Fox News host Laura Ingraham couldn’t have seen the caliber of backlash coming after her “shut up and dribble” comments towards Lebron James earlier this year. James supported the Warriors’ decision to opt out of the usual routine White House visit after their NBA Title.
The backlash from those comments motivated Gotham Chopra to direct Shut Up and Dribble, a three-part documentary that’ll debut Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on Showtime that digs into the political and cultural metamorphosis of NBA players.
Jemele Hill, former ESPN personality, was chosen by Chopra to narrate the docu-series, produced by James. This partnership makes perfect sense due to the journalist and athlete sharing a similar foe, President Trump.
Hill was always a part of the docu-series but in a much smaller capacity as an interview subject. Her role quickly changed after she and ESPN parted ways this summer, elevating her to what may be the most significant role in the film outside of James and Chopra. Hill has become quite the political voice since Trump became president, which didn’t please her former employer but makes her the ideal person to narrate this project. Basketball, race, and the American power structure is literally right up her alley.
The documentary will embody three nights, highlighting black NBA players and their fight to be heard in the political realm over the past half-century.
Hill spoke to Complex’s Adam Caparell about various topics.
“Right now, the NBA is kind of known and characterized as a more progressive, inclusive, and encouraging league when it comes to player activism. But this is also the same league where Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges were blackballed,” says Hill. “As much as people like to think Colin Kaepernick has the trademark on being blackballed, it’s happened in the NBA a few times already. Those are important lessons for people to remember and to use as context as we talk about what we’re seeing today.”
Today’s generation has paid more attention to Colin Kaepernick as the prime example of a professional league blackballing a player due to political views. But really, he’s just a modern day example of Abdul-Rauf and Hodges.
So how’d you get involved in this?
The project originally started with me just being a talking head in the piece. At some point, Gotham reached out to me and [said he] wouldn’t mind sitting down with him because he’s working on a piece about the evolution of the NBA. And of course after getting permission from ESPN, we sat down and the story he was attempting to tell then was just a little different. It had some of the same elements you see now, but the concentration of it was just telling this story that how the NBA as a league has progressed socially and politically. So I sat down and answered a bunch of different questions just about how stylistically the league has changed They asked me in particular about The Malice in the Palace because I’m from Detroit and I was working at the Detroit Free-Press at the time that happened and how that just changed how NBA players were perceived, how the league was perceived, and that whole dynamic of having an all-black league consumed by a mostly white fan base.
Suave Report recently wrote a story about NBA fights and mentioned the Malice in the Palace being a good thing for NBA culture, referring to players passion of the game. Although the points made in that article are valid, there’s an entirely different side of that fight that altered the perception of the NBA in the eyes of many. And to those, the NBA was seen as a majority-black league full of animals for the crowd to enjoy and that’s it. Their purpose was to entertain and entertain only and how dare they voice their opinion as American citizens on something they believe isn’t fair or against their beliefs.
There are several examples of this mindset, further highlighted in the Complex article, but between Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Allen Iverson and even more, black athletes weren’t encouraged to aspire to have more than they already do. Better contracts (more money), more respect, etc. It didn’t matter.
How much is it a point of pride for you as a black woman that you’re narrating a sports documentary?
It sends a very purposeful and important message. One thing that has been very clear with how LeBron has operated at this stage in his career is that he’s speaking to a power. Just in comments that he’s made before about how it’s important for him to position and elevate women. For him and Gotham to charge me with this responsibility is very humbling. LeBron understands the dynamics of this society. He’s raising a black woman and he’s married to a black woman. He has a very up-close view of what they face and the challenges they face as a girl and a woman. And it makes a specific statement when you have someone like me narrating content like this. Especially having seen the sports page, it’s a male-dominated space. I’m not sure, but I’m going to guess there aren’t many documentaries that have been narrated by women in the sports space. I think he’s just trying to make a very specific statement by having me involved in this.
This is perhaps Hill’s most significant project of her illustrious journalistic career. For not only a woman or a black person…but a black woman to carry such a significant voice in a male-dominant sports world is monumental and shouldn’t be seen as anything minor just because of her already broad sports and political platform.
James and Chopra have traversed many lines that are considered taboo in the political world, including the title and content of the documentary. They simply crossed their T’s with the insertion of Hill as the film’s narrator, ensuring that Americans gets the point.