On Wednesday, at the moment Thunder and Rockets players were scheduled to take the floor in Orlando to begin warming up for a high-stakes, playoff series-altering Game 5, the court was empty. Instead, the two teams were walking back to their respective buses.
There was something bigger at stake.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play in Game 5 of their opening-round battle against the Orlando Magic. In the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, by police officers in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday, the Bucks made clear that more action needed to be taken in demanding change in their home state.
The other five teams set to play on Wednesday and the NBA league office supported the Bucks by postponing all three games, and instead held meetings Wednesday night and Thursday morning, addressing police brutality throughout the country and ways to make a tangible difference.
“We stood in solidarity,” said Thunder point guard and NBPA President Chris Paul.
Chris Paul Addresses the Media
Basketball, which returned in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, was only a part of the focus of the teams in Orlando during the NBA’s restart. The 2019-20 season also re-commenced in the midst of nationwide protests calling for racial equality and social justice following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. For the last eight weeks, the league and the players have worked collectively to use the NBA’s campus to keep players healthy and safe from the novel coronavirus, while also using the platform to keep social and racial justice at the forefront of people’s minds.
The Thunder had just taken Game 4 in a hard-fought, late-game victory to even its series with Houston at 2-2.
Paul, the man of the match with 26 points and a clutch win added to his playoff cache, stood six feet away from TNT sideline reporter Stephanie Ready for his postgame interview.
The first question aimed at what it took for Paul and his teammates to pull off such a tough win. The 13-year veteran, NBPA President and father of two had other things on his mind when he answered.
“I don't know. That’s all good and well,” Paul responded. “I just want to send my prayers out to Jacob Blake and their family. The things that we decided to come down here and play for – we said we’re going to speak on the social injustice and the things that continue to happen to our people, it’s not right.”
“A win is good, but voting is real. I’m going to challenge all of my NBA guys, other sports guys, let’s get our entire teams registered to vote. It’s a lot of stuff going on in the country. Sports, it’s cool, it’s good and well and it’s how we take care of our families, but those are the real issues that we’ve got to start addressing,” he continued.
If there’s one person inside of the NBA’s campus that is working to make sure the players understand the power of their platform, it’s Paul. He’s not only a seasoned point guard and anchor of the Thunder offense, he’s calling the shots as president of the Players Association. The 10-time All-Star had a hand in every effort to make the Orlando bubble possible, both from a health and safety standpoint and a change-making standpoint.
Just take Paul’s actions in the team’s penultimate seeding game against Miami on Aug. 15 for example. Rookie Darius Bazley dazzled in the spotlight after recording his third consecutive game with more than 20 points, knocking down 3-pointers at a blazing 60-percent clip and showing off his new strength with physical drives to the rim.
However, the postgame discussion between Bazley and Paul didn’t focus on the 20-year-old’s incredible on-court performance. They weren’t analyzing the areas of improvement for the 6-foot-8 forward or reminiscing on his impressive step-back 3-pointers. Instead, the subject at hand was the importance of voting.
Nov. 3 will mark the first presidential election in which Bazley will be able to vote and Paul wanted to make sure his rookie teammate was aware of his civic responsibility as a young adult in America. Paul even ensured that Bazley and the rest of his Thunder teammates are registered to vote.
Before the Thunder arrived in the tightly sealed NBA campus in Orlando, it was faced with the same disheartening circumstances that continue to affect millions around the world to this day: the novel coronavirus pandemic and the fight for racial equality and social justice.
Because of this, the dialogue about police brutality and societal disparities hasn’t taken a backseat now that basketball has returned for the Thunder. Players have found both individual and collective ways in which they can make a difference all while finishing out an unprecedented basketball season and battling to win games.
“That’s the main reason why we’re down here is to spread that word and use our platform in a positive way,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We just want change.”
One of the most front-facing ways in which players have been able to use their voice is by augmenting the last names on the backs of their uniforms with individual messages that signify their priorities. When Thunder players chose their messages, many of them had their home communities in mind.
Growing up as the son of Guinean immigrants in Queens, N.Y., Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo has seen first-hand the types of social and racial injustices that have now sparked protests across the country. His home neighborhood of Lefrak City spans 40 acres with rows of apartment buildings filled with some 14,000 people, and that community has been home to the type of systemic problems that are embedded within the country at large.
For that reason, Diallo decided upon the message Black Lives Matter to go across the back of his uniform. It’s not just an empowering message to the kids like him growing up in his community, but a reminder to those who might not be aware of the types of injustices happening on a daily basis that would require such a reminder.
“I felt that that is really what I wanted to stand for during my time here in Orlando and forever,” Diallo said. “Just making it aware to people that Black lives do matter and social injustice and police brutality and all those things.”
