Eighty percent of the players employed by the National Basketball Association are Black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. As a result, much of the NBA’s successes and failures rest on the shoulders, and more specifically, the physical labor, of Black men. So it’s no surprise that today’s racial climate and unrest invaded the “bubble.”
After the murder of George Floyd by three Minnesota police officers in May, many current and former NBA players stepped up to the front lines in the fight for racial equality. Some took to social media to express their frustrations. Others chose to replace their names on their jerseys with messages directly targeting racial inequality in the United States. Dollars have been pledged. Demands have been made. Prayers have been sent out. Months later, a change has yet to come.
On Monday, a video surfaced of Jacob Blake – a Black man who was a father, uncle, brother and son — being shot seven times in front of his three children by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down and his life will never be the same. Nor will the lives of his children, parents, friends and family.
Two days later, the Milwaukee Bucks – a team based less than 50 miles from Kenosha – boycotted their Game 5 playoff game against the Orlando Magic. Soon after, fans got word that no postseason games would be played on August 26, four years to the day after Colin Kaepernick silently protested by kneeling in a San Francisco 49ers preseason game.
This move within the NBA to take a stand against the murders of Black people is not new.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf boycotted the national anthem in 1996, losing millions of dollars and the prime of his promising NBA career. He received death threats and his home was burned down. All because the former LSU All-American said he viewed the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism.
Now, as his younger peers follow in his footsteps, Abdul-Rauf wholeheartedly supports the next movement.
“I was on my way from training some NBA guys here in New York, excited about watching some players I enjoy during the playoffs, and immediately became more excited when I heard they weren’t playing and the reasons why,” said Abdul-Rauf to TSFJ. “This in my estimation is not only an intelligent but bold step forward — the kind of positions taken that when sustained can produce meaningful results.”
The boycott brought a glimmer of hope and sense of euphoria to the NBA legend and now it is about sustaining the momentum to fight for change. While it may have taken longer than expected, there is hope that the league and the players on the right side of history, and the beginning of an ongoing fight that Abdul-Rauf hopes will continue.
“We have burnt police precincts and been arrested in protest. We have pleaded time and again with politicians, had meetings with sheriffs and chiefs of police, shed tears in disgust on national television for the world to see and drawn the attention of much of the world that was protesting with us over the unarmed, unjustified killing of Black people by murderers in police uniforms,” said Abdul-Rauf in a statement to TSFJ. “Still, white supremacist racism is failing to hear our cries, so just maybe — just maybe — this new generation of human beings who happen to be athletes, and powerful ones at that, will do what our generation failed to do, and that is to stick together for something bigger than themselves. This is a sacrifice I’m hoping they will sustain.”
The ongoing racial battles across America’s historical racial epidemic often seems to have no light at the end of the tunnel. But, the NBA – as a collective entity – refuses to be silent or silence its players. The NBA is signaling that while, yes, our players are among some of the highest-paid people in our country, they are still people. They are fathers, too. They are brothers, too. They are sons, too. They are someone’s best friend, too. And they are no longer willing to allow the Black bodies and Black culture to be celebrated, sold, and used to entertain a world that refuses to acknowledge and fight for the protection of Black people – regardless of income, occupation, geographical location, or favorite NBA team.
“I know some guys have thought about going home. A lot of things are bigger than basketball, and we understand that,” said Jayson Tatum during the Celtics’ Zoom availability on Wednesday. “We’re people, first and foremost. We’re not just basketball players. So the feeling of being isolated from the outside world, that’s kind of how I feel right now. I know a lot of other guys feel the same way.”
For the NBA’s players, until they feel heard, the buck stops here. And they, along with the rest of us, will know they’ve been heard when the normalcy killing of Black men and women, in the streets or in the safety of their homes, is addressed with justice.
Columbus, Ohio born. Ron is a first-ballot healthy hairline hall of famer. He spent the summer of ‘08 eating calamari pasta because of OJ Da Juiceman. He also loves to write about sports while listening to Sada Baby. Follow him on Twitter @Ron_Hamp