Again, NBA has led on issues of social justice

With one NBA team choosing not to play a postseason game, a chain reaction was set off across the sports world Wednesday. The effects were still being felt Thursday.

The shooting of Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed, according to his family’s attorney, motivated the Milwaukee Bucks to boycott their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. By the end of the night, all three scheduled playoff games were postponed.

The Bucks’ decision not to take the floor was the first in several professional leagues following the NBA. The WNBA postponed its Wednesday games, including that of the Atlanta Dream, with players gathering for a candlelight vigil from inside the league’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Five of the six MLS games, including Atlanta United’s, were postponed. Several MLB games were postponed. Some NFL teams canceled practice Wednesday, with the Detroit Lions canceling practice Tuesday and staging a protest in front of their practice facility, addressing the media and writing “We won’t be silent” on a whiteboard.

The NBA announced that Thursday’s playoff games would be postponed as well and hopefully will be played Friday or Saturday. The WNBA and NHL also postponed Thursday’s games, along with at least two MLB games.

The NBA has led in several social-justice issues in recent months, and this week’s events continued a pattern of athletes increasingly using their platforms to advocate for social change, from discussing police brutality to forming voting-rights groups.

At the forefront of those in professional sports is how to take this pause and turn it into action.

“It’s just got to be action,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “There’s really no one thing, but something’s got to happen now. There’s got to be a commitment, there’s got to be a stance that the league takes. The stance is to protest, great, the players want to know, the coaches want to know, the league’s going to have to find out, the owners need to know, what can they do to really be a part of the solution?

“Policing and policing reform is a very big concern because that’s what we’re seeing on TV. I don’t care how you channel it, divesting, reallocating, whatever, policing accountability is a major issue, and it’s a major issue in 30 of our NBA cities. And we’re tired of seeing what we see on TV, and it needs to be talked about. It needs to be talked about from the stance that we need to do something about it.”

The Bucks issued a statement Wednesday, after remaining in their locker room for several hours, following the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, which is located about 40 miles from Milwaukee.

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protesters. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

The Bucks’ statement continued, demanding accountability from lawmakers and law enforcement. The team held a video call with Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes and attorney general Josh Kaul while remaining in the locker room, according to ESPN.

Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said the decision not to play was made organically by the players over the course of Wednesday.

“They do have the biggest voice,” Larentowicz said Thursday of the NBA’s position in the movement. “I do think the community of the players are the ones that are certainly most affected with the things that are happening right now. They are the best in the world, you know. Period. They are the greatest athletes, and we love them for that. We love watching them for that. I think that in loving their entertainment and enjoying them, we have to acknowledge the human side. ... It’s been an awful year. But I think they have handled themselves incredibly well. I applaud them and I look forward to what they are going to do next.”

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers got emotional when discussing the shooting of Blake that prompted the postponements.

“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back,” Rivers said.

The bubble environment of Orlando adds another layer to the tension NBA players are experiencing, according to Pierce, who is not in Orlando but leads the NBA Coaches Association’s subcommittee on racial justice and has been in touch with players and coaches on the campus.

In addition to the strains of operating during a pandemic and the civil unrest that players, coaches and people around the league are experiencing, Pierce mentioned, there’s also the added hardship of being away from family during an emotional time, and being contained in the bubble.

On Tuesday, Celtics player Jaylen Brown, who is from Marietta, tweeted “I want to go protest.” On Wednesday, the Lakers’ LeBron James tweeted in all caps: “... We demand change. Sick of it.” Commentator Kenny Smith walked off the set of NBA on TNT in solidarity with the Bucks: “As a black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight,” he said.

Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who is not in the bubble but sits on the committee with Pierce, tweeted Wednesday: “If you can watch, cheer, celebrate and share in their pain on the court, you should share in their pain off the court and show empathy for them if you value them as human beings acknowledge that they are hurting! Ask why? They are more than entertainment!” Several high-profile players, including the Hawks’ Trae Young, expressed their support for the Bucks and the league postponing games.

The subcommittee that Pierce and Bickerstaff sit on was formed in the wake of George Floyd’s death, which occurred after ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe.

Many NBA coaches and players have been speaking out on issues of police brutality and social justice for quite some time, as have WNBA coaches and players. Pierce, who will enter his third year as Hawks coach next season, highlighted the deaths of Floyd as well as Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and Taylor in a speech before an NAACP march in June. On every copy of Atlanta Dream game notes, the first category, “Key Stats,” lists how many days have passed since the death of Taylor, adding “the officers responsible for her death have not been arrested.”

Since the NBCA’s subcommittee was formed, the strategy has gone from advancing the conversation and raising awareness to now forming an action plan, per Pierce.

Some steps have already been taken. The Hawks transformed State Farm Arena into the largest ever voting precinct in Georgia, with many other NBA teams following suit. Black Coaches United, a new organization of minority basketball coaches, is hoping universities will do the same with their arenas and stadiums, according to ABC News, drawing inspiration from the Hawks’ efforts. James, along with Young, Skylar Diggins-Smith and other prominent basketball stars, recently formed the More Than A Vote campaign.

In early August, the NBA Board of Governors announced it would contribute $300 million in initial funding to create a foundation dedicated to “creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community,” with all 30 owners collectively contributing $30 million annually for the next 10 years.

But, after the shooting of Blake, many in the NBA feel more action should be taken to specifically address police reform, according to Pierce.

Regarding basketball, per ESPN, players, coaches and executives from around the league held an in-person meeting in the bubble Wednesday night and a Board of Governors meeting was called Thursday morning — one topic of conversation was whether playoffs should continue, and players eventually came to the conclusion that they should.

The league also announced that there is a video conference call Thursday afternoon “between a group of NBA players and team governors representing the 13 teams in Orlando, along with representatives from the National Basketball Players Association and the league office and NBA Labor Relations Committee Chairman Michael Jordan, to discuss next steps” after Thursday’s games were postponed.