You couldn’t see the hurt, the exhaustion or maybe the desire to put his fist through a wall on Fred VanVleet’s face. It was there, tucked behind the mask that he wore, black and red in the centre, with a black fist raised, the way that Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the 1968 Olympics.
It was almost 52 years ago that they stood on the podium in Mexico City, demanding equality and justice. Three days ago, a police officer in Kenosha, Wisc. opened fire on Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man as he entered his car. He was shot seven times, while his three children were in the car waiting for him. His wife stood just a few feet away from him, agonizing over what she’d seen.
Blake has survived, but is paralyzed from the waist down, his lawyer said. The officers on the scene are on paid administrative leave.
VanVleet was initially asked about the Raptors upcoming series with the Celtics, but his mind quickly went to more important matters.
“Pretty excited,” he said of the series, “then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot. That kind of changes the tone of things and put things in perspective.
“That kind of all that’s been on my mind. Coming down here and making a choice to play, it was supposed to not be in vain but it is starting to feel like everything we're doing is just going through the motions and nothing's really changing.
“Here we are again with another unfortunate incident. So my thoughts today are with that man, and his family and trying to wrap my mind around what they're going through.”
It’s that cycle that had VanVleet so frustrated. Norm Powell, too. We’ve learned the names in the worst possible way: Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor. There’s injustice, murder, outrage, news coverage, protests, violence and life goes on until the next name.
When does it change?
“At some point, we are the ones always with the microphones in our faces. We're the ones always who have to make a stand,” VanVleet said. “We're the oppressed ones and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed. That’s what it boils down to.
“At what point does it (get to where) we don’t have to speak about it anymore? Are we going to hold everybody accountable? Or we're just going to put the spotlight on black people or black athletes or entertainers and say, ‘What are you doing? What are you contributing to the community? What are you putting on the line?’ Us too, we’ve got to take responsibility as well. What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a f--- about what's going on? Or is it just cool to have Black Lives Matter on the backdrop or wear a T shirt? What does that really mean?”
The Raptors held what coach Nick Nurse called a gathering on Tuesday morning to discuss the Jacob Blake shooting and what the players wanted to do in its wake. VanVleet, Powell and Nurse took part in about as raw a press conference you might ever see a sports team have.
The answers were varied and deep, covering everything from considering their presence in the bubble in Florida (the three of them said they have no regrets on taking part, but want to use their platform as the playoffs continue), to a possible boycotting of games as the second round begins.
“A number of things are being discussed but I’ll keep that between our team,” VanVleet said. “We’re dealing with it in real time and I think it affects everybody differently. It’s pretty fresh on my mind and I’m sitting in front of a camera, so I’m just speaking as I’m going. But, yeah, there’s a lot of different things that we’ve discussed.
Powell paused a good five seconds before he could begin to explain what he was feeling.
“I'm pretty tired and sick to my stomach to sit up here and talk about this again and continue this long fight that we've been fighting since Day One, you know?” he said.
“Slavery, being brought over to America and having to fight for our rights and our freedoms to live a life that is promised to everybody. We constantly have to fight and see our lives being valued so little. I feel for Jacob Blake and their family and their community and everybody who had to witness that and go through that and see that.
“It's frustrating. It's very frustrating. I'm tired of sitting up here and talking about Black Lives Matter and doing this, that and the other and trying to affect change and constantly seeing people in law enforcement -- some people, I’m not going to put that burden on everybody -- but there are some officers in law enforcement that need to be held accountable for their actions.
“I'm tired of reading and seeing these incidents and then seeing these police officers being put on administrative leave like, ‘Okay, you killed somebody. Go have a vacation and we'll figure out what really happened.’
“If you're in that position and have that badge, you’re supposed to wear it with honour. It’s to protect and serve everybody and you need to be held to a higher standard of the law since you're the one enforcing it. The fact that you constantly see people with that uniform on getting away and being acquitted and not being charged with murder, when you see firsthand video of that happening is frustrating.
“If I took a gun and killed somebody, we're going to jail. We're not going back home and continuing on with our daily lives while they investigate. You're going to be put in jail and be held accountable for your actions and the same needs to go for those police officers involved.”
Powell looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, talking now about Blake the same way he was about George Floyd three months ago to the day of his murder.
“It’s on all of us to actually stand up and demand things and get in front of these people’s faces that make the laws and have the power to fully affect change and force them to,” Powell said. “Until that is done, ain’t s--- going to change.”
With his players reeling from the harsh reality that the problems they may have left outside of this bubble aren’t getting any better, Nurse was asked how he coaches through this unprecedented time.
“It comes down to...what’s in your heart. There’s not a manual here,” he said of his time with his players on Tuesday morning.
“I’m getting out of bed every day first of all trying to make myself a better person and make those around me better people. (I’m) doing everything I can in a positive, energetic, loving, caring, listening way. That’s the playbook.”
Nurse sees the frustration and pain in his players, but what he doesn’t see is a sense of hopelessness, even when that horrible cycle continues to churn out bodies and names.
“I think they do feel like they need to be part of the solution and they do have the power to make change,” Nurse said.
“I would say, yeah, maybe the mountain to climb is even steeper or higher or whatever...but I sense more determination in their voices as well.”