ORLANDO, Fla. -- The uniforms of the Bucks are adorned with an outline of Wisconsin, purposely done because the team has a statewide reach: from Madison to Oshkosh, Green Bay to Eau Claire, all the way to the shores of Great Lakes Superior and Michigan.
The basketball ripple created by the team with the NBA’s best record also travels south of Milwaukee, just down I-94 to Kenosha, where it’s very unlikely that folks there are discussing how the Bucks are surging in these NBA playoffs, or even care right now. That relatively small, blue-collar town is dealing with a more pressing issue, one that has captured the attention of the Bucks as well.
As the NBA season restarted in Orlando, the intersection with social justice was mostly confined to messages on the backs of jerseys, “Black Lives Matter” being tattooed on the basketball court and the anthem kneeling. Until now. Until a shooting Sunday evening in Kenosha resonated beyond state lines and reached these protesting NBA teams at Disney, especially the one that calls Wisconsin home.
Jacob Blake lies hospitalized in stable condition after being shot in the back multiple times by police while opening a car door in Kenosha. Video of the 29-year-old collapsing became a social media flashpoint, and protests quickly organized well before the mid-afternoon tipoff between the Bucks and Orlando Magic.
The Bucks are up 3-1 on the Magic after Monday's win. Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to average 30-plus points, 15-plus rebounds and five-plus assists through their first four games of a postseason. Wesley Matthews, raised in Wisconsin, emerged as a 3-point weapon and complement to Giannis. Khris Middleton, the key co-star, broke out of his slump.
And none of it feels truly topical.
“Another black man was shot by a police officer,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “An incident like this is more important than anything we’re doing in Orlando.”
The shooting was preceded by several prominent incidences of police violence this year, tragedies that caused rage around the country all summer and raised awareness to them. To NBA players committing to social justice as part of the Orlando restart, it felt like more of the same.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened in my community. People are starting to see why black people are so afraid of police."
“This isn’t the first time it’s happened in my community,” said Middleton. “I’ve had two incidents in Charleston, S.C., in the church and a one-arm black man running away from police. It’s up to our police departments to stop shooting us, simple as that. There’s other ways to de-escalate the situation.
“This is why we have so many people outraged over the country. The man was shot point-blank range over seven times in the back. It doesn’t get any more sickening than that. People are starting to see why black people are so afraid of police because at any time, no matter what they did right or wrong, their first act is to shoot us. That’s a very scary situation to be in, when they’re supposed to protect us.”
The NBA players suspect their very vivid and vocal embrace of social justice is being met by indifference or scorn in certain circles beyond Orlando. In addition to the kneeling, jerseys and the buttons worn by every coach, players often pepper their answers to basketball questions with comments highlighting racial injustice.
Yes, Bucks guard George Hill was emotional after the game when he said: “We can’t do anything here,” and added, “we shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest. I think coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
But NBA players overwhelmingly chose to play in Orlando in order to maximize their platform, which was heartedly endorsed and encouraged by the league. Not only have the usual suspects been very open -- LeBron James and Chris Paul among them -- but the message is being sent by players at the end of the benches. And Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle opens every press conference with a statement on social justice before taking any questions.
The biggest star on the Bucks and the reigning MVP explained he hadn’t studied the incident and wanted more information before commenting. That’s prudent, especially for someone who isn’t from these shores.
One of the greatest Bucks prior to Giannis’ arrival -- Hall of Famer Ray Allen -- was ready to speak his mind, and did so in an impassioned social media post:
“What do we have to do people? As a black man with 4 young boys, what do we have to do to make sure we aren’t killed by police for no reason? I’m sad for this young man and his family and I’m depressed because this keeps happening.
“Shortly in my comments there will be a plethora of you that defend the cops or blame the black man ... No person deserves to be treated this way. Can we all agree on this? Where is our human decency! What happened to “ to protect and serve”. It looks more like harass and shoot!”
The shooting is now under investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Officers in Kenosha responded to calls of a domestic incident. Video shows Blake walking away from officers who are pointing their weapons at him to open the door of a car. The three officers were placed on administrative leave.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who galvanized his fellow coaches prior to the restart and encouraged them to speak out against injustice, sounded weary when Kenosha was raised. Rivers attended college in Milwaukee, at Marquette.
“Yeah, I mean, we've been processing the Wisconsin situation now for 58 years,” Rivers said. “That's how old I am. And it just keeps happening over and over again. It's just sad. I mean, it is. It's just sad. That's how I process it. It's just tough, man.”
Kneeling during the anthem had a more meaningful feel Monday for the team based an hour north of Kenosha. For the first time during the restart, an NBA team felt the sting of tragedy close to home, and to the Bucks, it justified their daily protests in Orlando.
Budenholzer said: “There was a lot of talk that we needed to continue this conversation and be better as a country and not have any more of these incidents and that Black lives matter. We need to find systemic change that is lasting. We need to be better. I’m hoping for the best as we work though this in Wisconsin and Milwaukee and Kenosha.”
The Bucks are one win away from advancing to the next round, thanks to a spirited effort against the Magic that will not be the talk throughout the state today.
“To almost take a guy’s life, thank God he’s still alive,” Hill said. “I know the cops are probably upset he’s still alive, because I know they surely tried to kill him. But to almost take a man’s life, especially in front of one’s kids, that wasn’t resisting in his back at point-blank range, is a heartless and gutless situation. We need some justice for that.”
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