2020 NBA Playoffs

Players embracing roles as critical voices during NBA restart

LeBron: 'We are scared as Black people in America ... we are terrified.'

ORLANDO, Fla. — The growth at the NBA restart isn’t limited to Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell or the next hungry star who steps forward in these playoffs and provides a mic-drop of a basketball performance.

There’s another rapid expansion happening on these NBA streets, and it can be measured in the political and social awareness of the players. You hear it in their voices and their answers, see it in their actions.

A vast majority of them never graduated college or even did three years on campus. A few, such as LeBron James, skipped it altogether. Some never took school or studying too seriously; they weren’t training to be accountants or computer programmers. Plenty, along with their teenage and early-20s brethren, could be accused in the past of having their hands attached to electronic games or eyes transfixed to 24-hour sports shows instead of scanning The New York Times beyond the sports page or subscribing to magazines or reading books.

That apparently has changed, or is changing. The recent deaths of unarmed Black men and women, shot by police, has forced NBA players to wise up and rise up beyond the court. The platforms enjoyed by the famous — tons of social media followers and constant TV exposure — can crack and collapse from the ignorance of those who stand on them. Players are realizing this and so they’re doing whatever necessary to ensure their own solid footing by becoming more informed and aware.

This presents a perplexing issue, though: How much social justice awareness, how many statements and demonstrations from athletes … how much is enough for a public that just wants to enjoy basketball and escape from grim realities?

It’s a tricky line to walk here in summer 2020, and especially in the last few days: Another shooting — this time just south of Milwaukee, home of the title-contending Bucks — has put players back on that platform.

Here’s a sampling of their reactions:

Jaylen Brown, Celtics

“There is an emphasis in this country on the framing of these instances, such as Jacob Blake. ‘Well, he was a convicted felon, he had a history of police brutality, he possibly had a weapon.’ This framework is not unfamiliar to people of color or African-Americans, nor does it constitute death or being shot seven times.

“The question that I would like to ask is: Does America think Black people or people of color are uncivilized, savages, or naturally unjust? Or are we products of the environments that we participate in? That’s the question I would like to ask to America and America has proven its answer over and over and over again. Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being?

“I don’t care if he did something 10 years ago, 10 days ago, 10 minutes ago. If he served his sentence and he was released back into society, he still deserves to be treated like a human and does not deserve to be shot in the back seven times with the intent to kill.

“His kids will never unsee that, his family will never unsee that, and, frankly, I will never unsee it. People post my jersey all the time, No. 7. Every time I look at my jersey now, what I see is a Black man being shot seven times.”

Fred VanVleet, Raptors (After sweeping the Nets)

“I was pretty excited, and then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday. So that kind of changes the tone of things and puts things in perspective. So that’s really kind of all that’s been on my mind.

“Coming down here, making a choice to play, was supposed to not be in vain. But it’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions and nothing’s really changing and here we are again with another unfortunate incident.”

LeBron James, Lakers

“We are scared as black people in America … we are terrified.”

Every team still alive and playing on the Walt Disney World campus is competing for a championship against each other, and every team is also showing unity regarding the real-life events beyond the protective and insular basketball ecosystem in Orlando.

There’s a legitimate question, however, whether the outside world is devouring every word and demonstration and taking it to heart and using it to make change. The public missed sports during the early stages of the pandemic when everything shut down. Now that the NBA and other leagues are making a welcome-yet-careful return, the loyalists are again getting their fix.

Sports has always provided an escape, although now, the intersectionality of politics and social justice seems unavoidable in an election year — and a bloody one for Black men and women in America.

Television commentators are broaching the player protests during the game telecasts and staying on subject, although there’s a small twist: After the first few initial days of the restart schedule, the TV broadcasts have reverted back to their normal programming pattern of not showing the National Anthem, and also the symbolic kneeling.

VanVleet and teammate Norman Powell dropped hints that the Raptors discussed taking their protests a step further, considering a refusal to play their opening Eastern Conference semifinal game against the Celtics on Thursday (6:30 ET, ESPN). That would be extreme.

Would America suddenly become a more understanding country, and police reform magically manifest, all because two NBA teams chose not to play a game? Why punish the most supportive and progressive professional sports league in the country and its TV partners by doing something so radical?

Lakers coach Frank Vogel questioned what a cease-play would accomplish by citing a recent discussion with John Carlos and said: “He trained with the intent of reaching the medal stand so he could make the victory statement. The further we advance in the playoffs, the further our platform to speak up on this grows.”

And that’s the point: By playing this restart, NBA players are already executing their plan to raise awareness about an issue that cuts deeply within, something they couldn’t achieve while sitting at home.

It’s a righteous stand that’s more about humanity than anything else, and therefore should connect with everyone regardless of race, religion or political leanings. Their message about the shootings is this: That could’ve been me. Or my son or daughter or brother or sister. Or maybe you.

People ask me, `Jaylen, what should we do?’ Like, I’m a 23-year-old … you shouldn’t be asking a 23-year-old, `What should we do?’”

Jaylen Brown

But, as Brown said, wearing T-shirts and kneeling are cosmetic responses that only travel so far within the intended audience.

“People ask me, `Jaylen, what should we do?’ Like, I’m a 23-year-old … you shouldn’t be asking a 23-year-old, ‘What should we do?’ There’s a lot of people that dedicated their lives to this.”

The players are doing their part by staying on-message and increasing the volume when necessary. This was part of the agreement with the league for holding this restart and the message is being promoted hard, even more after the Sunday shooting of Blake.

Is America already weary and woozy from the daily barrage of statements, or asking for second and third helpings? America doesn’t have a choice. There’s a steady stream of social consciousness to go with Donovan Mitchell dropping 60- and 50-point games, and Luka going epic on the Clippers, and LeBron flirting fabulously with history.

The NBA and its players are insisting that you must have it both ways. And this won’t change until society does.

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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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