A call to Barack Obama from a small group of players including NBAPA president Chris Paul and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James helped convince NBA players to end their strike in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake and return to the court to finish the playoffs.
The season was hanging in the balance when James and Paul spoke to Obama after a tense meeting between players, coaches, and union leadership on Wednesday night following the Milwaukee Bucks players’ decision to refuse to take the court and players from subsequent teams joining them. After no games on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the league will return to play on Saturday despite a faction of players favoring leaving the bubble and ending the season.
Bucks players took inspired collective action when they decided not to play as a way to protest the police shooting of Blake. Blake, a Black man, was shot by police seven times in front of his children in Kenosha, WI, just 35 miles from the Bucks’ home arena. Several NBA players had hinted at potentially striking — including Milwaukee’s George Hill, who said “we shouldn’t even have came to this damn place, to be honest” a day earlier — but the move still reportedly came as a surprise to the rest of the league. The Bucks’ intention was to forfeit and accept a Game 5 loss in their series against the Orlando Magic, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports.
Instead, the Magic refused to accept the win and players from the four other teams scheduled to play Wednesday night — the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets and the Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers — decided to strike in solidarity with the Bucks.
NBA players then came together for a heated meeting on Wednesday night that also included union boss Michele Roberts and coaches. There was reportedly some momentum among a certain group of players to walk away from the season as a way to pressure NBA owners to take meaningful political action towards ending police brutality and the disproportionate use of deadly force by cops against Black men and women.
Roberts reportedly helped explain how much money could be lost for NBA players if they walked away. At one point in the meeting, James and the Lakers reportedly got up and left with an apparent but unofficial vote to end the season. The Clippers followed them. At that point, it was unclear if the season was actually over.
Sources: Miami’s Udonis Haslem spoke and essentially told everyone in room that — without Lakers and Clippers, how will season continue?
LeBron James walked out. Rest of Lakers and Clippers exited behind him.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 27, 2020
Hours later, James and Paul spoke to Obama on the phone. With the season apparently hanging in the balance, Obama helped convince NBA players to return to the court. Obama reportedly advised NBA players to play, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, gave the following statement to CNN:
“As an avid basketball fan, President Obama speaks regularly with players and league officials. When asked, he was happy to provide advice on Wednesday night to a small group of NBA players seeking to leverage their immense platforms for good after their brave and inspiring strike in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting.”
“They discussed establishing a social justice committee to ensure that the players’ and league’s actions this week led to sustained, meaningful engagement on criminal justice and police reform.”
We know Bucks players caught the rest of the NBA off guard when they decided to refuse to play. We know there was some momentum from some players to walk away from the season at the subsequent Wednesday night meeting. We know Roberts and other helped contextualize the financial damages the players could be seeing if they ended the season. And we know Obama urged the players to return to the court and form a committee to help their agenda.
Is forming a committee to increase social justice action as powerful as walking away from the season and damaging the owners’ pockets? Not exactly. But for NBA players to walk away, it would have needed to be a unified front. It also feels like James could have ended the season for everyone if he decided to walk away. Instead, NBA games will be played this weekend, surely with mixed emotions in the hearts of many players.
NBA players took an incredible stand to strike. It would have been even more powerful if they walked away completely, but it also would have been costly. Obama helped convince them to return, which has been criticized by some as a move to break a unionized strike. Of course, this burden never should fall on NBA players in the first place.
NBA basketball is now back. The Bucks players’ powerful stance for social justice won’t be forgotten, even if the players strike only lasted three days.