NBA Rescuers

WGL 2021-NBA Rescuers
Courtesy of Michael Patton/NBPA; Mark J. Rebilas—USA TODAY Sports/Reuters; Quinn Harris—USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
  • Title
    Adam Silver; Michele Roberts; Chris Paul
  • Affiliation
    Commissioner, NBA; Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association (NBPA); President, NBPA

During some of the darkest days of the pandemic, the restart of the 2019–20 NBA season inside a Disney-hosted virtual “bubble” in Orlando provided not only a beacon of hope but also a model for businesses of all types on the question of the moment: “How to reopen?” The effort was an operational feat of epic proportions, mind-bending logistics, and giant costs. It was even more remarkable given that the league pulled it off during a period of generational social-justice upheaval that profoundly affected its players and which, at more than one point, threatened to derail the season for good. (For an in-depth look, read “How the NBA kept the bubble from bursting.”)

As much as anything, the NBA’s triumph was a case study in leadership. And three key players in the effort stand out: NBA commissioner Adam Silver; Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA); and Chris Paul, a longtime star point guard (currently with the Phoenix Suns) and the president of the NBPA.

The suspension of the NBA season on March 11, 2020, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, was an early milestone in the pandemic, signaling the seriousness of the public health crisis. Over the next several months, working with owners and player reps, the trio of Silver, Roberts, and Paul spent weeks constructing the bubble plan—at a cost to the league of some $180 million—to conduct the playoffs and crown a champion. A total of 172 games were played without a single player testing positive for COVID by the time the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy in October.

But the league’s carefully constructed game plan almost fell apart after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in late May and the movement sparked by the tragedy. The magnitude of the moment resonated with Paul and his fellow players. “We’ve got a league full of guys who have very public lives,” Paul told Fortune. “But at the end of the day, the guys are not just basketball players. After a game, they put their regular clothes on, they go outside, and they’re just Black men.”

Paul said the players were torn. Would playing take attention away from the bigger social equity issues? Roberts, a onetime public defender, advised the union on how to turn the NBA’s return to the court into a high-profile platform for social justice advocacy. And the union negotiated with Silver and the league to have certain approved messages—like “Vote” and “Say Their Names”—associated with the Black Lives Matter movement printed on the backs of players’ jerseys.

In the end, the NBA was able to successfully navigate the bubble while embracing the societal moment. And according to all involved, it was constant, honest communication between the union leaders and Silver, and then between those leaders and their constituencies, that fostered an atmosphere of trust that made it work. That’s a lesson worth reinforcing for leaders of any organization.