2020 NBA Playoffs

The moment the NBA stopped: A first-hand account

One of the most historic days in sports history seemed so ordinary until everything flipped upside down in an instant.

I arrived at the arena 90 minutes before tipoff of Game 5 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic and everything felt normal. As I walked to my socially distant broadcast location, there were Bucks and Magic players on the arena floor going through individual workouts and our pregame meetings with the head coaches were business as usual. There was nothing that indicated that the game wouldn’t start as intended that afternoon. With 20 minutes on the clock before tip, the Magic took the floor and there was no sign of the Bucks. It didn’t register at first what was happening, but as the minutes started to tick by at what felt like rapid-fire pace, confusion built quickly.

Our crew was now minutes away from going live on national TV and I was on the phone with my producer who was telling me to be ready for anything. I was looking at the arena floor where Monty McCutchen, the league’s Vice President of Referee Development and Training huddled with the game refs, the Magic players started to halt their warmups, looking around in wonder like the rest of us. Behind me, several NBA league executives were having hushed conversations on cell phones. All the spark and energy usually felt at a playoff game evaporated instantly. All of us were aware that boycott discussions had taken place earlier that day, but I didn’t see it coming that quickly.

When the game clock struck zero and the ball was supposed to tip, the arena felt incredibly eerie. It was dark, cold, empty and felt so cavernous. No one was left on the floor except our television crew, while everyone else who was at the game was anxiously waiting outside of a closed Bucks locker room to see what was going to happen next. It’s almost as though the atmosphere was a reflection of what my heart was feeling: dark and heavy. So many of my black colleagues, friends and underserved communities are hurting. This was way bigger than basketball. The social injustices need to stop.

It was such a strange dichotomy because everyone at that game was professional beyond measure from NBA staff, to Bucks General Manager Jon Horst, to the broadcasters and so on, yet all of us were navigating a situation we had never seen before. It was so unprecedented. For me, my mind shifted instantly. I went into that game prepped to talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning Kia Defensive Player of the Year and now it was hard news and facts. I needed to get it right. I wanted to give justice to a moment that I knew was going to shift things, and I hoped for the better.

For the next couple hours, I gathered as much information as possible running between the Bucks locker room and the empty arena floor where we had a camera set up for live shots. We were relaying information to an audience that had quickly gone from NBA fans to Americans nationwide. My phone was blowing up from people all over the country telling me they were tuned into the events unfolding. Looking back, a last-minute decision by the Bucks was a brilliant one in that in place of a basketball game, both NBA TV and NBA on TNT were now talking about social injustice in a way that was real, raw, and changing by the second. A decision to sacrifice a playoff game made by the team that plays in the same state where Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back immediately grew into the NBA’s most significant moment in the league’s fight for social justice.

One of the Bucks’ players told me, “pressure and accountability needed to be applied.” Mission accomplished; the country was now standing in attention. Ultimately, the entire Bucks team exited the locker room and addressed the media. As they made a collective statement demanding systemic change, you could hear the sincerity, pain, strength, and resolve in the voices of George Hill and Sterling Brown who delivered the message.

While it may seem I’d look back on that day and be proud of helping tell such an important story, the feelings that resonate with me most right now are sadness and anger that we still don’t have equality and peace. Why are innocent lives like George Floyd being taken just because his skin is darker than mine?

Since arriving in the Bubble, what enrages me is the hateful and racially charged reactions I have seen across all social media platforms from people in response to Masai Ujiri’s injustice, the Jacob Blake shooting, and now the Bucks’ decision to sacrifice a playoff game. “It was Ujiri’s fault that he was assaulted,” “Blake deserved to be shot,” and “the Bucks are just whining.” I could go for shock value and repeat some of the most vulgar comments I’ve seen, but I’d rather not give ignorance and hate a platform.

I have never seen in color and maybe that’s easy for me to say because I have never been marginalized for the color of my skin. Part of me thought maybe I shouldn’t voice my opinion because I am white; I am not the one who is being directly affected by racism and injustice. I can only sympathize but not empathize with what Black people have been feeling for countless centuries. But I do feel the pain. I want to keep feeling the pain to every extent that I can until we replace racism with equality because I am human. I understand the difference between right and wrong. And what feels wrong to me right now is saying nothing at all. This is not a black person problem, this is a human problem. This is all of our problems until we see systemic change.

I am proud of the Bucks for raising the bar on accountability. I am proud of the commitment from the NBA and the Players Association to create a social justice coalition and convert all 30 team arenas into voting locations for the 2020 general election before agreeing to resume play in Orlando. And as the playoff games restart this weekend and the NBA continues to speak from the heart and compete for a championship, I will keep feeling all of it, especially when it hurts the most. I will be here to listen, learn, support, and grow. Like Martin Luther King Jr. once said, I choose to “show justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” Today and every day, I choose to stand in solidarity.

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Rebecca Haarlow is a sideline reporter for Turner Sports. You can follow her on Twitter .

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