This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Malika Andrews and Zach Lowe.
WE HEARD IT in their voices. The pain. The anger. The desperate cry for justice.
The video of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father of six, being shot seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police hit the NBA and its players in waves this week.
“Why does it always have to get to the point where we see the guns firing?” LeBron James asked Monday night. He’d just won a playoff game, but couldn’t enjoy it.
“My emotions are all over the place,” he said, as if an apology was necessary.
The next night, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who is the son of a police officer, choked back tears and said, “We keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
“I came into the arena thinking I was going to play,” one Bucks player said.
But shortly before their Game 5 tipoff, set for 4 p.m. ET, the Bucks had a change of heart and decided not to play. They intended to sacrifice a playoff game, only to have their opponent, the league and players and teams from sports leagues around the country join them in solidarity.
The Bucks didn’t expect to be the thread that caused the NBA to unravel, one player said.
But that thread had been fraying for a while.
There is a sense of fatigue among many — emotions spilling over from the trauma of watching the shooting on video, listening to the rhetoric of the Republican National Convention and players feeling like they’re being held in captivity in the bubble.
“I think there will be a chance for guys to have clearer heads on [Thursday] morning,” one team executive said. “But none of us really know where this is headed.”
THE NBA POSTPONED three playoff games on Wednesday. The expectation is it will postpone Thursday’s games as well. There will be an emergency board of governors meeting at 11 a.m. ET Thursday. There will be another players’ meeting at the same time. Beyond that, it’s just conjecture.
The Bucks had leapt without really looking where their protest would take the NBA. There was no consultation with any other players. No coordination with the league or players’ union. The Magic were still warming up on the court, preparing to play.
When it became clear the Bucks weren’t coming out of their locker room in time for the game, a league official walked by reporters and remarked, “Wow. This is really a moment.”
Inside the locker room, Bucks players were on a Zoom call with Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes and attorney general Josh Kaul, which had been facilitated by team owner Marc Lasry and senior vice president, Alex Lasry.
“They just wanted to know what they could do,” Barnes said. “I mean, they were very interested in a call to action. They wanted something tangible that they could do in the short and long term. They wanted the walkout to be Step 1.”
Barnes told them they should “push for action at every level of government.” They could pressure state lawmakers to vote on the police reform bill that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed two months ago, but has gone without response from the Republican-held state assembly.
The players wanted to know why the officers who shot Blake had not been arrested. Kaul tried to explain that the investigation was ongoing and would take time, but his phone kept cutting out as he drove though areas of poor reception.
The Bucks stayed in their locker room for over three hours before emerging to tell the world why they’d chosen not to play.
“We’re sorry that it took a little more time, but we thought it would be best for us as a team to brainstorm a little bit, educate ourselves and not rush into having raw emotion,” Bucks guard George Hill said.
As Barnes had suggested, the Bucks said, “It is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”
Players for the five other teams involved in games Wednesday quickly decided they would protest in solidarity with the Bucks.
But there was no great plan yet, just protest — demonstrative of the power of NBA players to effect change. The decision led to postponements in the WNBA, Major League Baseball, tennis and Major League Soccer.
EVERYONE HAD BEEN caught off guard. Owners and organizations quickly issued statements of support for the players throughout the afternoon. But privately, many wondered what more they could do.
The players organized a meeting Wednesday night to discuss everything. All 13 remaining teams were invited. Those who attended called it emotional and chaotic. But it also felt historic to have so many players and coaches gathered, debating such important issues, inside a hotel ballroom in Orlando where the NBA had sought refuge from the COVID-19 virus.
Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala explained that societal change must come through political action, which can often be tedious. How many of them, he asked, were aware that California was set to vote on a landmark police reform bill on Friday? How many were even registered to vote? The union had data suggesting that number was extremely low.
Houston Rockets assistant coach John Lucas gave a stirring speech about how far players had come since the time he’d played in the NBA.
“This is your moment,” Lucas told them. He encouraged the players to speak to commissioner Adam Silver and the owners, and ask them to use their power to do more.
