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In 2014, the Los Angeles Clippers were under pressure to boycott Game 4 of their playoff series with the Warriors after former owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments were exposed. Many people felt like a Clippers boycott would be a bold demonstration against Sterling.
Earlier this year, ESPN writer Marc Spears reflected that those Clippers had a chance at the time “to make a historical...statement” on intolerance of racism. They ended up playing, but five years later, a slew of NBA teams finally made the powerful gesture Spears was seeking — and the Clippers were one of them.
The Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, LA Lakers, and Portland Trail Blazers opted to sit out Wednesday’s games after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police on Sunday night (the Orlando Magic were set to play the Bucks in Game 5 of their first-round series and were on-court in preparation for the game, but expressed solidarity with Milwaukee’s cause). Six WNBA teams joined them, spurred by the Washington Mystics’ decision forgo playing their game with the Atlanta Dream and strike. MLB and MLS contests were also called off, as well. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that players will eventually resume play, but today’s NBA contests were postponed as well.
The last two times that NBA playoff games were postponed were during the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the April 1968 uprisings following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. This is a similarly tumultuous time.
Players had a mass meeting Wednesday night. NBA Insider Shams Charania reported that while the Lakers and Clippers voted to end the season early, most teams want to continue the playoffs. On Wednesday evening, Yahoo’s Chris Haynes said that a “star” told him that “we’re already here. Let’s finish what we started.” But that exact mentality applied to their strike. They were brave enough to do it for a day, which means they’re brave enough to stage a massive divestment of capitalism by strike for as long as it takes to get whatever demand they seek.
After the strike was announced, Bucks guard George Hill succinctly told The Undefeated that "we're tired of the killings and the injustice." One day after the Blake shooting took place, Hill surmised that they “shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest” because the bubble “took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
He echoed the sentiment of millions of Black people and a notable portion of NBA players, including Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley, and Kyrie Irving. While the NBA and the Players Association was devising the bubble, Bradley and Irving made a collective statement as leaders of a player coalition who opposed a continuation of the season. Two days after the NBA embarked on a COVID-19 pause, police killed Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May. Many players participated in the nationwide demonstration that commenced after their deaths, and a select few felt like “entertainment, period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction,” as Howard theorized.
But the influence of powerful players and financial concerns won out, and the bubble was formed despite dissenting voices. NBA brass has offered gestures to Black America during bubble games, putting “Black Lives Matter” on courts and letting players wear approved social messages on their jerseys. Many players followed LeBron’s lead as he initially felt like the NBA’s return was an opportunity “to use this platform to spread a lot of positivity, a lot of love throughout the world.” But on Wednesday, after the Bucks strike was offical, he tweeted, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT”
LeBron’s desire to speak up and follow the lead of the Bucks demonstrates his understanding that love isn’t an effective countermeasure to a hateful system. Last Sunday, Blake was planning an eighth birthday for one of his sons. By that night, he was struggling for his life after being shot by cops after doing their job and breaking up a fight. Seven hundred and fifty-one people have been killed by police so far this year, and Blake could have been another person. Seven hundred and fifty-one isn’t just a number, those are 731 people with loved ones, hopes and dreams that were halted by police who didn’t care about their humanity.
NBA players did a noble thing by protesting Blake’s shooting, but now they have to keep it going. The issue doesn’t begin and end with Blake, or Floyd, or Taylor. Black people’s qualms aren’t about individual instances of police brutality — too many police are inherently brutal. The enemy is policing. It’s the system as a whole that’s steeped with adversarial, aggressive, and racially biased cops. And it’s a system full of cowardly politicians and district attorneys who are too scared of police unions to hold police accountable for their criminality. Municipalities won’t feel pressure to placate the people’s calls to defund police without the kind of seismic change NBA players and their athlete allies are threatening.
They have to keep the pressure on the establishment. 2020 is an unforgettable moment. The worldwide quarantine has society on pause. Let’s reset it. The people need to go beyond calls for placatory reforms and demand the kind of deep change that uproots systemic oppression. Many people are calling for defunding police. That doesn’t look like a world without conflict resolution, but a world with alternatives to policing that prioritize community over punitive consequences. Some people can’t visualize a world without cops, but there were others who couldn’t see one without chattel slavery and segregation. Those skeptics should have enough faith in themselves and humanity to imagine a drastically better world.
But such radical change isn’t possible without radical measures. That’s where the NBA comes in. America has done a good job of inverting our priorities, but right now, maybe a country where people can’t walk outside their house without fearing police and kids hide behind cars when they hear sirens doesn’t deserve the privilege of sports. The continual suffering of Black people at the hands of police shows that we’re not currently doing enough to collectively combat the police system. What we need is an en masse pause on the country’s usual ceremonies in order to truly reflect on the nature of American policing, and collective next steps going forward.
The consequences for letting modern policing continue as is are deadly. We already saw businesses and police precincts burn in June—how much further does the establishment want the people to go? There’s a thought that because the NBA spent so much money putting on the bubble players that play should continue, but that’s not the players’ problem—it wasn’t the league’s problem when players expressed reticence about coming back in the first place. And sure, players didn’t ask for this responsibility, and they didn’t create the problem, but they can learn from Colin Kaepernick: solidarity means sacrifice. Many NBA players, most notably LeBron, have claimed they’re more than athletes. Now, they’re showing it.
Violent policing has affected several members of the NBA family in recent years. In 2018, Bucks guard Sterling Brown was tased by a cop who lost his job. The Wizards’ Bradley Beal says he was told, “‘I can arrest your (expletive) right now and (expletive) up your headline and have you on SportsCenter on Monday,” after a simple traffic stop in DC. Recent footage exposed that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was repeatedly pushed by a police officer during the team’s 2019 NBA championship celebration at Oracle Arena (the cop initially said Ujiri pushed him and attempted to sue). In 2015, then-Atlanta Hawk Thabo Sefolosha suffered a fractured fibula and ligament damage which ended his season after being manhandled by the NYPD after a nightclub fight.
Earlier this year, Sefolosha told CNN that, “I just wish the leadership [at June protests] was a little more streamlined and people know exactly...what they're fighting for and what exactly they want after the protest.” NBA players were unified in striking Wednesday; they need to be unified in sitting out the rest of this playoff season, and doing so with specified demands. Their pursuit to win a title doesn’t mean more than their Blackness. Many skeptics speculated that this year’s champion should receive an asterisk because of the odd nature of the season. Players should force the NBA to make one not because of COVID, but because of a mass strike in solidarity with Black people.