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How NBA Players' Desire for Change Reached a Boiling Point Inside the Bubble

The NBA playoffs are in doubt after the league's drained players have grown tired of living in a bubble while police shootings of Black people continue in the outside world.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—Along a nondescript hallway, an eerie silence. An hour passes from when the Milwaukee Bucks were scheduled to tip off Game 5 of its first-round series against the Orlando Magic. Then two. Attendants pack up a half-dozen bags and pull them to the bus. NBA executives Kiki Vandeweghe and Malik Rose linger in the hallway. The door opens occasionally, a player, still in uniform, darting around a corner to use the restroom. Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, can be heard over a speaker phone. A large white board is wheeled in. The Bucks' general manager, Jon Horst, ducks in and out. 

Tipoff was scheduled for 4:10 pm. At 7:20, more than a dozen players, many with black shirts, more with Black faces, emerged with a statement.

“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake,” George Hill said.

“Despite the overwhelming plea for change,” Sterling Brown said, “There has been no action.”

On March 11, COVID-19 ground the NBA to a halt. On August 26, social justice, and more than 200 players passionately fighting for it, did the same. For the first time since 1992, when the Rodney King riots raged through Los Angeles, an NBA playoff game was postponed. For the second time since 1968, when the nation mourned the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King, did tragedy stop the postseason in its tracks.

An hour after the Bucks and Magic were scheduled to tip off, the NBA canceled the remaining two games on the schedule. A meeting with players and coaches from the remaining teams was scheduled for Wednesday evening. The shooting of Blake, a 29-year old man, at the hands of Kenosha, Wis., police officers had broken them. Milwaukee, a 45-minute drive from Kenosha, decided it had enough.

An empty court and bench is shown following the scheduled start time in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic during the 2020 NBA Playoffs

Change is under the umbrella of politicians. But too often it’s athletes—Black athletes—who have to be advocates for it. Jaylen Brown, a 23-year-old Georgia native, fighting for police reform. Fred VanVleet, 26, demanding accountability. Paul George, Jerami Grant and Marcus Smart asking for justice for Breonna Taylor. LeBron James pleading for the same for George Floyd.

They fight, while politicians duck and cover. They fight, while the people with the power to affect change muddy the waters. They become targets of conservative networks and pundits, assailed with coded language. They are asked about China, about its oppressive government, about Hong Kong, expected to speak with equal passion about a situation half a world away, tarred by dishonest brokers that if given a map couldn’t tell Hong Kong from Hawaii.

“A lot of people come to me and ask me questions. As a 23-year-old, people are asking me, ‘Jaylen, what do we do?’” Brown said. “Like, I’m a 23-year-old. I do my research, but they shouldn’t be asking a 23-year-old.”

They are called uneducated, spoiled and dumb. Uneducated? They live these issues. Spoiled? Before they were millionaires, many of them escaped poverty. Some, barely. Dumb? Listen to players like Brown, James and Paul speak on these issues. They speak passionately, eloquently and, in many cases, informed.

On Wednesday, those issues reached a boiling point. At 8 p.m., hundreds of players and coaches settled into folding chairs inside a ballroom in the Coronado Springs hotel. Everywhere, faces looked emotionally drained. The bubble has taken a toll, made a bad situation exponentially worse. George went public with his struggles this week, revealing bouts with anxiety and depression. And he is far from alone. As the weeks have gone by, many have retreated into isolation. The introduction of new people into the bubble has become something to dread.

The meeting was led by Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala; for more than an hour, many spoke. Doc Rivers, Armond Hill, John Lucas. Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony and Kyle Korver. They talked about the need to do more for voting rights. They pushed for more active measures to pressure police reform.

Players demanded an action plan from ownership, sources told Sports Illustrated. Though to several in the room, it was unclear exactly what action they wanted. Team owners have been supportive of players during this restart. They have allowed social justice messages on jerseys. They have supported kneeling during the national anthem. Earlier this month, the NBA announced it was committing $300 million to create economic empowerment in the Black community. When the Bucks elected not to play, Milwaukee’s owners were the first to issue a strong statement of support.

An hour into the meeting, coaches were asked to leave so the players could hash things out. There was some frustration expressed at the Bucks for unilaterally initiating this walkout. Several players in the Thunder-Rockets game, scheduled to tip at 6:30, were warming up in the arena next door. At the end of the meeting, the Lakers and Clippers, two Western Conference powers, voted to stop playing. It’s unclear, however, whether the teams were expressing that position as a starting point or if they were prepared to pack up and go home.

There will be another meeting on Thursday, a Board of Governors call, too, but it remains uncertain as to exactly what more the NBA can offer, nor is it clear how far players are willing to go. Walking away from the season would be a powerful statement, but would it achieve more than six weeks more of high-profile games and the eyeballs that come with them? Several players have expressed a need to do something tangible, to push issues forward. Will the attention gained from a two-day work stoppage achieve that?

History unfolded on Wednesday, and who knows where we will go from here? There will be significant economic fallout if teams leave the bubble. The collective bargaining agreement could crumble. Players made a bold statement, and they must now decide whether they want to be bolder. The NBA, once again, has everyone’s attention.