The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin made it clear to NBA players like Donovan Mitchell: Black, unarmed Americans are still being harmed by police in America, even after George Floyd’s killing sparked the Black Lives Matter protests.
“It’s really disappointing. It’s tough, man. I just want this [expletive] to stop, to be completely honest with you,” Mitchell said.
So on Wednesday, the players decided not to play around, literally or figuratively. The Milwaukee Bucks began by boycotting their Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, never coming out on the floor. The Magic did shoot briefly, then returned to their locker room once they learned what the Bucks were doing. The NBA’s referees left the court minutes later.
Next came support from the rest of the league. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets decided not to play in their contest, and the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers followed suit. The NBA quickly announced all of Wednesday’s games were postponed, and the players and league will hold a meeting Wednesday night to determine the fate of the season.
The action — the first time in NBA history players haven’t come out for one playoff game, let alone three — was the most stark reminder yet from NBA players that they find the violence unacceptable.
“As an African American male, and having my sister and mom and my dad and my friends and family not know, when does it stop?,” Mitchell said. “When do we feel comfortable? When do we feel safe?”
As of Wednesday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that it “appeared unlikely” that Thursday’s playoff games would take place, the first of which is the Utah Jazz’s scheduled 2 p.m. MT Game 6 matchup against the Denver Nuggets. The WNBA postponed its games after players declined to play, and players from multiple Major League Baseball teams boycotted their games as well. Real Salt Lake and LAFC postponed their game.
The issue of unethical policing is personal to the Milwaukee Bucks in particular: Kenosha is about 45 minutes away from Milwaukee. Bucks forward Sterling Brown had a knee on his neck from police after parking incorrectly in a Milwaukee area. Another officer stood on his ankle, and Brown reported being punched. An officer involved in the case was fired but not charged. In 2015, a jewelry store employee called police on John Henson, then a member of the Bucks, while shopping. The store owner later apologized for profiling Henson.
Thabo Sefolosha — a former Jazz player — was coached by Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer during his time as an Atlanta Hawk. While on a road trip, the New York Police Department broke his leg in a late-night altercation outside a club. New York City paid Sefolosha $4 million in the civil suit that followed.
Seemingly every black player in the league has had a similar story happen to themselves or a loved one, Mitchell wrote in a Players’ Tribune piece earlier this month. Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson noted that he was taught as a child to be wary when encountering police. And center Rudy Gobert recognized the position his status as an NBA player sometimes afforded.
“It’s something that bothers all of us. We are the few lucky ones that are able to do what we do, earn a lot of money,” Gobert said. “But a lot of other people are not as lucky as we are. We can’t let these people down just because we make money.”
The protest garnered support from management — from coaches to team executives to those in charge of the league. Bucks senior vice president Alexander Lasry said that the organization supported the players’ actions, saying “The stand taken today by the players and org shows that we’re fed up. Enough is enough. Change needs to happen.”
Coaches like Utah’s Quin Snyder addressed the Blake shooting too. “I’m at a loss, but I think that it’s important for us to acknowledge that it’s going on and hopefully figure out some way to address it and create some lasting change,” Snyder said. That echoed a statement from the league’s coaches association, which said it supported the league’s players “100 percent.”
That being said, the players’ action and team statement didn’t get universal support from Jazz fans. Both Mitchell’s tweet of support for the Bucks’ players and the Jazz’s announcement received some derision from fans on Facebook and Twitter.
“It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Maybe they just want us to give them the little entertainment, the little comfort that they need,” Gobert said. “But at the same time, people have to understand that we are all human beings.”
While they were interviewed when the Bucks had yet to commit to their protest, Utah’s star players agreed with the idea of doing more to create change — though they know that change won’t necessarily happen overnight.
“The point of us coming down here was to create change. I feel like we’re doing a good job of that, but obviously not good enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but this is disgusting. I really don’t know how else to describe it.”
“Is it going to fix things? We don’t know,” Gobert said about the idea of protesting a game. “But, I think the people that have the power to change those things need to feel uncomfortable. Are they gonna feel uncomfortable if they sit one game? I don’t know, but... we are with it.”