil Steve Nash.”

This week Nash and Los Suns have shown that athletes can indeed score points for social movements. Who knows, but here’s hoping that last night’s win will be an important assist on the way to a much bigger victory to come: the defeat of SB-1070.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as rabble.ca's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.