Since the summer, I have been wondering when and how Miles Bridges would make his return to the NBA. Bridges recently pled no contest to a felony domestic violence charge, with photos posted to social media by his accuser to support her allegations, but I don’t doubt that his return happens sooner or later.
In the NBA, we’ve only ever been given reason to believe that perpetrators of domestic violence and other gender-based violence will find their way back to the league. A standard public-relations cycle of allowing news to fade and be forgotten runs its course — which often takes the place of a more meaningful process of apologizing and making amends for harm caused — until the firestorm dies down. Even now, in the immediate midst of accusations of indecent exposure made against Joshua Primo, we know that there are teams with “significant interest” in his NBA future.
I’ll admit, this rinse-and-repeat happened far sooner for Ime Udoka than I ever thought it would. In late September, not even two months ago, the Boston Celtics announced a season-long suspension of Udoka from his head coaching position for an improper intimate relationship with a team staffer. The relationship was first believed to be consensual but was later investigated for “unwanted comments” made by Udoka, according to The Athletic. NetsDaily adds that Udoka “had repeatedly sent inappropriate messages to women on the Celtics staff.” While falling short of removing him from the role altogether, the length of the suspension left open the possibility that the team would transition Udoka out of the organzation over time. One would think, at least, that he would be outside of the public eye for a while.
Instead, Udoka re-emerged as a near-hire for the Brooklyn Nets’ head coaching position in early November. Within 10 minutes of Steve Nash’s firing becoming public, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Udoka was on the Nets’ shortlist of candidates for his replacement; a little more than an hour later, he was the expected choice for the job, with a contract to be finalized in the next “24-to-48 hours.” A week later, however, interim coach Jacque Vaughn was given the job. Multiple reports suggested there were “strong voices,” possibly including Adam Silver, urging team owner Joe Tsai against hiring Udoka. The public pushback to his hire was described as a factor, if not the entire basis, for the Nets’ pivot to Vaughn instead.
Although they’re on something like their 13th consecutive month of controversy, the Nets are just one of 30 teams out there. There will be other coaching vacancies, and other teams interested in a coach with an NBA Finals pedigree after his first year. This certainly won’t be the first time that we’re going to see Udoka’s name floated for a job, and in all likelihood, he’ll be back in the NBA at some point. So, the question becomes, how and when? Will there be time for a process of apologizing and making amends, and will Udoka embrace that process? Historically, what we’ve seen isn’t encouraging. Moral calculus is tricky, especially when wins reign supreme; public relations is easier.
Around this time last year, Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd were making their coaching debuts with the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks. Both coaches’ hires were scrutinized. For Billups, it was allegations of rape in 1997, and for Kidd, it was domestic violence in 2001. That they were hired around the same time sparked a new wave of criticism about the NBA’s dedication to the issue of gender-based violence. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey told reporters that his team conducted an investigation into the allegations against Billups before his hiring. Later reporting by Oregon Public Broadcasting found that the Blazers’ investigator failed to take such basic steps as contacting the accuser or their attorney, and that the investigation itself only lasted a few days.
The criticism from Billups and Kidd’s hires simmered throughout the offseason, with the feeling of something like a flashpoint. Of course, here we are now, with both coaches comfortably a year into their jobs. So far this season to date, Kidd has mostly had to answer for his lineup decisions around Luka Doncic, while Billups is in fact being praised for the Blazers’ conference-best 9-4 start to the season.
People forget. It’s only natural. Even those most dedicated to progressive ideals in their lives might struggle to hold on to these allegations made against Billups or Kidd a year later, especially with how fast the NBA news cycle moves on a day to day and game by game basis. So much of NBA coverage, including broadcast partners, brand sponsors and more, functions as de facto marketing for the league; of course it isn’t built for the more intensive task of checking the league and holding it accountable to its preached values of progressivism and care. Most fans, I’ll argue, are just here to watch basketball, even if not necessarily unsympathetic to the issue. People forget, and it is a time-tested PR strategy to allow and encourage that process to happen. With time, almost any “controversial” public image can be glossed over.
In 2016, Derrick Rose was involved in a federal civil lawsuit alleging that he, as well as two friends, participated in the gang rape of a former girlfriend. While not found liable by a jury, Rose was alleged to have drugged his accuser into a state of unconsciousness at the time of the rape. His defense involved the painting of the accuser as a “sexual” person based off her sexual history and social media posts — more or less open slut-shaming — and Rose himself struggled when asked to define consent at his deposition. (“I said we men. You can assume. Like we leaving to go over to someone's house at 1:00 [a.m.], there's nothing to talk about.”)
Since then, Rose has overcome knee injuries and some years bouncing around the league to emerge as a productive supporting piece with the New York Knicks. He is for the most part portrayed as a former MVP and fan favorite who has battled through adversity to carve out a sustaining veteran career in the NBA. The credible accusations of gang rape made against him, as well as the disturbing details that followed in the court case, are mostly forgotten about. Frankly, I feel like they were never talked about enough in the first place.
This is just something that happens in the NBA. Rose isn’t the only example that I could point to; among recent or current league personnel, there have been credible accusations of gender-based violence made against (in alphabetical order) Darren Collison, DeMarcus Cousins, Terence Davis, Jaxson Hayes, Richaun Holmes, James Johnson, Rodions Kurucs, Kendrick Nunn, Kevin Porter Jr., Kristaps Porzingis, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Luke Walton. Even Joe Mazzulla had to answer for a domestic battery charge in 2009 upon taking over for Udoka. This is an indelicate way of navigating the issue — each of these situations carry their own nuance, with different described harms including but not limited to sexual misconduct, domestic violence or rape, and each deserve to be met on their own terms — and the point of this, I promise, isn’t to curate a list of athletes to cancel. However, it illustrates just how often this happens within the NBA orbit. Many of these accusations rest at the periphery of public knowledge, and have not been resolved with amends of any sort.
The idea of rehabilitation, or even redemption, is one worth supporting, at least in theory. Making apologies and amends to those harmed through an accountability process can be restorative to the perpetrator as well as the harmed individual, and there are other principles rooted in transformative justice that hope to move away from a punitive framework for addressing gender-based violence that I have found compelling.
With that said, how often have we ever seen any sort of restoration or reparation in the NBA, or in our culture at large? Recent years of progressive and feminist social movements were supposed to have tilted the balance of power back towards women, and against those who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. I’m not sure that has happened, or at least not to its endpoint. What we often see instead, no matter how great the initial backlash, is that perpetrators of gender-based violence are sooner or later welcomed back and re-platformed, without any indication that they have meaningfully learned or grown from the harms that they’ve caused.
We’ll see what happens in ongoing situations for Udoka, as well as Bridges and Primo. Perhaps this really is one of those course-correction points for the NBA where teams are collectively recalibrating their thinking: Bridges remains unsigned a month into the season, Primo was cut by his team outright, and the Nets chose against hiring Udoka after all. Maybe there will be a real and rehabilitative process for each, before they return to the NBA. Or, more cynically, this could just be the same public-relations playbook we’ve grown used to seeing in the NBA being run once again. I suppose time will tell.