NBA players spent the past week publicly and privately grappling with the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, before refusing to play in games Wednesday, setting off protests by athletes across American sports.
What does this historic week mean for the NBA and other leagues? What were the most memorable moments? And what comes next?
With the NBA set to return to play soon, our panel of writers reflects on this unprecedented player movement, the new pressure on ownership and the fallout.
Where were you and what was your initial reaction to the Bucks’ protest?
Zach Lowe: Discussing Luguentz Dort‘s defense on James Harden in the last 30 seconds of “The Jump” when Rachel Nichols interjected to tell us the Bucks had not taken the floor for their game — which was supposed to tip off just after the show.
I felt the energy of the moment from head to toe. This was big. It would resonate well beyond the boundaries of the NBA, and it was all going to unfold in the next few hours in a way that was impossible to predict at that moment. With rare exceptions, the games and series we cover are broadly predictable: There are runs, and adjustments, and controversial calls, and sometimes buzzer shots — but eventually one team wins and one team loses. This was so different.
I ripped off my microphone, tossed out my earpiece and ran to the nearest television to fire up NBA TV.
After digesting the scene for 10 or 15 minutes, I started calling or texting people within the Bucks, and executives within and around the league to see what they were hearing and thinking. I basically spent the next 10 hours doing that with the TV on in the background, cranking the volume whenever I saw one of our reporters on the scene or someone trying to capture what the moment meant for them, including Kenny Smith and Chris Webber on TNT.
Chris Herring: My first thought was, “Wow, they’re actually doing this.”
Even before the restart, I thought that Kyrie Irving‘s argument for players to potentially sit out the season was interesting. I don’t think I ever reached a point where I saw it happening. But his idea, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, always made some sense to me. And it made sense for the Bucks now, too, especially given the proximity of the Jacob Blake shooting to their hometown, and the fact that one of their own players has been the victim of police brutality.
NBA players have always had considerable power. But seeing them collectively try to harness it this way was different.
Brian Windhorst: There were still several minutes before Game 5 of Bucks-Magic when I got a text from colleague Tim Bontemps, who was sitting in the arena: “There’s nine minutes on the clock and the Bucks aren’t on the floor.” Then I understood what was happening.
I wasn’t shocked. You could feel the players’ rising anguish. You could see it on their faces. And in talking to people in the bubble, there was a toll of the entire experience wearing on them that was palpable. That seems to have contributed to arriving at this point. I was surprised they did it without a plan or an organized rollout, particularly when it came to including their peers. But the more you think about it, it just reinforces the exasperation they felt.
Ramona Shelburne: The first thing I thought of was my colleague Marc Spears, who told me last year that he cried with disappointment back in 2014, when the Warriors and the Clippers didn’t boycott their playoff game in the wake of the Donald Sterling scandal.
It would have been such a moment, Spears said, and the players had backed away from it and ultimately gave it over to commissioner Adam Silver, who banned Sterling for life. Spears said he was crushed that the players didn’t boycott that game. Sterling’s word needed to be protested, not just criticized.
When I saw tweets about the Bucks staying in their locker room instead of playing the game, I almost wanted to call Marc and say, “They did it, they did it this time,” but I knew he was probably working. So I just pictured the big smile that must have been on his face.
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Which moment from this week will you remember most?
Shelburne: I think LeBron James and Doc Rivers’ news conferences will stick with me for a long time. I was in tears listening to both of them — knowing how deeply they were hurting, as Black men, as fathers and as two voices who have continually spoken out against injustices.
It must’ve been challenging for them to feel so powerless, watching the video of Blake being shot seven times. It chokes me up thinking about Rivers asking why he keeps loving a country that doesn’t love him back.
Doc Rivers gets emotional when speaking on social injustice following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Herring: Probably when word that LeBron James had left the Wednesday night meeting early started to spread. It was a while before anyone knew exactly what that move meant or why he and other players on the Lakers and Clippers voted not to continue the season. Clearly things changed the following morning, but had LeBron and the Lakers decided to walk away, with no intention whatsoever of resuming the playoffs, I don’t think any of us know what might have come of that.
The decision to go back to playing left me feeling a bit the way I did when Colin Kaepernick settled his collusion case against the NFL: Both were really important on a social level, carried massive ramifications and were cut short before an ultimate breaking point. But both choices were also ultimately up to the players to decide what they felt was best for their situations.
Lowe: Probably Sterling Brown reading the first part of the Bucks’ statement once they emerged from their locker room. Brown has kind of receded to the background in a basketball sense. He played only 767 minutes in 52 regular-season games. It’s an unfortunate reality — and probably a failing of the media — that when a player tapers off on the floor, his story off of it fades with him.
As most readers probably know, Brown was the victim of police brutality and excessive force in Milwaukee in 2018. He parked across two handicap spots in the early morning for a quick run into Walgreens. Eventually, eight officers surrounded Brown. One forced Brown to the ground and knelt upon him. Another used a Taser on him. Brown is suing the city of Milwaukee and its police department. He turned down a $400,000 settlement offer last year.
