That’s all it took Luka Doncic to forge the first iconic playoff moment of his career. Tween left, cross right, trademark step back to the left hand and a rare “BANG BANG!” from ESPN play-by-play icon Mike Breen, and Luka Doncic’s legend grew. In just three-point-seven seconds.
While it was just one shot in a series where the Dallas Mavericks were ultimately eliminated, Doncic’s first game-winning buzzer-beater felt like the culmination of the endless hype and potential.
Since he emerged as the most prized European prospect – potentially ever – Doncic’s trajectory always pointed towards him being a superstar in the NBA. At 19, he was already one of the most decorated Euroleague stars ever. Now, at 21, he seems poised to take over the league on the court as legends like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry enter the back halves of their careers. Eventually, as they phase out of the league, the NBA will need new faces to promote and center on their marquees, and Doncic seems to be a shoo-in. But can he be the face of the league? The voice on the forefront to push forth the league into the next generation of basketball? Can he take the mantle that LeBron James seems to currently hold?
The arbitrary position of “face of the NBA” has a wide set of criteria, and the qualifiers vary amongst the league’s intelligentsia. What seems to remain consistent is the player needs to win, be MVP level for a long stretch of time, be marketable, maintain an undefinable cultural relevance and – a new factor in today’s NBA – be a booming voice in social justice matters.
Doncic is as marketable as they come, and in a league with budding stars like Trae Young, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and more, he shines the brightest. With MVP buzz early this season, in just his second year in the league, and historic production for a player so young and early in his career, the on court success is handled. But that’s been the case since he became a pro at the tender age of 16, making him the youngest player to ever suit up for Real Madrid’s storied franchise. Doncic earned the nickname “El Niño Maravilla,” spanish for Wonder Boy, and after two seasons he was a EuroLeague MVP, a Final Four MVP, a two-time Rising Star winner and a champion. With a built-in international profile, he won the affections of Nike with a two-year endorsement deal while still in Europe. Now, he’s caught the eye of the great Michael Jordan, securing a reported 5-year, 7-figure deal with the Jordan Brand. “Luka is a phenomenal player, and at such a young age. He’s demonstrating skill it takes many guys years to develop,” Jordan said when the deal was announced. “It will be incredible to watch him continue to advance in the league. We are excited to welcome him to the Jordan Brand family. He rounds out a roster of incredible new talent united to represent Jordan Brand for the next generation.”
But even with his marketability, Doncic’s “Face of the NBA” resume is a little lacking. In many ways, it would seem Giannis Antetokounmpo checks the boxes best. The reigning MVP is widely believed to be receiving the honors again whenever the NBA announces this year’s voting, and his Milwaukee Bucks are one of the title favorites inside the Orlando bubble. As Nike’s newest signature hooper, his marketability seems to be trending up as well, even if Antetokounmpo has yet to grip the public quite like Curry or James before him. But Antetokounmpo is 25 years old, and has awkwardly acclimated to American culture, making for an endearing but slightly goofy public profile.
Still, when news of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin broke, it was Antetokounmpo’s team, with his full support, who stepped forward to protest by boycotting and sitting out a playoff game against the Orlando Magic. Even in just seven years in America, Antetokounmpo has learned about prejudice and injustice in the country he now calls home. Starting with lessons on when and where it’s acceptable to wear a hoodie during his rookie year from Caron Butler, Antetokounmpo has become more and more conscious of the issues plaguing the country over the years.
“Spending seven years here and my brother growing up here, I have conversations with him. I have conversations with my teammates. It’s tough,” Antetokounmpo said from the NBA’s bubble in Orlando following the Bucks protest. “People are scared to walk in the street because of the color of their skin. You’re scared for your life. I think that has to change. I just became a dad a few months ago and I’ve had a conversation with my girlfriend and it’s scary. It’s scary to raise a son here and have a family. It’s scary. I don’t feel like I should be scared at any moment that my son and my family are walking down the street, I shouldn’t be scared. I just try to educate myself as much as possible.”
In a league in which 74.2 percent of its players are Black or African-American and 83.1 percent are people of color, according to TIDES, and in a country facing those issues it’s worth wondering if the face of the league could be anything other than a black man. While Doncic wears “Enakopravnost” on the back of his jersey in Orlando, which is the Slovenian word for equality, he has not been particularly outspoken on social justice matters. This, of course, is no crime or injustice in and of itself, but in a world where athletes are expected to be activists and to use the league’s platform to push forward those messages, that type of reticence can be seen as problematic. Take, for instance, the reaction to Curry’s indifference and admitted ignorance when asked about the NBA’s China controversy before the season. “I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society today in that interaction to speak on it,” Curry told reporters at the time, understandably wanting to seek more information on such a complex and layered geopolitical issue. That response was treated as a travesty, whether unfair or not, and when LeBron James spoke off the cuff, failing to sound well-versed in the issues at hand, he was lambasted as well.
The league’s face needs to be passionate enough and to speak with enough conviction to stand up and say, “I got half of my brain locked in on the playoffs and the other half locked in on how the hell I can help Black people become greater in America” as James did after the Lakers Game 4 victory over the Blazers. Or get on the phone with Blake’s family during the boycott like Antetokounmpo did.
These are not duties suited for a foreign-born, white player like Doncic, whether he wants them or not. No amount of Cardi B shoutouts, Jordan Brand contracts or playoff buzzer-beaters can help that. At best, Doncic can serve as an ally in the Black player’s fight for a much bigger cause than basketball. In a league this deeply rooted in Black culture, that helps push forward Black culture in America more than any other league, the face simply must be black. Dating back to the NBA’s modern inception, that title has belonged to a black player. Even as Larry Bird gave a white alternative face to the league, and helped pushed the league to new heights, Magic Johnson was right there, winning more titles, building a bigger brand. Plus, Bird himself knew the NBA was a Black league, calling basketball a “black man’s game.”
So, as Doncic continues to forge his legacy on the court, and live up to the reputation that preceded him on his way into the league, it may be time to accept that he can’t possibly elevate to the lone face of the NBA, even with historic success on the court. For a league that’s so integral to the Black experience in America, and to Black culture, that’s reserved for a Black man. Giannis took strides in that position in a time of need, James showed why that honor has been bestowed upon him for the past decade-plus, and young, outspoken players like Jaylen Brown and Jamal Murray showed the desire to be heard as well. The league is in good hands going forward, with plenty of emerging faces fit to be the face, even if they’re not named Luka Doncic.