One-on-One: Jordin Canada x Jrue Holiday
The Los Angeles-born basketball players reflect on living in an experimental bubble and joining the social justice movement.
"One-On-One" is a series bringing you unscripted conversations between Nike elite athletes.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA and WNBA brought their players to Florida in May 2020 to live, and play basketball, in a "bubble"—a quarantine zone that allowed games to continue relatively safely, away from the rampant spread of COVID-19. As it happened, most of the players entered the bubble at a time of intense racial turmoil and roiling social justice protests in the United States. Writer and editor Massaër Ndiaye spoke with two LA-born players, the Milwaukee Bucks' Jrue Holiday, an 11-year veteran who is considered one of the best defenders in the world, and the Seattle Storm's Jordin Canada, one of the most exciting new faces in the WNBA, who just recently earned her second championship ring in three tough seasons. The pair came together to look back on their surreal lives in last year's bubble, their respective political awakenings and how their time away from home helped crystallise their perspectives on the world they're part of.
You both grew up in LA. Were you there during the recent protests? How did you feel about the city's response during that time?
Jrue: I was proud of the city and the people who fought for what they believe in. For people who fight for our culture, for being Black. I didn't go to any of the protests because my wife was pregnant and there's still a pandemic, but it was something I was torn about. I wanted to go down there and represent as well and be a part of that. Just being able to see people stand up for something, be strong about something they believe in, is, to me, an honour. And I would have loved to go down there and protest with them.
Jordin: I actually went to one of the protests in Hollywood. It was during one of the worst times possible, with the pandemic growing in LA. It was hard because I wanted to be safe and cautious, but, at the same time, I was really proud to see everyone come out and show their support for not only Black people, but for the country. We're in a crucial time right now, and seeing everyone come together to protest for something that's really important for human rights, for Black lives, was truly special to see. So many people came out to demand change. I'm glad I got to experience my first protest ever; it was something special.
"I wasn't politically active or socially aware before. I didn't speak on a lot of the matters that were happening. After this year, I feel like it is my responsibility to do something about it and not to sit back and be quiet and silent".
This year, you both entered the NBA bubble, which was a big experiment in how sport could be played safely during the pandemic. How did you first hear about it? What were your initial opinions?
Jrue: I definitely had doubts that it could work. So often, you hear people predict something is going to happen, and it doesn't come to fruition. So, to be able to actually go to the bubble, like complete lockdown, is an accomplishment. I did feel safe there. We were tested every day; we had activities and things like that. But for the most part, it was an experience you had to go through and trust that it was going to work. Sometimes, it's hard when you don't have control and leave things in other people's hands. From my experience, the NBA did a great job.
Jordin: We did have a lot of concerns about safety issues and protocols and guidelines, and how it was going to work out, even though we didn't know what to expect.
How did you adjust to being completely sheltered from the outside world?
Jrue: Once we got there—and I've been in the league 11 years, so I had my freedom for 11 years, and to go into this bubble for two months … it was weird to feel restricted. But there was an end goal we all wanted to accomplish. We were not going to mess that up, so we got used to the routine and discipline. At first, I thought it was going to be terrible, but it wasn't that bad.
Jordin: It was something we had to get used to, like being overseas and being isolated for the first couple of weeks. We just had to be in our rooms, couldn't be around our own teammates, except for training or team meetings. We couldn't hang around any other teams. But as things started to change, things got better. Eventually, they loosened the reins a little bit, and we were able to hang out with other teammates and other teams as well.
Most of the time, we were just in our rooms doing whatever we could to keep ourselves busy. As you said, we were groomed to be in these types of situations. But it was definitely hard, a lot of mental fatigue at times, just because you're in a bubble by yourself and don't have anyone to come and visit you and be around you. It mentally prepared me to be stronger, to keep that focus and that mentality, to remember you're there to hoop. So, it was basketball and nothing else. Except I was watching Netflix the entire time, watching movies, and that was basically all I could do.
Was there anything special about the level of competition and the intensity of play inside the bubble?
Jrue: The calibre of play was there. I think every team knew they were there for a reason: to win. The difference being that when you play at home, you have the home crowd that usually helps you when you need a boost, or they can bring this energy where the opposing team feels the loudness, the threat, whatever it is. It was a quiet gym. I remember our first game, we played against the Jazz and we were up 20, and by the end of the game, two minutes left, it's a two-point game, but it doesn't seem like it, like you can tell there's no crowd, the energy didn't shift. That was one thing that I really had to adjust to. When you are in front of people, even if it's an opposing gym, it's your team against the world, and you didn't really have that feeling. The fact that we didn't have crowds threw me off a little at first.
Jordin: I agree; not having a crowd was different. It was super quiet. I remember our first game against New York—someone was shooting a free throw, and it was just, like, dead silent. We were used to having that energy, and the excitement had to come from the team. Every game we had, all the energy had to come from ourselves, and not from anywhere else. The level of competition was also very high because you didn't have any home-court advantage. Everybody could just go out there and play loose, like playing in an open gym. It was a lot of fun, very competitive. Teams were beating teams unexpectedly because home crowds weren't there. It was a lot of fun.
"You want to do everything you possibly can to make sure the future is a much better place for Black people".
The moment it was decided both leagues would play in bubbles, basketball became the world's biggest social-justice stage. How did players talk about it? How did you decide if you were kneeling or not? Or what to wear on your jerseys?
