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Breonna Taylor court ruling rekindles social justice fires in bubble

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

ORLANDO, Fla. — The breaking news from the outside world delivered a devastating blow in the NBA bubble, far in advance of Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.

Players and coaches on the four teams still competing here were stunned and disappointed when they learned that just one of the officers involved in the March 13 shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor would face charges. A grand jury in Louisville had indicted that officer for shooting into neighboring apartments during the incident.

They’d come here 22 teams strong in July, committed to not only restarting and completing an NBA season stained by the coronavirus pandemic, but also to use the platform and their collective influence to call attention to police brutality, systemic racism and social injustice issues.

Justice for Breonna Taylor was one of the siren calls. Her name invoked often by players who chose to speak out and speak up rather than sticking strictly to sports and what transpired on the courts here at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports.

But by early afternoon Wednesday, the mood had soured considerably as the news spread around campus. That $12 million settlement the Louisville Police agreed to pay Taylor’s family wasn’t the sort of justice anyone here had in mind.

“Like everybody else, [I’m] very disappointed,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I think all of us don’t understand it. It’s not justice. The $12 million looks like such a ridiculously empty payoff. I’m really just — it’s all about justice and it was not served.”

For some, just trying to digest what the grand jury handed down — Officer Brett Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment in connection to the police raid that resulted in Taylor’s death — was hard enough.

“Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” NBPA executive director Michelle Roberts said in a statement released Wednesday evening. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her. Our players and I once again extend our deepest sympathies to her family and we vow to continue working in her honor and to always say her name.”

Getting the news this late in this bubble experience, when there are only four teams left in the championship chase, made it even tougher to feel anything other than completely demoralized by a process they thought they were impacting with their words and gestures.

“These are unprecedented times and there’s incredible disappointment and frustration in our locker room, as well there should,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys have been able to manage a lot of this disappointment over the last several months of things that have been happening for obviously way too long.”

When Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing the handcuffed black man in the street on May 25, it set off protests and outrage around the globe.

Outrage over years of brutal police tactics that have disproportionally affected communities of color for generations, morphed into a protest movement the likes of which the country hadn’t seen since the height of the Civil Rights era.

Some of the most outspoken public figures were NBA players, who took to the streets, social media and anywhere else they could express their anger and frustration.

One of the missions for the players in agreeing to resume the season was to bring more attention to these issues, be it on their backs with words and slogans tied to the movement and with their words every chance they had to speak into a microphone.

“I think we’re being heard, but obviously the goals that we’re trying to achieve we’re very far away from after seeing today’s verdict.,” Lakers guard Danny Green said, “It’s a disappointment. We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking. Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough.”

These are unprecedented times and there’s incredible disappointment and frustration in our locker room, as well there should.”

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he addressed the Taylor news with his team in detail before Wednesday’s game.

“I think at the end of the day there’s been a call across the country, rightfully so, for more transparency, more accountability, just a better community relationship,” he said. “Obviously this feels like a setback to that. At the same time I guess the other side is you see a lot of cities, a lot of places, really taking steps that should have been taken a long time ago, but at least being taken now, whether it’s meeting the initiatives of the 8 Can’t Wait, committing to civilian review boards, better transparency and data, diversifying the police force even more to match that of the neighborhood, whatever the case may be.

“This doesn’t feel good today. So what I told the team was, I just sent them a text midday, because everybody has their own thing that they do during the day of the game, and I just said, If you need somebody to vent to, if you need somebody to talk to, if you want to call or get me in person at the gym, feel free.”

Nuggets coach Mike Malone said they got word of the Louisville grand jury’s decision as they were finishing up a staff meeting and before Wednesday’s team meeting and practice in preparation for Thursday’s Game 4 tilt against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

“I’m not sure all our players have really had a chance to internalize the news that came out today,” he said. “Obviously, the fact that the officers that were involved in her death were not charged. I think that’s something that we’ll continue to talk about and discuss over the next few days, next 24 to 48 hours. I try to talk to guys individually as much as possible as well in those one-on-one conversations, which are private, just to make sure guys are handling and coping with the news, understanding how they may want to react, what their conversations may be like. It’s something that we’ll continue to discuss.”