Having Black Lives Matter on the court and messages on the back of jerseys was meaningful and symbolic, but the Thunder organization also got started on something concrete, proactive and focused on long-term outcomes. Back in early July, the Thunder announced the creation of the Thunder Fellows Program, in partnership with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) Sports to unlock career opportunities for Black teenagers in Tulsa. Thunder Fellows will be based in the historic Greenwood District, the site of Black Wall Street and the horrific race massacre that took place there in 1921.
NBA teams and players were aligned and there was positive momentum towards creating change, but when the videos of Blake being shot by police filtered into the Bubble via cell phones and social media, there was a demand for immediate action.
The Bucks’ decision not to play Game 5 against the Magic came four years to the day that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began honoring victims of police violence during the national anthem of NFL games. In the aftermath of the murders of Floyd and Taylor, NBA players agreed that kneeling during the anthem down in the Orlando bubble was a way to show reverence to the human lives lost to such incidents. Players from both teams have lined up on one knee in front of the scorer’s table and benches in single file while locking arms, with the two teams’ head coaches right at midcourt in solidarity.
Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan, in addition to kneeling with his team, has made it a point to take time during practices to remind his team of a major reason why they are in Orlando in the first place. In Donovan’s mind, no one should have to teach their child that their lives are in danger when they are pulled over or to be afraid of those sworn to protect and serve in their communities.
“Being fortunate enough and blessed enough to be involved in the game of basketball, you see all sorts of different kinds of diversity but you also see the social injustice that takes place in a lot of guys’ lives,” said Donovan, who has been a head coach in college and the NBA since 1994. “We just want to be behind these guys in terms of constantly fighting for equality all the way around.”
Billy Donovan Addresses the Media
The type of peaceful action displayed during the anthem was carried further by the NBA players’ decision not to play on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Friday morning, the NBA and NBPA made a joint announcement regarding new league initiatives that include the establishment of a social justice coalition, which will include player, coach and governor representatives that will focus on voting, civic engagement and meaningful police and criminal justice reform.
In addition, the two organizations announced that in each NBA city where the league franchise controls the arena property that team governors will work with local elections officials to assist with the voting process.
“At the end of the day, our players spoke and we understood the platform that we have and we want to keep our foot to the pedal and keep speaking on the different things that are occurring,” Paul said. “Voting is something that everyone in the room was very passionate about.”
The NBA will also be working with players and television partners on advertising spots that are dedicated to promoting voting and civic engagement. As NBPA President, Paul was involved in everything over the past 48 hours, from the emotional meeting on Wednesday night between all of the players in the Orlando bubble, to the follow up meeting on Thursday morning to discussions with NBA governors and team representatives that led to the outcome on Friday morning.
The announcement also mentioned that the NBA playoffs will continue. As the following days and weeks unfold, it will likely be inspiring to watch NBA players balance their goal of winning a championship along with the reason they decided to come to Orlando in the first place, which was to use the NBA’s global platform to combat incidents like those that happened to Floyd, Taylor and Blake.
“That's the challenge. That's what was so important to the players and everybody here is keeping that alive and using this platform to talk about these issues, and to get them out on the table and to have discussions and I'm really confident and believe that the players and everybody here will continue to do that, to do both,” Donovan said. “That was the biggest thing for guys coming down here with those two things, to play basketball, continue the season, but also use the platform to bring awareness of what's going on inside of our country.”
At the Thunder practice on Friday afternoon, Paul gracefully addressed national and Oklahoma City media about his view of the past two days as a black man, a father, a husband, a son and a brother. His status as a future Hall of Fame point guard is the platform that allowed him to be able to get in contact with the father of Jacob Blake for a discussion over the phone, but it is Paul’s humanity that ensured that he could connect with him. Paul and his colleagues turned a family in Wisconsin’s pain into NBA league action.
“I was blessed and fortunate enough to talk to Jacob Blake's father, and he's a Winston Salem State graduate and was in my hometown of Winston Salem for a while and it's emotional, it's emotional especially when you're a black man,” Paul said.
The NBA’s historic announcement, spearheaded by the unwavering and impressive leadership of a player competing with the words “Oklahoma City” across his chest, came 57 years to the day of the March on Washington during the Civil Rights Movement.
“It's definitely been a very emotional past couple of days, not only for myself, but everyone,” Paul said. “It's kind of ironic to be here on the anniversary of March on Washington and unfortunate death of Emmett Till and see that we’re still fighting these same social injustices on a daily basis.”
On the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling on the country to uphold its revolutionary declaration that all men were created equal. With the initiatives announced today, the NBA and its players have a chance to make meaningful headway towards fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.
“We've talked a lot about that this moment in time is bigger than basketball. You think about Dr. Martin Luther King's speech that he gave 57 years ago. You think about what's happened over the last 48 hours. This is a real significant moment in time, not only playing basketball between the lines, but what's taking place outside the lines,” Donovan said.
“We're gonna continue to play,” Paul said “But we're also going to continue to make sure that our voices are heard.”