NBA players took a knee Wednesday, and if your immediate reaction is outrage, please, just stop reading. In Miami, the Heat and Celtics kneeled during the national anthem. In Milwaukee, the Bucks and Pistons went through with the opening tip, knocked the ball out of bounds and kneeled as one on the Fiserv Forum floor.
America is in chaos—again—and NBA players found themselves—again—in a position where they needed to respond. A day after prosecutors in Kenosha, Wis., elected not to file charges against the police officers who shot Jacob Blake, thousands of domestic terrorists swarmed the Capitol building in DC. Some carried flags. Others guns. They broke windows, vandalized offices and forced elected officials to evacuate the building.
Video of MAGA-clad anarchists quickly went viral. A mob of angry white rioters chasing a Black police officer up two flights of stairs, shouting, “This is our country,” when they cornered him. A group of thugs throwing punches at police, chanting U-S-A while they did it. A collection of losers streaming out of the building, promising that the next time they came back, “We won’t be peaceful.”
A Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, was carried through the Capitol. It was sedition, one led by an army of white faces. It resulted in 52 arrests with 47, according to D.C. police, for curfew violations.
Across the NBA, players and coaches wondered: What would have happened if these rage-fueled domestic terrorists had been Black?
“Could you imagine?” asked Sixers coach Doc Rivers. “That, to me, is a picture that’s worth a thousand words for all of us to see. It’s something for us to reckon with, again. No police dogs turned on people. No billy clubs hitting people. People peacefully being escorted out of the Capitol.”
Added Draymond Green, “It’s shameful to keep calling them protesters. They’re not f------ protesters. They’re f------ terrorists.”
Social media, a cesspool even on its best day, often derides millionaire athletes for social statements, as if LeBron James were born in a Lakers uniform or Jaylen Brown’s life began when he was a top-three pick. Yet the lives of NBA players—more than 75% Black—have been shaped by experiences with racism, with police brutality, experiences that compel them to respond.
The Celtics didn’t have much time to digest the storming of the Capitol before boarding buses to American Airlines Arena for an ESPN-televised game against the Heat on Friday. An hour before tip-off, the team gathered in its locker room. The discussion, says Jayson Tatum, was “heavy.” “To be honest,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “at 30 minutes I didn’t think we were going to be playing.” Coaches left the room. Ultimately, players decided that releasing a statement before taking the floor would send a strong message. “It was heavy on our hearts,” says Tatum. “Us talking about it, the statement, going on the court on national TV could shed more light than not playing.”
Brown’s activism is well documented. He marched in Georgia when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last spring. In the NBA bubble, Brown declared that police brutality should be rebranded as domestic terrorism. He has been a vocal participant in the Black Lives Matter movement. He has seen peaceful protesters beaten and locked up. When Brown watched a throng of white faces allowed to carry out an attempted insurrection—amateur video showed police opening barricades in one area—the frustration bubbled inside him.
“It reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King said,” said Brown. “There are two Americas. In one you get killed for sleeping in your car. … In another America you can storm the Capitol. No tear gas, no massive arrests. None of that. It’s 2021. I don’t think anything has changed.
Added Tatum, “I want the same energy on TV, the “they are thugs, they’re criminals” that they have when they see our people protesting for losing our lives.”
Milwaukee is an hour’s drive from Kenosha, where prosecutors deemed the actions of local police in the Blake incident an appropriate use of force. “It’s in our backyard,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Milwaukee players, who launched the brief wildcat strike in the bubble after the Blake shooting, decided something needed to be done. They could kneel for the anthem, though networks might not show it. According to Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton suggested something more visible: kneeling after tip-off for seven seconds—one for every bullet Blake was shot with.
“As a team, we’re going to use our platform the right way,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo. “My kid is going to grow up here in America, and my kid is Black. I cannot imagine my kid going through what I see on TV. While I’m living and while I’m breathing, if I can do something about it to even change it 2%, 5%, for the better, I’m going to do it.”
In some corners, dark corners, where well-compensated pundits prey on fears and stereotypes of those ignorant enough to listen to them, players will be criticized. Kneeling, incredibly, will once again be deemed unpatriotic, and the NBA will again become the shiny object shamelessly used to distract from more material problems.
Players will again be discouraged from taking the kind of actions we saw Wednesday. Not that any plan to listen.
“Basketball is our profession,” said Brown. “We are also men, we are also fathers. We want to continue to be voice for the voiceless.”