By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
As it turned out, it was the actions of a Kenosha, WI police officer from which National Basketball Association players couldn’t reconcile.
Not the unchecked COVID-19 pandemic that enclosed the NBA off from the rest of the world in a last ditch effort to even finish their 2020 season.
No, it was that damned officer, who, even in the thick of outcries over systemic racism and the use of fatal force, still felt emboldened to fire seven shots into the back of an unarmed Black man Sunday — from which National Basketball Association players couldn’t toe the line any more, the line separating them from true investment in the ongoing literal battle for our lives.
By boycotting its potential series clinching playoff game Wednesday in protest of the indefensible shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin and the perpetuation of police brutality, the Milwaukee Bucks made the kind of statement that sanctioned social slogans and conspicuous court embossing couldn’t.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters,” said Bucks guard Sterling Brown in a statement read aloud by he and teammate George Hill outside of Milwaukee’s locker room while encircled by the remaining Bucks squad shortly after their boycott became official.
Brown, a Maywood native who has a lawsuit pending against the city of Milwaukee and its police department following an altercation stemming from a parking violation in 2018 continued, “despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
That Brown, Hill and their Bucks teammates were presumably willing to forgo contention for a championship most would argue they had a more legitimate shot at capturing than any other Eastern Conference team and a real chance to bring Milwaukee its first title since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was its franchise player (and even he was still known as Lew Alcindor then) was as righteous a statement as the inception of former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem, which happened four years prior to the day.
In a markedly different social climate, where eyebrows are now raised in response to players who stand during the Star-Spangled Banner, the Bucks’ historic demonstration was aptly complemented by the conjoined protests of other athletes and teams throughout much of the sports landscape; 14 games across four separate sports — including the other two NBA playoff contests — were postponed Wednesday; Women’s Tennis Association star Naomi Osaka, who identifies as both Japanese and Haitian, pulled out of the Western & Southern Open in New York.
Just about all the scheduled action in the same sports were held off on Thursday as well, in spite of the NBA Players Association announcing their intention to get back on the court as soon as this weekend — even the NHL, surprisingly hung up their skates Thursday and for games going into Friday.
Splashier still was the scene painted at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, site of the WNBA “Wubble.”
WNBA players, often unsung trailblazers of social activism, knelt at center court with their arms locked in solidarity. The demonstration was punctuated by shirts worn by the defending champion Washington Mystics that, together, spelled out “J-A-C-O-B B-L-A-K-E” on the front and were accented by seven holes on the back to represent the amount of times the 29-year-old father of six was shot.
“These moments are so much more bigger than us,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said. “If we do this unified as a league, it looks different. We matter. I think that’s important. I’m tired of telling people that. I know I matter. We know we matter. If you have a problem with me saying Black Lives Matter, you need to check your privilege. Yes, all lives matter, including the Black lives we’re talking about.”
And thus the second boycott in NBA history — hall-of-famer and civil rights activist Bill Russell, his Black Boston Celtics teammates and those of from the opposing St. Louis Hawks team staged the first in a 1961 protest of racism in a scrimmage in Kentucky — acted as a killer right cross following the jab Kaepernick so valiantly placed toward a society that at large was ignoring racial oppression and inequality in 2016. In 2020 there now seems to be no excuse for being on the sidelines in the fight for Black people’s rights.
Like the rest of the country, none of the players nor coaches convening at the Walt Disney Wide World of Sports Resort in Florida has a definitive solution to thwart police brutality.
A mutual exasperation with a system responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in the past year, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and now Blake’s partial paralysis exists both inside and outside of the NBAs bubble nonetheless.
“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” said Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers Tuesday in response to Blake’s shooting and the first day of the Republican National Convention. Rivers removed his protective mask Tuesday to ensure his typically croaky voice was heard more clearly before he continued in a speech that will long be quoted in basketball circles and possibly beyond.
“We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” Rivers said. “It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better.”
Although NBA players ultimately decided to return to the court and resume the 2020 playoffs, their actions, as well as those of other athletes from across the sports world, drove the conversation of social justice to the doorstep of the lawmakers most responsible for the enactment of change in the Bucks’ backyard
Specifically, change spurred on by Wisconsin State Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who recently announced the creation of a task force to address police accountability in the latest battleground state.
”The Bucks have frankly done more to address these issues than Robin Vos or Scott Fitzgerald have done,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul during a press release Wednesday. “And so I applaud them for stepping up and playing a leadership role in the debate.”
Our elected leaders must now do the same.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago