LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors just over 24 hours away from its scheduled tip, the possibility of boycotting the game remains on the table for both teams in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Blake, a Black man, was shot at least seven times, apparently in the back, by police on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as he attempted to enter the driver’s side door of his vehicle with three of his children inside. Video of the shooting was distributed on social media.
“The players are deeply disappointed that the same thing happens again in a relatively short timeframe,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday, referring to the killing of George Floyd by police three months ago. “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.”
Players from the Celtics and Raptors held a players-only meeting Tuesday night to discuss the possibility of a boycott and other measures, and are planning to meet again Wednesday night to further discuss the matter. The teams are staying at the same hotel in the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
From the moment the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to create the bubble and attempt to restart the season amid the coronavirus pandemic, attempts to address the ongoing issues of police brutality, social justice and racial inequality in American society have been top of mind. The words “Black Lives Matter” were painted on all three game courts at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, and players are wearing “Black Lives Matter” warm-up shirts before every game. The majority of players also are are wearing jerseys with words or phrases that were agreed upon to promote positive change in society.
Coaches, players and referees are kneeling in solidarity during the national anthem before games are played. Coaches are wearing pins that read “Coaches Against Racial Inequality.” And both players and coaches have actively used their time with the media to speak about issues outside of basketball.
But as this week has progressed, there has been a palpable sense of frustration among players around the league about the fact that incidents like the shooting of Blake on Sunday continue to happen.
“Really, all we can hope and try to do is impact change,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said Wednesday. “That’s something that have we always strived for, and we started with the kneeling. We were hoping that would send a message and it sent a message, but then as that message gets pushed out, then they stopped showing us.
“So, now, it’s more so about what can we do next to not only show that we’re not only involved, but also show that we really care and that it saddens us to see nothing’s changing. And there’s something that has to happen. And that’s part of the discussions and creative ways of how we can create change, and how we can not only be there for those who are for experiencing tough trials, like the Blake family right now and not only support them, but also show their stores, send their message out to the communities that show how this world is and how we can can hopefully get better and improve as a society. Not one by one, but hopefully as a whole.”
Part of that discussion about possible ways to create change centers around whether Thursday’s game should be played at all. Raptors guard Fred VanVleet first publicly posed the possibility during his media availability Tuesday, and the discussion continued during Tuesday night’s meeting. Whether the players ultimately choose to play or not, the latest incident has had a dramatic impact on the mood of everyone inside the bubble.
For the Raptors, this week marks two months that they have been away from home, having had to spend an additional two weeks in Florida before entering the bubble because of border issues between the United States and Canada due to the pandemic. For the other teams, it has been six weeks since they left their friends and family behind, and the strain of all that, coupled with what is continuing to take place outside of the bubble, is taking its toll on everyone.
“The first incident that happened a couple of months ago, guys were able to be on the front lines, be seen, be in their communities and their neighborhoods,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “Right now it’s tough because we’re kind of stuck between the decision of, some people can go home but we understand what we’re giving up by being here. The work that so many people, so many hours went into making this all possible. So it’s a tough decision.
“I know some guys have thought about going home. A lot of things are bigger than basketball, and we understand that. We’re people, first and foremost. We’re not just basketball players. So the feeling of being isolated from the outside world, that’s kind of how I feel right now. I know a lot of other guys feel the same way.”
Tatum went on to say that, while both teams have championship aspirations, basketball is not something anyone is thinking about at the moment.
“Yeah, I mean how many points we score, that s— don’t matter right now,” he said. “Being a Black man in America is more important than what I’m doing out there on a basketball court. Using my platform, my voice to help create conversations and change is more important than anything I can do out there. You think about a man getting shot in his back seven times with his kids in the car is way more important than anything I can do out there on the floor.
“Just knowing his kids are going to be traumatized for the rest of their life seeing their dad get shot for no reason, I couldn’t even imagine how that’s going to affect them the rest of their life. It’s so many things in this life that are way more important than anything.”
Like Tatum, Nurse said he’s had conversations with players who would like to go home. Both he and his Celtics counterpart, Brad Stevens, said their goal is to try to help their players in any way they can, whether that be by listening or giving their opinion or supporting them in what they are trying to do.
“It’s not about me, obviously,” Stevens said. “It’s about these guys are people first. They care deeply about the communities that they grew up in, the communities they live in, and everything that’s going on affects them emotionally and us emotionally just like everyone else. I think that’s something that sometimes when you turn on the TV you forget. I think that certainly they’re amazing. And we are in coaching as much as anything to just be a part of a team, and to be around people, and to share those moments that only a team can share in those rooms. The things I think you look back on your career is you really think about the relationships that you built and everything else and how people from backgrounds, every background, can come together for a common goal. That’s what makes sports special and makes teams special. But at the end of the day, also, certainly we’re all affected by what’s going on around us.”
To this point, only the Celtics and Raptors have even broached the topic of potentially not playing. Three Game 5s — between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers — are scheduled to take place Wednesday, as are Game 6’s between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, as well as the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, in addition to the start of the Boston-Toronto series.
The Raptors have been outspoken on this issue from the outset, arriving at the bubble in buses with “Black Lives Matter” in bold lettering on the outside, and also recently had to deal with the release of footage of Masai Ujiri, the team’s president of basketball operations, being shoved by a Bay Area police officer while Ujiri tried to get onto the court to celebrate after Toronto won its first NBA championship last year.
“From our standpoint, I think that we’ve got some pretty conscientious guys,” Nurse said. “I think we obviously have the footage and the situation with Masai, just coming out, and our team just saw that recently, as well. So there’s a personalness to it, I think, with part of our, our group.”
The dialogue is expected to continue between both teams, with a resolution obviously needed to the situation between now and 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday.
“It’s an active discussion,” Tatum said. “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.”