The league’s owners had committed to contributing $300 million over the next 10 years to a foundation that would create economic opportunity and empowerment in the Black community. But sources said that at last month’s board of governors meeting, owners had discussed whether to ask the National Basketball Players Association to contribute to that as well.
“What is it they think the league can do?” one owner wondered. “We have been fully supportive.”
The NBA had never faced anything like this moment. Six years ago, players had contemplated a boycott after Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist statements. But they decided against it once Silver banned Sterling for life.
This was different.
Doc Rivers had been the voice for the Clippers throughout the Sterling scandal. He had gathered his team in the gym at the University of San Francisco and weighed the pros and cons of not playing in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors as a form of protest. Then, as well as now, Rivers argued that there was more power in playing.
“Your talent is your power,” Rivers told the players on Wednesday night, according to sources. He encouraged them to come away from the meeting with three clear items the league can help them act upon, things like police reform and accountability or voter registration and support.
Rivers had been in touch with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the players’ union president, throughout the day. He had coached Paul in Los Angeles, and the two had led the franchise and the league through the Sterling crisis.
Although their relationship has changed over the years, they fell back into a familiar partnership to help navigate this crisis too.
Paul called on the players to come away from the meeting with a unified front, with plans of action and with a clear understanding of the financial perils that might await the players and league if the season does not proceed to the finish.
Those effects could be “cataclysmic” in the words of one league executive. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and senior counsel Ron Klempner, both of whom were on site in Orlando for Wednesday’s meeting, explained that if the players decide not to play the remainder of the season, they could lose 25-30% of their salary for next year. The league could also terminate the collective bargaining agreement and lock out the players while terms of a new CBA are negotiated under the economic and societal duress of the pandemic.
All of this was ground the union had covered before with its players, in calls and Zoom meetings throughout the spring as the league tried to reconstitute itself after shutting down on March 11 following Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert‘s positive COVID-19 test.
Avery Bradley and union vice president Kyrie Irving had led a movement to suspend the rest of the season so the league wouldn’t distract from the social justice moment and protests that swept the nation following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
But ultimately the players decided to play, and vowed to use their platform to call attention to injustice throughout the summer and fall. That’s what players have done throughout this resumed season, at news conferences, with messages on their shoes, hats, shirts and shorts, and broader actions, such as James’ More than a Vote initiative.
THE BIGGEST DEBATE in the meeting Wednesday night was whether the league could do more from inside its bubble in Orlando or outside.
Boston Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown asked his colleagues, “Are you going home to work? Or are you going home to be on the front lines?” Iguodala said that if they stop the season, the players should be on the front lines of Kentucky or Wisconsin. Otherwise, what was the point?
Some players were vocal about holding owners accountable and demanding they take concrete action, James among them.
Several players questioned the Bucks on why they had decided to strike without consulting other teams or players. Sources described the questioning of the Bucks and their unilateral action as “uncomfortable.”
Bucks guard Kyle Korver said he understood why other players and teams were upset at being blindsided by Milwaukee’s move. According to sources, Giannis Antetokounmpo stuck up for his team. Then Brown jumped in to defend the Bucks, saying they had nothing to apologize for.
Players and teams discussed voting on whether to continue. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said he thought the coaches should leave the room so players could talk and vote among themselves.
“Some of you don’t want to play, but you don’t want to say it in front of the coaches,” Beverley said, according to sources.
Rivers agreed and led the coaches out of the room.
But it didn’t result in clarity. Many players said they wanted to continue playing, including the Bucks, sources said. Many did not. Players on the Lakers and Clippers voted not to continue the season, and several — including James — left the meeting early.
It was not seen as a formal vote. Just a moment of reckoning, after a day no one will soon forget.
“If we stop playing today,” one front-office executive asked his players on Wednesday, “is that changing anything in the world? Will everyone else in the world just move on, and then will we lose our platforms?”
Another executive said, “The question we asked our players: What do you hope to accomplish by not playing the games? The answers were very different. I think that’s something everyone is still formulating for themselves. What’s the endgame here, and does not playing accomplish it?”
It’s far too soon to know whether things will look clearer on Thursday. But the NBA had reached a point where it just needed to stop. To think, to feel, to plan.
Or maybe just to breathe.