2020 NBA Playoffs

Bucks take stand that sends shockwaves across sports world

Refusing to play following police shooting of Jacob Blake sparks protests, but what's next for NBA?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Shortly after 1:30 pm on Wednesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo left the locker room in practice gear and walked toward the court inside the main arena here at the NBA restart. He wore a serious game face, which was unusual because tipoff against the Orlando Magic was still more than two hours away, but it was a hint.

A few minutes later, the reigning Kia MVP made a U-turn, without pregame workout sweat, the first sign that something was up. He was joined by Khris Middleton, and when those All-Stars returned inside the locker room, they didn’t emerge again for five hours, well after they and their teammates shook the NBA and the sports world.

The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks may eventually win this year’s championship, assuming it will be played. And if they do, they may not generate the same level of spirited national conversation and rousing applause in some circles than they just did — by refusing to play a No. 8 seed in a playoff game.

Stung by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisc., just 40 minutes south of Milwaukee, and disturbed by what they felt was a sluggish response from authorities to find justice, the Bucks chose to take a unified stand by taking a unified seat. They knew the historical significance of that; no professional sports team ever refused to play a game because of social injustice, not even in the 1960s. Black players on the Celtics in 1961, including Bill Russell, did skip an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after they were refused service at a local restaurant. However, the team did play that night, with seven players.

Russell was a trail blazer during that turbulent time in America. He never refused to play during the Civil Rights era, but he did praise the Bucks through social media, writing on Twitter: “I’m moved by all the NBA players for standing up for what is right.”

The Bucks spoke with Wisconsin government officials during their lengthy locker room meeting (and in particular the state attorney general) in order to get answers and suggestions on how to force immediate change. While that took place, the dominoes pushed by the Bucks fell quickly beyond the locker room. Two other playoff games Wednesday were scrapped and player support both here and beyond Orlando was thermal for the Bucks, Magic, Lakers, Blazers, Thunder and Rockets — all of whom were all scheduled to play. They were joined by the player’s union, NBA coaches, team owners, even some of the sponsors with paid ads on the canceled telecasts, and that was just among league circles. This became bigger than the Bucks.

Other sports leagues then fell in line with the ripple: WNBA, Major Lague Baseball, Major League Soccer and tennis, all seeing game cancellations or some manner of player protest.

The engineers of the Bucks’ internal movement were George Hill, who just days earlier expressed second thoughts about coming to Orlando, and Sterling Brown, whose lawsuit against the Milwaukee police department is still ongoing, stemming from an arrest gone foul a few years ago. Those players read from a release, flanked by teammates, and took no questions.

From the statement, Hill said: “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, 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.”

The Bucks wanted to rattle society and poke those holding high office in Kenosha and crank the decibel level on social justice and this was certainly accomplished. And now, as in all matters of protest, there is a necessary transition and a bold question that asks: What next?

The Bucks said they weren’t emotionally ready to play. Brown read, from the statement: “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

If the NBA players need action from Kenosha in order to refocus on basketball, and since action is hardly moments away, does this and should this spell the end of the NBA playoffs? How can players, taking them at their word, suddenly shift gears and lace up a day or two from now? What exactly will change dramatically in Kenosha and Minneapolis and from coast to coast in the interim?

Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

Bucks players’ statement

The NBA termed what happened Wednesday as a “postponement,” which by definition is a delay. This implies the league expects the playoffs to continue, which would put it at odds with any players who’d rather go home. A collection of heavyweights and union reps, LeBron James and Chris Paul among them, met through the night Wednesday.

An emergency session of the Board of Governors is set for Thursday at 11 am, which promises to be a defining moment to see who wants and gets what, since the players are bringing financial and political demands. It’s all very fluid. At stake: Millions of TV revenue and the conclusion of the 2020 season, if the players and league are still putting any high value on that.

The league would be caught in friendly fire from a business standpoint. Players and owners are rarely at odds in the NBA, the most progressive sports league in America, and in the case of social justice, the bond between them is tight. Everyone’s on the same page, same book, same message. The league openly encouraged players and coaches to speak up on political and social issues well before 2020, and once canceled an All-Star Game in Charlotte in protest of a controversial North Carolina bathroom bill aimed at denying gay and transgender citizens.

Also, the NBA threw its weight behind social justice in Orlando by allowing players to wear messages on their jerseys and painting Black Lives Matter on the court and relaxing the rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. No pro sports league can match this awareness level. But in the days following the Kenosha shooting, some players wondered if this was loud enough, and that they felt stifled in Orlando, where they’re unable to leave for health reasons until they’re eliminated from the playoffs.

Those players wanted to take a more hands-on approach to social justice. That’s tricky because a pandemic still rages, limiting movement beyond their homes even if this restart never happened. Being in Orlando allows them a nightly and massive platform they wouldn’t enjoy on the outside except for LeBron and a handful of other stars with high appeal.

Skipping a basketball game, in and of itself, will not stop police shootings — just as many other like-minded events in 2020 failed to do so. Otherwise, Kenosha wouldn’t have happened.

That said, in the fight for social justice, every action and step does matter if it rousts big business and influential people and voters and political decision-makers. The Bucks evidently believe this is that step, that in any marathon to produce change, they just covered a measurable amount of ground with a bandwagon they hope is filling up.

That’s a wish that remains to be realized. The segment of society that supported an overhaul in law enforcement before the Bucks chose not to play are totally behind them. There’s also another segment of society that doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about or the purpose of what the Bucks just did.

Well, the team that just scored big points in Orlando will let America sort that out. Wearing black T-shirts adorned with quotations and messages and statements, all the Bucks players, flanked by coaches and support staff, refused to shut up and dribble. Hill even apologized for the long locker room delay, saying: “We thought it was best for us as a team to brainstorm a little bit, educate ourselves and not rush into having raw emotions.”

And now?

“We’ll go back to educating ourselves and see what’s going on.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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