A behind-the-scenes account of the 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.
The Nets were already the most intriguing startup in the NBA: a team of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal, pitting the team’s Chinese owner and the league’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, after making his final public appearance in Brooklyn, sent shockwaves through a turbulent season.
Then came the unimaginable. A global pandemic and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s trend-setting status to the ultimate test, as business and culture followed the lead of the NBA and its empowered stars. No team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets, and Matt Sullivan had a courtside view.
Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House, and boycott the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World.
Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers across the world — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before.
Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is, quite possibly, one of the best basketball books available. Counterintuitively, this is in large part because it’s not all about basketball — rather, the Brooklyn Nets and other athletes and personnel who make an appearance, are a lens through which readers see the changing political and social landscape of America. Expertly written, I really enjoyed this.
In Can’t Knock the Hustle, Sullivan takes readers on a pretty wide-ranging tour through what became an especially momentous NBA season. During a year rocked by COVID-19, Trump’s last year in office, nationwide protests about the relentless and never-ending persecution of people of colour, the NBA’s return in the Orlando Bubble, the League became a focal point of attention and activism. In his book, Sullivan pulls back the curtain on some of the key moments and decisions, giving readers an insider’s view of what happened. Featuring basketball superstars, up-and-comers, league lifers, and off-court staff, the author does a great job of offering multiple perspectives of events.
There’s a moment, quite late in the book, when the author recalls telling Kevin Durant, “No offense… but I don’t care much about your on-court stuff.” This helps explain what readers are going to find in this book. It’s it not, really, a book about basketball. It is a book about society, politics, culture, fame, and activism, but through the lens of basketball and the stars who drew focus during the protests and the pandemic. The author does an excellent job of showing readers how certain players’ states of mind and ideologies changed and evolved during the 2019-20 season (as well as a bit before and a bit later).
Sullivan is clear-eyed in his examination of the NBA’s activism and that of the people who are either in or attached to the league in one way or another. Not only do we get commentary on LeBron James’s evolving stance on social justice issue and speaking out (his rather clumsy response to the Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong-China snafu, for example), but also Jay-Z’s mixed reputation around the League, as well as the role and actions of the owners (in comparison to the players). We learn of the frustrations within and out of the league regarding its truncated activism — great during the “first wave”, but quick to fade away. Similarly, as time passed, how even the actions of the players in the Bubble started to feel insufficient.
Justin [Anderson] felt part of a performative silence. He used to be scared of speaking out for fear of not making The League; now that he’d seen the fight in the streets, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a part of the NBA’s same woketastic spectacle, rebranded for catastrophe as a #WholeNewGame.
The book was especially strong when comparing the experiences of the established superstars (LeBron, KD, Kyrie, et al) and the up-and-comers. We spend time with Spencer Dinwiddie, a rising star on the Nets, whose performances and place on the team were eclipsed by the arrival of the superstars. (He’s quite a character, and his portions of the book really stood out for me.) Through his experiences, we learn about the precarious nature of even mid-level players, as well as their oft-frustrating relationship with the League itself — an organization that exerts incredible control over its players (of which there are only about 450), but that also gives its superstars considerably preferential treatment. The author also provides plenty of historical context and examples — players whose activism in the 1990s, for example, led to them transitioning out of the league or being outright ostracized.
Sullivan does manage to get a lot of juicy content that will engage any NBA obsessive, but it’s always with a clear purpose: that is, to examine the power dynamics of the league, based on money and fame, as a reflection of power dynamics more generally (in the US and globally).
At the same point in the book at which Sullivan told KD that he wasn’t interested in on-the-court action, he says he wanted this book to be “an unfiltered look at power and fame”. As I turned the final page, in my humble opinion, Sullivan certainly achieved his goal.
An excellent book. Very much recommended to all.