ORLANDO, Fla. — Shortly after 1:30 pm on Wednesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo left the locker room in practice gear and walked toward the court inside the main arena here at the NBA restart. He wore a serious game face, which was unusual because tipoff against the Orlando Magic was still more than two hours away, but it was a hint.
A few minutes later, the reigning MVP made a U-turn, without pregame workout sweat, the first sign that something was up. He was joined by Khris Middleton, and when those All-Stars returned inside the locker room, they didn’t emerge again for five hours, well after they and their teammates shook the NBA and the sports world.
The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks may eventually win this year’s championship, assuming it will be played. And if they do, they may not generate the same level of spirited national conversation and rousing applause in some circles than they just did — by refusing to play a No. 8 seed in a playoff game.
Stung by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisc., just 40 minutes south of Milwaukee, and disturbed by what they felt was a sluggish response from authorities to find justice, the Bucks chose to take a unified stand by taking a unified seat. They knew the historical significance of that; no professional sports team ever refused to play a game because of social injustice, not even in the 1960s. Black players on the Celtics in 1961, including Bill Russell, did skip an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after they were refused service at a local restaurant. However, the team did play that night, with seven players.
Russell was a trail blazer during that turbulent time in America. He never refused to play during the Civil Rights era, but he did praise the Bucks through social media: ‘I’m moved by all the NBA players for standing up for what is right.”
The Bucks spoke with Wisconsin government officials during their lengthy locker room meeting (and in particular the state attorney general) in order to get answers and suggestions on how to force immediate change. While that took place, the dominoes pushed by the Bucks fell quickly beyond the locker room. Two other playoff games Wednesday were scrapped and player support both here and beyond Orlando was thermal for the Bucks, Magic, Lakers, Blazers, Thunder and Rockets – all of who were all scheduled to play. They were joined by the player’s union, NBA coaches, team owners, even some of the sponsors with paid ads on the canceled telecasts, and that was just among league circles. This became bigger than the Bucks.
Other sports leagues then fell in line with the ripple: WNBA, Major Lague Baseball, Major League Soccer and tennis, all seeing game cancelations or some manner of player protest.
The engineers of the Bucks’ internal movement were George Hill, who just days earlier expressed second thoughts about coming to Orlando, and Sterling Brown, whose lawsuit against the Milwaukee police department is still ongoing, stemming from an arrest gone foul a few years ago. Those players read from a release, flanked by teammates, and took no questions.
From the statement, Hill said: “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement. We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”
The Bucks wanted to rattle society and poke those holding high office in Kenosha and crank the decibel level on social justice and this was certainly accomplished. And now, as in all matters of protest, there is a necessary transition and a bold question that asks: What next?
The Bucks said they weren’t emotionally ready to play. Brown read, from the statement: “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
If the NBA players need action from Kenosha in order to refocus on basketball, and since action is hardly moments away, does this and should this spell the end of the NBA playoffs? How can players, taking them at their word, suddenly shift gears and lace up a day or two from now? What exactly will change dramatically in Kenosha and Minneapolis and from coast to coast in the interim?