Jordin: Before we decided that we were actually going to have a season, we knew we had to commit to the "Say Her Name" campaign first and foremost. In terms of kneeling or not, it just depended on each team. I know that for [the Seattle Storm], we didn't want to be out on the court when the national anthem was being played. So every time the national anthem was being played, we would walk back to the changing room and walk right back out before tip-off. Throughout the season, we talked about how we could help use our voice to get people to go out and vote. We also wanted people to be aware of what is going on in the country, while fighting for a Black woman who has been a victim of police brutality.
Jrue: Having conversations amongst teams and players is important. We knelt because we felt like that was a sign of unity. Both teams decided to do that. We wanted to be unified in everything we did, and even the guys that stood and felt like they didn't want to kneel, we still wanted to be there for them as well. There was no anger or anything towards them. It was just about being united, and in situations like that, the reason why I came back to play was that it was bigger than basketball. It was about all the people who we saw fall at the hands of another man. Just being able to represent that and keep the conversation going, letting people know that our culture does so much for the world, and we'll continue to do that.
Jrue, your mother [Toya Holiday, Arizona State Sun Devils] was a basketball star. Your wife [Lauren Holiday, US National Team] is a future hall-of-famer in football. What have they taught you that you brought to the bubble?
Jrue: Honestly, they taught me to be tough. Like what you were just talking about—our experiences in the bubble were completely different. That's what I've always learnt, especially from my mum, who was part of the first women's league that folded. And for her, it was either going overseas or getting a job teaching, which she decided to get into. She had to make big decisions and fight for things. Same with my wife—in football, they aren't getting paid as much as the men.
And again, my wife has not lost at all, pretty much. Other than 2011, where they came in second in the World Cup. She has two Olympic gold medals, and won a gold World Cup medal in 2015. She's an all-time great. So, for women not to get the recognition they deserve hurts. Just for those in my family, as well as my sister who played with you. And for people saying that the talent is different, or the skill set, then you know they don't really watch. For one, women play way harder than men do, and their skill set is top tier. You guys work out way harder than most men I know, without pouting or crying, and the way you play is tough. That's something I get from watching my wife and learnt from my mum. Just how tough and gritty they can be. They always had to fight, always had to prove themselves.
"I know protesting helps, but I wanted to do more".
Were you politically active or socially aware before this year?
Jordin: I wasn't politically active or socially aware before. I didn't speak on a lot of the matters that were happening. After this year, I feel like it is my responsibility to do something about it and not to sit back and be quiet and silent.
Jrue: I've said it a couple of times, but you get used to the discrimination, and you feel like when you tell somebody, they might think you're crying wolf, or that it's not as serious as it really is. Being Black in any situation can be scary. Dealing with police, walking into shops, whatever it is. You just build this armour to it. But at this point, it's also my responsibility to speak up. And if I wasn't comfortable before, I have to be comfortable now, because it's not just about me, it's for so many more people. It's for the people who did it before. It's for my 4-year-old daughter and my newborn son. It's about so many people.
Jrue, you've given your NBA bubble salary to help social-justice funds aimed at supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in LA, Indianapolis and New Orleans. What prompted that decision?
Jrue: Honestly, I was struggling with going into the bubble. Everything going on socially in our world was crumbling, and it felt like I wasn't doing enough. And I didn't know what to do; I didn't know how to help. I know protesting helps, but I wanted to do more. And I'm just sitting in bed with my wife going back and forth. I'm thinking about the things we could do. And my wife suggested we donate the rest of my salary to our culture, to our community. And as she said that, there was this light-bulb moment, and this weight that was lifted off my shoulders. That's the perfect idea because, as much as we talk about it, economics are huge when it comes to disparity between whites and Blacks and rich and poor. God has blessed me enough to be able to play this game for a long time and to make quite a bit of money. And it's not like I'm taking it with me. There are people out here who need help. And I feel like financially, I can help provide in that way. If I hadn't decided to do that, I wouldn't have gone to the bubble.
It was an either/or decision for you?
Jrue: I felt there had to be a reason for me to leave my five-months pregnant wife to go into a bubble for three months. I felt like I was marooning them on an island. Our world was crumbling down, and I needed something to not just motivate me, but to help our people who really needed it at the time.
There's now a lot of pressure for young Black people—especially Black athletes—to speak out. Do you think you have a duty to talk about social-justice issues?
Jrue: Some of it is just about sharing your experiences with others, being able to connect with that experience, which is huge. I feel like it's a big part of social media today. Whether it's social injustice or mental health, sometimes you don't know when an NBA player or a WNBA player is going through something, because we're so locked into our season. But we're humans just like they are; we have struggles just like they do. I feel like speaking out and being able to reach other people, and then realising we have the same issues they have, brings us closer together.
Jordin: I see how my generation is so aware of what's going on and wants to be advocates for social justice, and they're realising that, as an athlete, I go through the same issues. I'm a human being too. I have feelings, I go through a lot of things as well, but to see that people are behind us and behind other athletes as well is just amazing. Because it's not just about us; it's about the future. You want to do everything you possibly can to make sure the future is a much better place for Black people.
In what ways do you think basketball can change to better reflect players' political beliefs or commitment to social justice?
Jrue: I know that for the NBA and the WNBA, they gave players more control over what they want the league to project. That's one thing I'd like to see continue. I think we'll continue to be innovative in that way. I know it's more and more of a players' league now. I think it's very big for the league to have our backs when we speak out.
Jordin: I think it's just continuing to use our voices and continuing to find ways to give resources to people who don't have the resources that they normally would have. We're fighting for something bigger than us and we need the league to have our backs.
Words: Massaër Ndiaye
Illustration: Richard Chance
Reported: October 2020