Trump or Biden? NBA can’t say

Silence when it matters most


The New England Journal of Medicine has been around since 1812. In that time, it has never endorsed a political candidate. However, on October 8, the editorial board laid tens of thousands of deaths on “weak and inappropriate government policies” that have “killed more Americans than any conflict since World War II.” The op-ed notes that “anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences,” and this time should at least suffer electoral ones.

After decades in the clandestine service of the CIA, John Sipher also understands the urge to keep quiet about politics. “Many of the national security professionals, generals, military generals, intelligence professionals, it’s not a comfort zone for them to speak out like this,” he says in a conversation with General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the NSA. “And the fact that they’re doing it should say something to the American public. The structures, processes, institutions that we rely on to underpin our security are under threat.” Hayden explains his breaking protocol to take sides in an election by saying of Trump, “if we do it again, I don’t know what happens to America.” 

“We’re already in a horribly vulnerable place, I say that as an intelligence officer,” says Malcolm Nance, a veteran of Naval intelligence and author. He’s on a podcast with Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Nance talks about what he calls “Vanilla ISIS,” Trump’s crazier supporters, in convoys of pickups with flags (who have swarmed Biden campaign vehicles in Texas, and blocked freeways and bridges around New York City). Many of them, says Nance, “want civil war.” He calls the period between now and January 20 “the most dangerous in U.S. history.”

Last Thursday evening, I emailed NBA PR representatives Mike Bass and Tim Frank:

Mostly I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The NBA, like the New England Journal of Medicine and the officers of the CIA, has not historically made endorsements. But 2020 is different for grand national reasons and for narrow strategic ones. After an August player strike, the league talked the players back to the court by promising a robust social justice collaboration in response to police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter protests. NBA players, by and large, are irreplaceable, masterfully skilled labor—and more than 80 percent Black. They’re in overtime bargaining terms for a season due to start ASAP. It’s a bad time to galvanize players by failing to stand against Trump’s racism, support of the alt-right, and systemic brutality.

Not to mention: Silver himself has historically donated to Democrats, and has at times taken stands against racism. Even if the billionaires on the NBA’s board of governors didn’t like his policies, they like friends in high places. By the time I was emailing the league, FiveThirtyEight suggested Biden had more than an 80 percent chance of winning. 

All day Friday, the NBA didn’t respond at all, which was a bit out of character. Near the end of the day, I followed up, and got a response from the NBA’s Mike Bass:

In following up, it became clear that the NBA wouldn’t even confirm whether or not they had endorsed anyone.

Powerful and progressive though the league’s staff may be, Silver’s New York-based crew has little leeway in the face of billionaire investors. All of those things that worry Hayden, Nance, and the New England Journal of Medicine—the policies that have already led to mass death and could potentially lead to worse—the NBA is not only silent, but many of its governors actually fund Trump.

Here’s what Baxter Holmes reported recently for

During a recent weekend gathering, an NBA owner ranted to confidants about the upcoming presidential election. It was early fall, with the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden still about a month away. The setting was idyllic: sunshine, the ocean, a ZIP code occupied by the affluent.

"Listen," the owner mused, "I'm so worried about Biden's regulations, so I'm funding as much as I can privately and confidentially to get Trump reelected. I know he's crazy, and I hope Democrats take the House and the Senate, but then Trump can block stuff and protect us on the taxes and regulation."

There are various reasons Trump still has supporters. Racism is one. Confusion is another—QAnon, Fox News, and the like are hard at work. But this billionaire knows Trump is “crazy.” He’s writing those checks for another reason: He’s cut in on the deal. He is in the sunshine. If MAGA convoys shut roads, a helicopter is an option. If there’s public social unrest, there’s private security. Money is the least of his concerns, but at America’s pivot point, it’s the only concern nonetheless. 

There aren’t many billionaires. Their dollars are arguably the essential political obstacle of our time. We’ve heard a lot about how profoundly divided we regular people are. But did you know that “large majorities” of Americans want the same things? George Packer writing in the Atlantic:

Large majorities say that government should ensure some form of universal health care, that it should do more to mitigate global warming, that the rich should pay higher taxes, that racial inequality is a significant problem, that workers should have the right to join unions, that immigrants are a good thing for American life, that the federal government is plagued by corruption

The concept of democracy is that in seeking votes, politicians will do things people want. But while this list above might win votes, it might also alienate a bigger force: dark money donations from the very deep pocketed. Backroom deals from backroom dealers, some of whom have NBA teams. 

We think of the league as a group that promotes the work of LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It also functions to gussy up the reputations of people busy keeping the downtrodden trodden down. Adam Silver has political views. But he is also beholden to this very group of deep pockets. Often, he hands them trophies.

