The NBA Had It Coming

The Milwaukee Bucks’ going on strike and disrupting their season at one of its most crucial inflection points proves that the players’ activism is no longer a fringe movement.

A protest sign stuck in a deflated basketball
The NBA’s core talent and Black Lives Matter are connected in an unprecedented way. (Matthew Horwood / Getty / Cipariss / prapann / Shutterstock / The Atlantic)

For the past several weeks, inside a largely empty arena at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the NBA’s season-in-a-bubble unfolded with a sense of something resembling normalcy. The virtual projections of fans’ faces on jumbo video screens still felt kind of like a herky-jerky Black Mirror episode, and the piped-in crowd noise sounded like a hollow imitation of the real thing. But as teams jostled for playoff spots, and as the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard pulled off a series of epic performances to squeeze his team into the postseason, the sheer competitive nature of the games seemed to overshadow the roaring crises of the outside world. So much so that when President Donald Trump inevitably complained about players kneeling for the national anthem, barely anyone inside the bubble was willing to dignify it with much of a response.

The impenetrability of the NBA bubble appeared to provide a foolproof solution to the stops and starts (due to the coronavirus pandemic) that had shortened Major League Baseball’s season and forced several major college-football conferences to cancel their season. And the social-justice messages that basketball players were allowed to include on the back of their jerseys—from exhortations as simple as Vote to more specific slogans advocating for education reform—allowed stars such as Lillard to play without appearing to neglect the ongoing protests over police brutality in Portland and other cities. The league’s delicate attempt to provide escapism seemed to be working.

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.

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.

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.

The NFL’s popularity explains why the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the national anthem in 2016 (exactly four years to the day before the Bucks’ decision to strike) called attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that no other league had up to that point. But when it comes to sports, many of these ideas about social injustice have taken root in the NBA, whose players either don’t fear or don’t care about the backlash that might come their way. Unlike in the NFL, where the marketable names are often limited to a few quarterbacks and a handful of other players, NBA players at large serve as the face of their league. The NBA needs the fuel of their star power to keep growing, which gives those athletes and their union tremendous leverage. James has repeatedly clashed with Trump online, knowing that most of his fans will continue to support him. Lillard and the star Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo were among the athletes who marched in the George Floyd protests this summer. If the protests were about resetting the conversation about race in America, the NBA and its players often helped amplify that conversation.

The concept of putting social-justice messages on the back of jerseys only reaffirmed what fans had already come to realize: The NBA’s core talent and Black Lives Matter were connected in an unprecedented way. This was not Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947 to mixed reception from his own teammates. This was a group of players and a movement coming together to amplify what they almost universally felt was a moral imperative, and they demanded that the league’s owners and its commissioner, Adam Silver, come along with them.

In that sense, you could argue that a strike by NBA players isn’t a complete surprise. But for players to disrupt their season, even if only momentarily, at one of its most crucial inflection points will draw more attention to what athletes like James have been trying to express for nearly a decade. And it’s clear that they’re not alone: As news of the strike spread, the WNBA—whose players have long been as outspoken, if not more so, than their male counterparts about the Black Lives Matter movement—also postponed its games; the TNT analyst Kenny Smith got up and walked out of the studio last night in solidarity with the players; and the tennis player Naomi Osaka dropped out of a tournament in Cincinnati rather than play her semifinal match today, prompting the Association of Tennis Professionals to pause its games in solidarity.

Perhaps most shocking, the Milwaukee Brewers chose not to play their game with the Cincinnati Reds yesterday. Soon after, the Seattle Mariners—the team with the most Black players in Major League Baseball—also chose not to play, and the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers walked off the field last night. If it’s happening in baseball, there’s no way to dismiss the NBA’s activism as a fringe movement anymore; the league is now leading the way. Just when you thought sports had begun to normalize itself, the NBA reminded us that we’re a long way from anything resembling normalcy.