Book Review: Can’t Knock the Hustle by Matt Sullivan

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time.  We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama quote on the wall of the Kevin Durant Center in Prince George’s County, MD

Still up at three in the morning, nothing new to me, I saw that Kevin Durant had been traded to the Phoenix Suns.  With James Harden long gone and Kyrie Irving joining the departed a few days earlier, Durant became the last domino to fall.  I couldn’t help but wonder how things for the Brooklyn Nets went so sour so quickly.

An NBA homer and occasional bandwagon jumper, I was once excited to see what Harden, Durant and Irving could do in the same uniform.  Three of the most dynamic scorers in NBA history, all playing on the same squad, would be nearly impossible to stop until, for a variety of reasons, they stopped themselves. 

The three played only 16 games together.  It was as unlucky, as bizarre, and perhaps as not meant to be experiment as the NBA had ever seen, constructed largely thanks to player empowerment.  On paper, this seemed like a no-brainer.  But basketball, as we know, isn’t played on paper.  There are outside influences that erode a foundation over time.  Regardless of where you stand on players dictating their own terms more than they ever have before, this was something we all wanted to watch, until it wasn’t.

Matt Sullivan had written a book about the Brooklyn Nets’ first season together.  I found the idea of such an assignment laughable if not woefully premature.  Of all the basketball books on the Barnes and Noble shelf, I’d repeatedly pass over this one, figuring it not worth my time.  Why would I read a book about the league’s most disappointing and underachieving team that didn’t label it as such?  Not to mention the fact that the name itself, “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” seemed odd for a team that did so little of it. 

Talk about judging a book by its cover.  I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong about both the work and its contents.  Sullivan sets out to explain how we arrived at the modern NBA where star players seemingly hold all the leverage and can dictate the terms of their own rosters.  “The Decision was the first domino in a decade-long deal-a-thon known as the The Player Empowerment Movement.  This means, the franchise players could create their own lawless, disloyal, ring-stealing rosters together, controlling the message and the means to upheaval however they saw fit.”

Ergo, the Brooklyn Nets.

I soon found out “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is not a reference to the Nets play on the floor but rather to how players began to wield their influence off it.  Within its pages, you will find very few box scores but rather a slew of off court developments that brought us to this point.  Sure, Magic Johnson once got his old coach fired, using his stance as one of the game’s most irreplaceable commodities but forty years later, the stakes are higher, and the stars hold infinite more leverage.  From images and likenesses to shoes and television contracts, to advertising dollars and gambling revenue, modern salaries dwarf what players made in the past.  From Curt Flood onward, players have become exponentially more powerful in dictating their own terms.  With increased media and social media, players also wield a greater voice, if not a greater responsibility to use it.  There exists, in the NBA, a “new power dynamic.”  “They’re literally megastars – very, very powerful – so you can’t treat your players as employees anymore, [Nets owner] Joe Tsai said.  “They’re your partners in business.  The NBA is not the product, and the corporation is not the asset; the players are.”  

“It was precisely because players had become so sophisticated as businesspeople that they could leverage not only today’s platforms but entire superstructures.”  “Hustle” tracks how we got here, focusing specifically on the first Nets season that landed Irving and Durant on the same roster, thanks in large part to Irving and Durant.  Sullivan paints the context of player empowerment among a changing game.  He recaps what set the tone for that season, including the move to remove Donald Sterling from ownership, the China tweet debacle, the multiple deaths of Black youths that came at the hands of police departments nationwide, player spats with the commander-in-chief, the tragic passing of one of the game’s true legends, Kobe Bryant, and oh yeah, a virus that halted a nation.  Sullivan traces the season chronologically, or as he would say “contemporaneously,” with a few pitstops along the way to set a backdrop for a highly volatile NBA season.

Before these Nets, there was LeBron’s Decision, which saw him “absorb instant villainy.” Of LeBron, Jay-Z said “In the midst of our demands, we forgot that LeBron James is human.  Why would we ever deny him, or anyone, the moment of hubris or vulnerability, given all that we asked of him to put the NBA on his shoulders?”  Jay-Z’s role in all the madness, as former partial owner and uniform designer of the Brooklyn Nets turned sports agent, is not understated.   

What Sullivan does so effectively with “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is humanize players so many of whom have become vilified through mounting media scrutiny.  “Hustle” details players increasingly important role in determining their careers while keeping basketball in its proper perspective, quite often to the chagrin of their fans.  While you might not like it, he paints one of “the most hate-able players on the planet,” the “grossly misunderstood” Kyrie Irving in an altogether different light that few have done him the favor of, “one teammate calling him the ‘enigma of the century.’”

The book details Kyrie’s close relationship with Kobe Bryant.  “Kobe had challenged Kyrie to confront the anxieties of modern fame. Do you really care what other people think about you?  Kyrie did not, or so he claimed at the time.  Are you afraid to be different?  Like Kobe, he sought the meaning of influence.”

You’ll read of DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dimwiddie (for whom the book is named, along with obviously the Jay-Z lyric) and of course Kevin Durant, another of the modern NBA’s enigmas, who was nursing an Achilles injury throughout that season.  “KD didn’t care about being the king of New York.  He didn’t want to be the savior of the Knicks.  He would follow Kyrie’s lead.”

You’ll read of other NBA players amid a time of rising conflict, how many embraced a role of social responsibility and professional awareness that so often met with friction from its fan base.  “’Being a celebrity, being an NBA player doesn’t exclude me from no conversation at all,” said Celtics all-star Jaylen Brown.  “As a young person, you gotta listen to our perspective.  Our voices need to be heard.  Being a bystander is no longer acceptable.” 

In retrospect, a lot went down that first year in Brooklyn that had nothing at all to do with basketball.  “The Bubble Nets concluded, but real life, moved real fast all around them.  Sports had been the interruption.”

Ultimately, Matt Sullivan’s “Hustle” gets the reader to think of players, and the game, in a different light.  Right, wrong, or indifferent, the game continues to evolve, as does the responsibility and power of the players who comprise it. 

As the Brooklyn Nets got dismantled, I looked to “Can’t Knock the Hustle for potential answers as to how it all went south.  What I found instead was the message that, while basketball is most assuredly important, there are other things that matter more.  Or as Jaylen Brown explained, “he would be a Black man longer than he bounced any basketball.”

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter that the Brooklyn Nets never lived up to their potential on the floor if they fulfilled their potential off it.  That is ultimately up to them to decide.

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