Under ordinary circumstances — or, at least, whatever qualifies as “ordinary” by 2020 standards — the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors would have faced off tonight in Game 1 of their much-anticipated showdown in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. As originally planned, this was to be the recap of that first game, claimed and scheduled by yours truly. As of reading this, you likely already know: the Celtics and Raptors did not play this game.
On August 23rd, 2020, a unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by a police officer, in the back, in his own car, in front of his own children, seven times. He is now paralyzed from the waist down.
To say this is the impetus for the newly born NBA players’ strike would be offensively reductive. It is merely the latest straw on the back of a camel whose back has long since been broken.
The NBA’s return to play amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 was not just based on financial necessity — it was also based on a promise. A promise that the return of professional sports would provide a platform for athletes frustrated with issues of social justice in the United States of the America. Black athletes, most of all. Black athletes consumed by the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police brutality. Black athletes ready to make their mark on social justice issues in this country, ready to change things for the better.
Yet, as Sean Doolittle, relief pitcher for the MLB’s Washington Nationals, quite succinctly explained, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”
By any practical meaning of the phrase, society is still very much not functioning. COVID-19 continues to run rampant nationwide, and as Jacob Blake’s shooting illustrates, little to no inroads have been made towards curbing rampant police brutality aimed at people of color. It is very hard to argue that much, if anything, has changed between March and today.
As theoretically cozy as we, fans and observers, might imagine them to be in the bubble, NBA players have been disquieted. While the NBA may claim to have been blindsided by the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to sit out their playoff match against Orlando, the truth is that this had been coming for days. Jacob Blake’s shooting sent a shock through the system — players are discontent. The platform that was promised simply has not mattered. They do not feel it is enough, and frankly, they are not wrong.
“We all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday, so that kind of changes the tone of things and puts things in perspective. That’s really all that’s kind of been on my mind,” said Toronto’s Fred VanVleet on Monday. He continued:
“You know, coming down here, making the choice to play, it was supposed to not be in vain, but it’s starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions. Nothing’s really changing, and here we are again with another unfortunate incident. So my thoughts today are with that man and his family.”
“What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a **** about what’s going on? Or is it just cool to wear ‘BLM’ on the backdrop or wear a shirt? What does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”
Personally speaking, I have been a citizen of Milwaukee, WI for the past eight months. It is a great city, with a vibrant community, on the rise much like the basketball team that bears its name. It is also one of the most racially discriminatory cities in the country.
The Bucks’ own Sterling Brown — who delivered the official team statement regarding their strike on Wednesday, alongside veteran guard George Hill — was a direct victim of police brutality himself, having been wrestled to the ground and tased by Milwaukee police for the mere infraction of improperly parking at a Walgreens. Head coach Mike Budenholzer previously helmed the Atlanta Hawks when forward Thabo Sefolosha’s leg was broken by the NYPD — an injustice that cost Sefolosha the 2015 NBA Playoffs, and earned him the dubious reward of a monetary settlement in court.
This is a team well-seasoned with the issue of police brutality. It is only fitting that they led the charge in this newborn protest. And on Wednesday, rather than take the court for a playoff game, the Bucks sat down on a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
The Celtics have felt this tension, too. Since play in the Bubble began, they have been among the league’s most consistently outspoken teams with regards to race relations in America. In keeping with that outspokenness, they have not been quiet about their concern in the wake of the Blake shooting. Along with the Raptors, the Celtics publicly discussed sitting out Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals before the league hit pause on Wednesday.
“We tried the peaceful way,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “Kneeling, we tried to protest, we tried to come out here and get together and play this game and tried to get our voice across, but it’s not working. Obviously, something has to be done.”
“Right now, our focus shouldn’t really be on basketball. I understand it’s the playoffs and everything like that, but we still have a bigger underlying issue that’s going on, and the things that we’ve tried haven’t been working. We definitely need to take a different approach.”
As we know now, they found that different approach.
The Celtics are the team I love. Wisconsin is where I live. Basketball is my personal release. The NBA bubble has proven to be a blessing in that regard, a welcome respite from 2020’s chaos in so many regards.
And yet, in these circumstances, with these stakes, I am unequivocally supportive of its absence — and so too should be anyone invested in the well-being of these players we’ve all grown to love.
“Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being?,” asked Boston’s Jaylen Brown.
“I don’t care if he did something 10 years ago, 10 days ago, or 10 minutes ago. If he served his sentence and he was released back into society, he still deserves to be treated like a human and does not deserve to be shot in the back seven times with the intent to kill.”
“His kids will never unsee that. His family will never unsee that. I will never unsee that. Every time I look at my jersey now, what I see is a Black man being shot seven times, and America sees his background report. It’s easier to see that than see the truth.”
The 2020 NBA Playoffs will continue. It’s already been agreed upon to resume play in the coming days. But in forcing this short layoff, the players sent a powerful message: this is all happening on their terms. Society is not functioning right now, and if at any point it feels like basketball is standing in the way of progress, they won’t hesitate to take action once again. And though we are all disappointed that this article was not simply a recap of a 30-point Boston playoff victory, the players collectively scored a much more important kind of win.