TORONTO – This is the era of athlete empowerment and activism, and no where is that more evident than the NBA.
It’s been a special thing to watch as a generation of young athletes with gifts, fame and wealth have recognized that their collective voice can be a force of good and an agent of change.
But they’re done asking.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic made history on Wednesday afternoon when they refused to play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series at the Walt Disney World Resort in response to the shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis., of Jacob Blake, who was unarmed and, according to his lawyer, left paralyzed after taking at least seven shots from behind.
It’s believed to be the first boycott of its kind in the history of major North American sports.
The tip was scheduled for 4:10 p.m. ET, but the Bucks never took the floor to warm up, and the Magic – who did briefly – soon retreated to their locker rooms. By 4:20, equipment staff were gathering up players’ belongings and packing away basketballs.
Not long after, reports circulated that the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder were planning to boycott Game 5 of their first-round series, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. By 5 p.m., the NBA announced that all games scheduled for Wednesday would be postponed and rescheduled, including Game 5 of the Los Angeles Lakers‘ series with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Suddenly the feasibility of the NBA’s entire return-to-play plan, which was thought to be vulnerable to the pandemic, could conceivably be undone by an apparent epidemic of police violence against unarmed Black people.
At a league-wide players and coaches meeting held Wednesday night there didn’t seem to be a firm consensus about whether three games scheduled for Thursday night – including Game 1 of the second-round series between the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors – would go on as planned, although a report by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said games being played was unlikely and there were conflicting reports about whether the season would resume at all. A special meeting of the NBA Board of Governors has been scheduled for 11:00 a.m. ET on Thursday.
The possibility of games being boycotted was first voiced by Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell of the Raptors and echoed by various members of the Celtics.
“I think ultimately playing or not playing puts pressure on somebody,” said VanVleet on Tuesday. “Would it be nice if, in a perfect world, we all say we’re not playing, and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks – that’s going to trickle down. If he steps up to the plate and puts pressure on the district attorney’s office, and state’s attorney, and governors, and politicians there to make real change and get some justice. I know it’s not that simple, but at the end of the day if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose.”
The Celtics and Raptors had a players’-only meeting Tuesday night at the Gran Destino Tower, the hotel they share with Boston, Milwaukee, both Los Angeles teams and the Nuggets and Jazz and there efforts seemed to lend momentum to things unfolding as they did on Wednesday.
With a boycott already in play, the question now is, “What next?”
“It’s an active discussion,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously it started with the Raptors and obviously that’s who we’re playing. It’s been talked about with other guys on other teams. People are upset or angry and we’re just trying to come together and figure out a way how we can do something. Obviously, people are going to say, ‘Well, what is sitting out going to do?’ Obviously, if we sit out a game or the rest of the playoffs we understand how big of an impact that will have. Everybody’s going to have to talk about it, continue to raise awareness.
“We don’t want to just keep playing and forget about what’s going on in the outside world, because it’s affecting us. It’s affecting everybody. We’re more than just basketball players; we’re people. And we have these raw emotions and feelings.”
At the point of the season where basketball is normally paramount, it very much seems like a distraction. A collection of 20-something athletes, mostly Black, mostly American and many with first-hand experience dealing with law enforcement, are determined to change the conversation.
Normally Raptors head coach Nick Nurse would be in the thick of preparing a game plan for his team against the Celtics. Instead, he’s been having meetings, listening and trying to lend support to his team dealing with another video of another unarmed Black man suffering in a violent encounter with police.
“The players are deeply disappointed that the same thing happens again in a relatively short timeframe,” said Nurse, referring to the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. “They want to be part of the solution, they want to help, they want justice. They want this particular problem to be handled in a much better way. That’s the first thing.
“Boycotting the game has come up for them as a way to try to demand a little more action. That’s really what they want. I think there’s enough attention and not quite enough action and that’s what I can sense from the discussions, is their disappointment. Like, ‘Man, how can we get something to change, like now. We need something to change, not just attention on the problem. We need a plan of action.’”
Nowhere has athlete activism been more evident than in the NBA where LeBron James and other prominent stars have boldly put a name and voice to causes in a way that was unthinkable when Michael Jordan was the brightest light in the sports firmament, or when Tiger Woods was the most dominant athlete on the planet.
The movement was kickstarted when James and his then Miami Heat teammates posed for pictures with hoodies up in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager shot by overzealous-neighbour-with-a-gun George Zimmerman, who, in turn, was acquitted at trial, claiming self-defence. It seemed like a moment where the biggest stars of the day reached back across time and were willing to stand for something like Jim Brown, Muhammed Ali, Bill Russell and others had during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Speaking truth to power was one of the foundational moments in the NBA’s history, specifically. Players won concessions from owners when they threatened to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game. More recently, the rapid ouster of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling when recordings of him making racist comments surfaced was, in part, accelerated when there were suggestions the Golden State Warriors were going to boycott Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Clippers in 2014.
But the latest fight is big and difficult and with hard-to-define goals and objectives. And it’s not getting easier. Players who have taken the opportunity to talk about their feelings and frustrations about another incident of police violence have shown a rare vulnerability and evident anguish.
“I think for us, we just wanted to make a difference, wanted to make a change, and seeing [the shooting of Blake] shows that things are the same,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. “It makes you question, ‘Have you made the [right] decision or not, or whatever the case might be?’ And for me, it hurts. It hurts to see that … we came here for a reason and using our platform and wanting to send a message and hopefully bring awareness and bring a change, but I don’t know. It just feels like we’re stuck. It feels like we’re stuck. It feels like things are not changing.”
The players, standing on the cusp of history and taking it upon themselves to rebalance 400 years of prejudice and injustice, have gone one step further.
The players have decided not to play.