How far would you go to sacrifice something that you love, a privilege, for a much bigger cause that requires additional attention? Well, for the 16 remaining playoff teams left inside the NBA bubble, players were willing to give up whatever it took to fight for social justice and equality, even if it meant cancelling the remainder of the playoffs. Most players were on board with crowning no champion, despite months of waiting to get back to the court following the COVID-19 outbreak. This matter was truly bigger than basketball.
There have been several instances of police brutality against people of color in 2020 and well before the pandemic. The aftermath of each incident led to outrage among people across the nation and especially those in the Black community. Young men, young women, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandparents. This civil rights violation is not limited to one particular age group and has been a recurring issue that has been documented throughout history.
Before the NBA restart, many players and coaches campaigned for equal rights in their respective hometowns after the fatal shootings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. They pushed for peaceful protests and marches in lieu of some of the violence and vandalism. Portland Trailblazers star guard and five time All-Star Damian Lillard was an integral part of a march held in Portland after the murder of Floyd and spoke dilligently to Bleacher Report afterwords, expressing his optimism for positive change and reinforcement in the future.
“As far as real change, I think the unity being shown across the nation and in other countries is delivering a strong message and applying true pressure,” Lillard said. “There are also more people in search of ways to take true action toward change and not just be a part of the outcry… we are moving in the [right] direction.”
Play resumed in the Orlando bubble on Aug. 1 after a nearly four month layoff, but many still had the fight for social justice at the forefront of their minds. Each team during warm ups and on the bench wore shirts saying “Black Lives Matter,” and the NBA conveyed the same message, imprinting the statement in big bold letters just above center court. When the stars and standouts of each contest were interviewed post game, it became an important time for players to use their platform to continue and honor the victims of police brutality and a time to send prayers to their families.
But the game of basketball and competing for a championship was put on hold following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. on Aug. 23, leaving the father of six paralyzyed from the waist down. Blake, 29, was shot seven times in the back after police broke into his car and opened fire with three of his young sons sitting in the backseat.
It was game five of the NBA playoffs, and the top seed Milwaukee Bucks held a comfortable 3-1 lead over the eighth seed Orlando Magic heading into the Aug. 26 possible series clincher for the Bucks. The Magic went through their usual pregame warmup as the time reached closer to tipoff, but Milwaukee was nowhere to be found. An anonymous KO student was watching the bizarre events unfold live on television, stunned. “I tuned into the game, presuming it to be around the second quarter, but the headline said that the game was postponed,” he said. “After realizing the reasoning behind it, I totally understood, but it was definitely weird and something I’ve never seen happen before.”
The Bucks never came out of the locker room to play and protested in the aftermath of the Blake shooting in Kenosha, just over 40 minutes outside of Milwaukee. In an article by ESPN, Bucks forward and two time all star Khris Middleton shared powerful insight in describing his team’s motive for protesting for a much bigger cause then what he came to the bubble for. “A lot of people listen to us, a lot of people look up to us and a lot of people are watching us,” Middleton said. “I think the phrase when we are all growing up was, ‘Don’t let basketball use you, use basketball.’” He went on to talk about how he and his teammates are using basketball. “We realize how big of an impact we have…so we have a responsibility to fight for people that can’t be heard at times,” he said.
Every other game and playoff team followed their lead, peacefully protesting and choosing not to play until change was made, united and together as one. The NBA as a league shut down for the next two days in support of the players and coaches who were fighting for equal rights. They were the first, but not the only league to boycott their games either, as the NHL, MLB, WNBA, and many other professional leagues across the world took part in this protest as well.
After three days of postponing games and at times not knowing if the season should continue, the NBA returned back to action on Saturday, Aug. 29 and the rest of the playoffs played out and finished. Junior Isaias Wooden liked that the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver took charge in becoming the first league to stop play and execute a plan to enact change. “I think the [Milwaukee] Bucks refusing to play was necessary in order to legitimize the NBA’s stance on systematic racism,” Wooden said. “While it didn’t change much in the big picture (as the playoffs [eventually] went on as normal), I am glad that the players went out of their way to address the injustice that plagues our country.”
The NBA was not afraid to take a stand for equality and backed up the claim that some things are “bigger than basketball.” Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and countless others have fallen victim to police brutality and racial intolerance, and for leagues across the globe, enough has been enough.