KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t leave the locker room on Wednesday when they were scheduled to play the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
Instead, they called Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the Bucks players wanted to know what they could do to really affect change — what they could do to fight racial injustice in a tangible way.
Five months ago, NBA players and other athletes had no choice whether or not games would be played after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the first domino to fall in the NBA suspending the season and other leagues following suit in response to the pandemic.
On Wednesday, it was the players’ choice to say, “no justice, no games.” The Bucks’ move was followed by reports that the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder would not be playing. Soon, all of Wednesday’s playoff games were postponed, the NBA announced.
And the statement quickly reverberated beyond the NBA’s bubble. A player-led movement led to Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer postponing its matches. WNBA games and three Major League Baseball games, including the Milwaukee Brewers-Cincinnati Reds game, were canceled.
Today’s playoff schedule in Orlando, which includes Game 6 of the Utah Jazz-Denver Nuggets series, is “unlikely” to be played after players met Wednesday evening, reports say.
The Bucks were protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. When the team emerged from the locker room hours later, guard Sterling Brown read the first half of a prepared statement from the team.
“Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” Brown read.
As Brown read the statement, he did so as a part of a team that has experienced racism in Wisconsin. He did so with a personal history as a victim of police brutality. He did so in the latest moment of activism in sports.
In January of 2018, Brown was arrested, had an officer kneel on his neck, and was tased, all of which came after a parking infraction. Milwaukee police later apologized for the inappropriate actions by officers.
In a Milwaukee suburb in 2015, while playing for the Bucks, Jon Henson went to a jewelry store, only to have employees lock the door, hide and call 911. The owner of the store later apologized.
Since the NBA’s restart, many players have brought up the historic acts of activism in sports that have inspired them, including Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds in 1967 and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the Olympic podium in protest during the 1968 Mexico City games.
Today, players have greater visibility, increased social reach, and more resources available to them. Inside the NBA bubble, players have reached a point where they want to use their visibility, reach and resources to make lasting change.
In a Players Tribune article last month, Brown wrote, “The city of Milwaukee wanted to give me $400,000 to be quiet after cops kneeled on my neck, stood on my ankle, and tased me in a parking lot. But here’s the thing: I can’t be quiet.”
After the officer involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited protests across the country, many NBA players, including players on the Bucks roster, took part in peaceful protests and marches demanding systemic change.
When the NBA began formulating a plan to restart the 2019-20 season, the players wanted the restart to revolve around a continued narrative about racial justice and criminal justice reform.
Black Lives Matter was displayed on the courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex where NBA games would be held at Walt Disney World. Banners reading Black Lives Matter adorn polls around the complex, players wear jerseys with social justice phrases on the back, coaches formed a committee to fight racial injustice, players coaches and referees kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. But, following the shooting of Blake, many players and coaches were left wondering if anything that they were doing was actually making a difference.
Whether or not the league of majority Black players could make a real difference from within the NBA bubble was a concern that was raised from the bubble’s inception. One of the reasons that many players opted to take part in the season restart was because of the large platform that would be provided by being one of the few sports nationally televised on a regular basis, increasing their platform and ability to raise awareness surrounding racial issues.
Had the NBA not restarted, the Bucks, or any other team for that matter, would not have had the opportunity to protest in such a public fashion. The bubble also gives the players the unique ability to congregate and discuss the issues they care about.
On Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics began discussing the possibility of not playing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal on Thursday as a form of protest. Then, on Wednesday the Bucks never came out to play.
On Wednesday night NBA players and coaches held a meeting in the NBA bubble to discuss what to do moving forward. The meeting ended without resolution, according to league sources. Discussions are expected to continue through Thursday.
Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers tearfully addressed the issues of police brutality and racism on Tuesday night.
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” Rivers said as his voice broke. “It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We’ve got to do better, but we’ve got to demand better.”
The Bucks decided to make those demands on Wednesday, calling on lawmakers and law enforcement to take action.
The National Basketball Players Association followed the Bucks choice to not play with a post on social media that showed both support and pointed to the visibility and reach that the NBA has.
The post was a graphic of a fist of solidarity and underneath the words, “THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED.”