The symbolism of Brown representing the Bucks in that moment mattered.
Windhorst: The week’s not over yet.
Sterling Brown and George Hill speak on behalf of the Milwaukee Bucks as the team continues to fight for justice for Jacob Blake.
How will the events of this week change the NBA and professional sports?
Herring: I don’t know that it has changed things just yet, at least not in the way it would have if they had decided to scrap the season. Activism has always been a part of sports, even if only on an individual scale, like with Kaepernick, Maya Moore, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges. But if the past three months have shown anything, hopefully it’s that, in a league that’s 75% black, we should expect that the faces of it will want to do things to improve the conditions for their people and the communities from which they come.
Now that they recognize their collective power, maybe they’ll seek to use it more often and more powerfully. As uncomfortable as these conversations are, they aren’t new for many of the players — they’re simply new to those who either weren’t aware, haven’t paid attention or haven’t cared about these issues before. That’s arguably all the more reason to have these issues front and center.
Shelburne: I think the speed with which the NBA players’ protest spread throughout sports was the most fascinating thing to watch. Within hours, games in five major professional sports had been canceled. That’s how fast the world moves these days.
But now the question is: How fast will the tide move back out to sea?
Lowe: We don’t know yet, but it’s clear the players are done waiting for everyone else — team governors, the league office, media partners, fans — to come along with them on human rights issues that matter to them (and really, everyone). They understand the power they have.
By halting play for a few days, they are already coaxing concrete actions from several of the above parties. The Houston Rockets on Thursday announced the Toyota Center will be used as a voting center for the 2020 general election. Something that big was probably already in the works before Wednesday, but expect more initiatives like it. There will be localized versions of what the Bucks accomplished — calling powerful elected officials to action on the police shooting of Blake — in other NBA markets, with teams and players pushing them.
More broadly, I wonder if something of a public reckoning is coming for team governors whose politics (and political donations) stand in stark and obvious opposition to those of something like 90% (and maybe more) of players. It has been the elephant in the NBA’s room for a long time. It’s not a secret. But if players (and coaches, and staff) start naming them, and forcing them into substantive discussions, the resulting dialogue could be important.
Windhorst: Honestly, it’s hard to have a sense of history about it right now. In some ways, it showed the incredible influence and power of the athletes. Several Bucks players took a stand and within hours the league was halted, baseball games were called off, a tennis tournament was frozen and NFL teams were shutting down.
On the other hand, it showed that even with all that capital, all the players can hope is changing hearts and minds for the future. There was no immediate tangible result and that is a hard reality to accept.
Adrian Wojnarowski reports on the areas where NBA players are seeking to make social change, including using team arenas as voting stations to combat voter suppression.
What reaction to the player protests have you found most intriguing?
Windhorst: My own. At first I was puzzled as to what the Bucks and then the rest of the players could do to achieve a victory, basically a path for them to come back to the court.
But the more I talked to people in the league, and specifically the more I listened, my thoughts evolved. I began to comprehend that this wasn’t about an ask per se, it was about a message. There is no easy answer but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for action.
I worry about the position in which the players now find themselves, an untenable spot of using their platform to create awareness while creating an expectation that they must act when the community sees an atrocity. But I have come to understand it is one of many things in which they don’t have a choice.
On balance, the bubble has had so many positives — both for the game and for the struggle. I’ve learned by watching and listening to the players and coaches. I don’t know, but I would guess many others have too. Maybe it didn’t feel like progress at times, but it feels as if the players are on the right side of history.
Herring: None, really. In the wake of these meetings, I’m waiting to hear what concrete steps can and will be being taken by the league’s owners and, more importantly, by government officials in Wisconsin and other states. The players certainly have power, and this week they used it to force everyone to look at what just happened in Kenosha and what continues to happen across the country.
But it’s not fair to expect the players to be leaders on this subject repeatedly when there are people with even more resources, and politicians with far more ability to address the problematic systems in this nation.
Shelburne: I loved that the Bucks literally brought in a whiteboard and started taking notes on actions they could take after speaking to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. I loved that they dug in and learned about the mechanics and nuances of state politics and tried to shine a light on it. And I loved that Andre Iguodala started educating his fellow players on the landmark police reform legislation on the table in California.
Lowe: At this early stage, probably how quickly it rippled across other sports. The WNBA players — who have led the way on these issues for a long time now — successfully pushed to call off games. Major League Baseball teams opted against playing in solidarity. An NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, released a statement supporting specific pieces of legislation, and naming specific elected officials they viewed as holding those pieces of legislation back. The list doesn’t stop there.
It was spinning out in directions even the Bucks probably never fathomed it could. It felt organic, powerful, and for at least a day or two, beyond the control of institutions and people that are used to controlling things.