Finding the world around NBA billionaires dizzying, I have spent the last few years trying to understand it. I have read dozens of books. I have gone to conferences and developed friends who know a lot about Vladimir Putin. I have created timelines and a little database. I have taken notes late at night while watching Frontline documentaries. It feels like I have read close to everything on Jeffrey Epstein and I follow the Twitter accounts of his victims. 

However only today, a few thousand hours into this huge project, do I learn I could have saved a hell of a lot of time if I had merely read the wikipedia entry on Meyer Lansky. There’s too much there to get into today—people are voting!—but at the core of it are quiet ways to move large money. 

There are secret ways to gain leverage over the government. Lansky curried federal influence by helping the war effort, and, perhaps, with Epstein-style kompromat (dirty pictures) of powerbrokers. (There’s even an appearance by Roy Cohn, Trump’s original enabler.) This is the work of a genius money mover. It’s not just the plot of Ozark, it’s how around 10 percent of the world’s money exists now. Rivers of anonymized money—whether evading taxes, looted by bureaucrats, part of illicit arms deals, the proceeds of drug deals, or stashed from ex-spouses—all move through similar channels now. It’s close to the heart of banking.

Now Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is talking about a “rotten scheme” of unlimited dark money, unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Billionaires can give well beyond federal campaign contribution limits. Some voices speak louder. 

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum calls Catherine Belton’s book “Putin’s People” “the definitive account of the rise of Putin and Putinism.” Belton, on BRING IT IN and her book, describes “black cash networks” as an essential Putin tool. In reviewing the book, Applebaum writes:

Step by step, Belton demonstrates how the future president made full use of KGB methods, contacts, and networks at each stage of his career. ... In the years that he has been president, his cronies have launched a series of major operations—the Deutsche Bank “mirror trading” scheme, the Moldovan “laundromat,” the Danske Bank scandal—all of which used Western banks to help move stolen money out of Russia. Similar schemes continue to the present day.

All this matters now, because Belton has done her homework, and wants us to understand the tactics in play. Applebaum continues:

Ultimately, all of these tactics had their culmination in the career of Donald Trump. In the last chapter of Putin’s People, Belton documents the activities of the biznesmeny who have circled around Trump for 30 years, bailing him out, buying apartments in his buildings for cash, offering him “deals,” always operating in “the half-light between the Russian security services and the mob, with both sides using the other to their own benefit.” Among them are Shalva Tchigirinsky, a Georgian black marketeer who met Trump in Atlantic City in 1990; Felix Sater, a Russian with mob links whose company served, among other things, as the intermediary for Trump buildings in Manhattan, Fort Lauderdale, and Phoenix; Alex Shnaider, a Russian metals trader who developed the Trump hotel in Toronto; and Dmitry Rybolovlev, an oligarch who purchased Trump’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $95 million, more than double what Trump had paid for it in 2004, just as the financial crisis hit Trump’s companies.

If there are billionaires eager to extract themselves from this soup, they are hard to find. Mark Cuban wants us to believe he is cut from a different cloth, but it’s messy. Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” details how he grew up surrounded by mobsters, succeeded in the underworld of taxi medallions, married into wealth from the former Soviet Union, excelled in the dark arts of cleaning up Trump’s sexual peccadilloes and stiffing vendors, and ended up in prison. He also mentions that in 2014, he was this close to leaving Trump for another billionaire: of all people, Mark Cuban. (Evidently it never happened.)

TrueHoop is now years into probing the many instances these funds crisscross with the funds that arrive in the NBA. Over the last few decades, black cash networks have been weapons of influence for Putin and others. 

“The hard truth is that Trump was not exceptional,” writes Applebaum. “He was just another amoral Western businessman, one of many whom the ex-KGB elite have promoted and sponsored around the world, with the hope that they might eventually be of some political or commercial use.”

Today’s billionaires excel in this phase.

The world is full of decent people. The polls tell us the vast majority don’t like what’s happening. Maybe that is reason enough for hope.

Another: Billionaires limit their influence by being impulsive, selfish, indulgent, and rash (Knicks fans know this). They tend to be surrounded by slick people determined to rip them off. 

Many years ago, I wrote a story that mentioned an NBA GM with a seven-figure salary who, his co-workers told me, came in to work about four hours a week. (Within a few hours I had heard from three other teams saying, essentially, how did you hear about our GM?) I don’t know which billionaire Baxter Holmes quoted a few days ago; it’s totally possible he employed one of these conmen.

Keep that in mind as you read Olivia Nuzzi’s story in New York, about how the Trump campaign blew much of its money, as led by 6-8 former college basketball player Brad Parscale.

“He was never there,” a senior White House official said. “He’d make phone calls from his house in Florida and brag that he was by the pool. And because he was never there, at the campaign office, people would leave at four o’clock in the afternoon.”

If the NBA might not help defeat Trump, perhaps incompetence will. Parscale charged Trump donors for building the Death Star, but we all know how that movie ends: with no death star. 

Thank you for reading TrueHoop!