Can’t Knock the Hustle is a fascinating look at the modern NBA

Matt Sullivan’s new book, Can’t Knock the Hustle, makes for a very engaging read on the Brooklyn Nets, its stars, and the modern NBA

When the Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019, they immediately became one of the best and most interesting teams in the NBA. However, the Nets would have to wait at least a year for the two to play together because of the Achilles tear Durant had sustained earlier that year, which made their first season as Nets a strange prelude to the real thing. It is that interim period that Matt Sullivan captures in his new book, Can’t Knock the Hustle. By immersing himself into the world of Brooklyn basketball, he has emerged with a work that has much to say about the team’s enigmatic superstars as well as the state of the modern NBA.

Sean Marks spent years patiently rebuilding the Nets after the team’s big swings to acquire Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett led to disappointment and a paucity of draft picks. He brought in Kenny Atkinson to develop the undervalued players he had acquired and together they helped build a solid team. It was not likely to compete for anything more than the postseason but they were sure to be consistently competitive. It was the sort of team-building job that would make anyone proud, but the “Program” that had brought them this far was quickly dismissed the second the opportunity to sign Irving and Durant arose. This Program and the culture it promised may have looked like an end in itself, but they turned out to be a means instead: “all the employees and players who’d built The Program did not matter as much as the max-contract guy walking in the front door.”

Accordingly much of Can’t Knock the Hustle is a fascinating look at those max-contract guys and the massive role stars play in the NBA. Throughout the book, Durant and Irving seem to be existing in their own universe, parallel but not equivalent to the one inhabited by their teammates. They have exponentially more money to create an insulated world and teams will do whatever is necessary to appease them. For example, Sullivan reveals that the Nets created a “budget cushion for the whims of KD’s rehab and Kyrie’s lifestyle,” a cushion that was essentially a “blank check.” Even when Durant and Irving are absent due to rehab or a variety of other reasons, they remain the center of the book.

Readers who feel strongly about Durant or Irving, whether positively or negatively, are not likely to have their opinions changed by this book. Those who find Irving to be a man of strong principles who is trying to figure out a way to live justly will find plenty of support as will detractors who believe he is a bad teammate that acts impulsively. Irving may not be the player Durant is, but in Irving’s seeking a way to live out his principles as a professional athlete, the book’s questions about the relationship between commerce and justice become explicit. Can’t Knock the Hustle comes no closer to solving the mystery of these two men — being impossible to fully pin down is part of their appeal after all — but by spending time with them and observing them with their guards down, it does provide many candid looks at each of them, offering a fuller portrait of each in the process.

Can’t Knock the Hustle explores social justice movements in the modern NBA

The other major concern of the book is social justice — what the players can do to enact change and how often they feel hamstrung by a league that likes to present itself “as a barometer of progress,” but is really a multibillion corporation whose primary concern is making money, not enacting justice. Sullivan quotes commissioner Adam Silver making this point plainly: “I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. … I can never forget that.” So while the league tends to say the right things, many players interviewed for this book feel let down regardless, believing that with so many urgent problems facing the world, rhetoric is not enough.

Unfortunately, many of those same players feel that they are caught in the same bind themselves. They want to speak out more but are worried that if they do, they will find themselves out of the league.  “The NBA is politically correct,” Sullivan quotes Wilson Chandler as saying. “They always have one foot in, one foot out. … I kinda want to be vocal, but I still want to kind of keep my job, too. So we all tiptoe.” Similarly, looking back at the furor caused by Daryl Morey’s tweet about a free Hong Kong, he quotes Michele Roberts as saying “If there was a conspiracy of silence, it was motivated by guys not wanting to lose any more money.

There is nevertheless a consensus from the players speaking within that sloganeering, tweeting, and symbolic actions are not enough — as the players collectively kneel in the bubble, Justin Anderson expresses frustration that doing so now feels like little more than a fashion statement. And looking back at a 2018 protest that took place in Sacramento following the police killing of Stephon Clark, Garrett Temple wonders what he could have done and if anything would have changed if he had: “If I would have walked outside [and joined the protest]. … What tangible thing would have come from that? Would any legislation have been changed because Garrett Temple walked outside? I think not.”

These questions make Can’t Knock the Hustle a book that is both inspiring and dispiriting. It is inspiring to witness players trying to reconcile their athletic and political lives in the hopes of inaugurating a more just world, though it is dispiriting to know that any such reconciliation is bound to be relative and insufficient as long as it occurs within the confines of the NBA.

Can’t Knock the Hustle is a very good book that provides a candid and insightful look at the NBA in a new era. In light of how clearly he writes about these players and the worlds around them, it often seems that, throughout the 2019-2020 season, any place a member of the Nets organization was, Sullivan must have been there too. In a landscape where access is often granted in return for favorable coverage, it is astonishing how close he was able to get to this team. This may have been a less notable achievement in previous decades, but as players work more and more to control their brands and the ways they are written about, intimate reporting about NBA athletes — reporting that does not seem to have been pre-approved by a team of publicists — has become rare.

With this reporting, Sullivan not only offers lots of new information but also digs deeper by providing valuable insights and analysis about how and why the world of professional sports functions the way it does. Few writers have better captured the subtle strangeness of the modern NBA than Sullivan has here.