But on Sunday, after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake multiple times in the back, and a video of the incident taken by a witness went viral, the bubble’s relative peace was upended. In the protests that followed in Kenosha, a gunman killed two people and wounded a third. On Monday night, the Lakers’ LeBron James, the league’s highest-profile star, retweeted the news of Blake’s shooting and wrote, in part, “This shit is so wrong and so sad!! Feel so sorry for him, his family and OUR PEOPLE!! We want JUSTICE.” On Wednesday, shortly before James tweeted, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” the Milwaukee Bucks, the team favored to win the NBA title, didn’t take the floor for Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Instead, they remained in the locker room as the Magic warmed up. When game time arrived, the Bucks, stirred by the violence in a city a short drive from their home arena, refused to play.
Read: The shooting of Jacob Blake is a wake-up call
Even though the frustration had been building—James and the Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers issued blistering and tearful postgame statements evincing their frustration and their fear of what it means to be Black in America, and some players openly speculated about what a strike would mean—a strike still came as something of a shock. Less than an hour after the Bucks decided not to play, two other playoff games scheduled for yesterday—Game 5 between the Lakers and the Blazers and Game 5 between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder—were postponed.
Despite language in the collective-bargaining agreement between the players’ association and the league that specifically prohibits strikes, NBA players had gone on strike. The Bucks players held a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes yesterday afternoon after their decision to sit out the game, and the team issued a statement soon after demanding that the Wisconsin state legislature reconvene to address police reform. The league’s players also held a meeting last night to discuss their next steps, and early reports are that the Lakers and the Clippers voted to boycott the remainder of the NBA season.
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Where the strike will ultimately lead, or how long it will last, no one seems to know. But already, by declining to participate in last night’s games, these NBA players, in the midst of the strangest culmination of a season in the league’s history, have embarked on perhaps the most monumental work stoppage in the history of any major American sport.
For years, dating back to James and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies in 2012 to protest the shooting death of Trayvon Martin—and well before that, when the Boston Celtics center Bill Russell spoke out about his city’s racism in the 1960s, and when the Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for refusing to stand for the national anthem in 1996—the NBA has arguably been the most politically and socially progressive of all the major sports leagues. Part of this is because it appeals to a young and diverse audience, and the majority of NBA players are men of color. By contrast, Major League Baseball has long attracted a more white and suburban audience. The NFL, the league for the most popular American sport by far, is a massive and faceless conglomerate; it feels like Commissioner Roger Goodell and the teams’ owners have worked hard to ensure that it stood for very little at all beyond football itself.