Malone was right about his players being caught off guard with the news. Rookie Michael Porter Jr. was informed of the grand jury’s decision by reporters.

When the details were explained to him, he paused and then shook his head before responding.

“See, I didn’t even know that,” he said. “I don’t have Instagram, I don’t have Twitter. And you said that happened today?”

It happened as the Nuggets were walking onto the court for practice.

“See, I had no idea,” he said, “but I mean, that’s … there’s really no words for that. Everybody knows that’s not right. I mean, this is the first time I’m hearing about that, but that’s heartbreaking because I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of steps trying to get the justice that situation needs. And to hear that that happened is not right.”

Nuggets veteran Torrey Craig had a similar reaction. “It’s just disappointing. It’s depressing,” he said. “It’s not the outcome anybody wanted. Yeah, that’s a touchy subject, so I’m just going to leave it at that.”

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant has been one of the loudest voices in demanding justice for Taylor and mentioned anticipating Wednesday’s decision after scoring a playoff career-high 26 points in his team’s Game 3 win over the Lakers Tuesday night.

He did not speak to the media Wednesday. But Malone said they were studying the decision in detail in order to fully comprehend why the justice they were seeking wasn’t served.

“I just put myself in Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend’s shoes,” he said. “I’m in my apartment, wherever I am living. Somebody breaks into my house at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. I am going to feel like somebody should not be there. It’s tragic. I know there’s a curfew in place. [Nuggets assistant coach] Wes Unseld’s family is from there, has a lot of family down there.

“When I think about the tragedy of those police officers getting off, it also makes me think a lot closer to home, Elijah McClain, his case in Aurora, Colorado, how we’re still demanding justice for the police officers who were involved in the death of Elijah McClain. That is still not the case. That’s just been tragic. I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education and a voice in a lot of players on our team, especially also spoken out on justice for Breonna Taylor. We have not gotten that justice. That’s a shame. Hopefully that will change at some point.”

Lakers star LeBron James took to Twitter to share his frustration.

A month ago, when the footage of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis. rippled through the bubble, the Milwaukee Bucks instigated a player strike that shut down the games for three days as the players contemplated ending this season with the streets outside of this environment heating up.

The players wanted assurances that the league and its owners would be committed to impacting a change in their respective communities to help heal the divisions and improve the dialogue.

Taylor’s mother was actually on a Zoom call with players during that time, as they sought input and advice on what their next steps should be.

“Yeah, the Zoom call where she talked to everybody. Yes, I was part of that,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso said before detailing his takeaways from that conversation.“ Just how hopeful the people close to Breonna were, how much strength they have, because I always try to put myself in the position of the people that are going through stuff. I try to be as emotionally connected as I can, and I try to imagine if that was one of my sisters or one of my parents. Those people are a lot stronger and a lot more professional with the way they handle themselves than I think I would if it happened to somebody that I knew. So just the strength that they have and the fortitude for them to just keep fighting.”

The Lakers’ Green pointed out that with fewer teams and no real time in the schedule to take a break, figuring out some concrete next steps this late in the process is a difficult proposition.

“Obviously there’s time in between each round that we can take to reconvene and discuss,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue — obviously basketball is a small part of the bigger picture of what we’re doing here … But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue. We’re going to continue fighting, we’re going to continue to push, we’re going to continue to use our voices.

“But yeah, after today’s verdict, seems like every time we turn around and look at the news, it’s always something disheartening or disappointing, and that’s from all standpoints of what’s going on in our country. We’re not happy about it, but can’t give up hope, can’t quit, got to keep fighting and try to make things better, not just for us but for our future children, future grandkids. We want it to be a better place here for them to live.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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