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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When a wave of the NBA's biggest stars donned "I can't breathe" shirts - the rallying cry of demonstrators against U.S. policing tactics in black communities - it highlighted the power and influence wielded by today's professional basketball stars.
The pre-game actions this week of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, observers say, spring from their outsized celebrity, enormous wealth and shared sense of social activism. Behind the scenes stands a new commissioner who has let players mix sports and social issues so far without consequence.
Adam Silver, who has been on the job as National Basketball Association commissioner less than a year, has gained a measure of trust with the players for his swift decision in April to ban former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks, says Howard Bryant, a columnist for ESPN the Magazine.
Silver, he says, is repaying that trust by letting players take their own social stand in the workplace - and in front of millions of fans.
"He's aware that the NBA more than any other league is a players' league, and the players are going to drive it," he said, adding that individual stars more than teams help the league's popularity. "You have to trust where they go with it."
Silver, who allowed teams like the Clippers and Miami Heat to turn their warm-up shirts inside-out in protest against Sterling during last season's playoffs, issued a statement on Monday saying he respected the players for "voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules."
Silver declined to fine players for attire violations that are in place to ensure exposure for the NBA's apparel brands.
James, the league's biggest star, said he wore the black shirt with "I can't breathe" written on it as a message to the family of Eric Garner, an African-American man who died from a police chokehold in July.
A New York grand jury's decision last week not to indict the white officer in Garner's death sparked demonstrations across the country.
Garner's final words - "I can't breathe" - have become a new rallying cry in a protest movement that started with the killing this summer of an 18-year-old unarmed African-American in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white officer.
"There are important issues out there, and for athletes to recognize they're citizens as well as entertainers, and they've got a voice that's legitimate," President Barack Obama told ESPN Radio on Friday.
A handful of NFL players have demonstrated but none with the public stature of James, Bryant and Rose.
The NBA has the largest composition of African-American fans, more than any other U.S. sports league at 45 percent, according to research by Nielsen. That is three times higher than the NFL.
James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' MVP forward; Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' prodigious scorer; and Rose, the Chicago Bulls point guard, are also part of the NBA's ultra rich. James and Bryant will earn more than $20 million in salary this season while Rose will make $18.9 million.
Unlike pay 30 years ago, today's larger salaries are enough financial insurance for most players to withstand the loss of endorsement contracts over controversial public gestures or statements, says Sports Illustrated media writer Richard Deitsch.
But the players are also such big stars, Deitsch adds, that it would not matter.
"LeBron James has more leverage than every corporation that he works for," Deitsch said. James and Bryant have apparel contracts with Nike, which is known as one of the most loyal companies to its high-profile endorsers.
The NBA's main attractions are also well aware of how they fit into the league's business structure, said John Carlos, the Olympic bronze medalist sprinter and activist who along with Tommie Smith protested inequality for African-Americans during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
"I'm the grass the cow has to eat to get the milk," Carlos said about a professional athletes' thinking in today's multi-billion dollar industry.
"If there's no grass, there's no cow."
Editing by Mary Milliken, Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker