'Shut Up And Dribble' Gives Compelling History Of Black Athletes Speaking Politically

Nov 2, 2018
Originally published on November 3, 2018 10:39 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new documentary series gets its name from an insult. In February, Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham said this after basketball star LeBron James criticized President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE INGRAHAM ANGLE")

LAURA INGRAHAM: Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself. Or, as someone once said, shut up, and dribble.

SHAPIRO: And the name of the documentary series is "Shut Up And Dribble." The executive producer is LeBron James. The series debuts on Showtime this Saturday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this preview.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: OK. "Shut Up And Dribble" does start as a raised fist aimed at the Fox News host. The Golden State Warriors refused to visit the White House after winning the NBA championship last year. And James later called Trump in an interview, quote, "laughable and scary," which led to Ingraham's insult.

But the three-episode series directed by Gotham Chopra quickly becomes a compelling, informative primer on the history of black athletes speaking politically, mostly in the National Basketball Association. And one of the series' smartest moves? Hiring as a narrator former ESPN anchor Jemele Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE")

JEMELE HILL: In America, black athletes were supposed to be the workers, not the owners. They were supposed to be the talent and never the power brokers.

DEGGANS: Hill was suspended by ESPN after suggesting fans could boycott the Dallas Cowboys' advertisers if they suspended players who kneeled during the national anthem. She's the perfect ambassador for a documentary on how sports and American life have been improved by black athletes advocating for equality, even when that advocacy brought a heavy price. LeBron James makes the most important point, that stars who spoke out in the past have made it easier for players who came after.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE")

LEBRON JAMES: Without Bill Russell, without Oscar Robertson, without Lew Alcindor who became Kareem - without those guys standing for something that was more than dribbling a basketball, I'm not standing here talking to you.

DEGGANS: If you know the sport, it's fun to see soaring footage of Earvin Magic Johnson or Lew Alcindor, later to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And if you don't, there are history lessons. In one telling scene, former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas explains how hard it was to transcend stereotypes imposed by the sports media.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE")

ISIAH THOMAS: When the reporters came in the locker room, everybody's white. We were always viewed through the lens of the white male's gaze.

DEGGANS: The series also charts how stars in the '80s and '90s, like Michael Jordan, focused on building their personal brands and wealth while avoiding speaking on politics. Rapper and radio personality Sway Calloway explains how some black athletes' insistence on keeping it real, like the cornrows and tattoos favored by one-time star Allen Iverson, were an unspoken challenge to the NBA's white fanbase.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE")

SWAY CALLOWAY: As long as you're going to need these athletes who come from these places to, you know, fill your leagues, you know, these things are going to come to surface. So America, get ready. Allen Iverson was to basketball what Tupac was to rap.

DEGGANS: The third episode of "Shut Up And Dribble" can feel a little bit like a LeBron infomercial. And the lack of original interviews with crucial stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a little disappointing. Still, "Shut Up And Dribble" is an impressive demonstration of the great value in principled athletes of color speaking their mind and the lessons available to white America if it chooses to listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHUT 'EM DOWN")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) I shut them down, shut them down - shut them, shut them down. I shut them down...

DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHUT 'EM DOWN")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) ...Shut them down - shut them, shut them down. I shut them down, shut them down - shut them, shut them down. I shut them down, down. I testified. My mama cried. Black people died... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.