The NBA and Black Lives Matter

Amidst the Republican Convention for the 2020 presidential election, raging wildfires in the western states, a Category-4 Hurricane Laura heading toward Louisiana and Texas, and a COVID-19 pandemic, another shooting emerges of an African-American man, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake. It is a tragedy both saddening and infuriating. Blake was shot seven times in the back by a white police-officer while Blake’s children were waiting in his car. It begs the question again—why?! Why did the officers not attempt to tackle him or restrain him in some other manner? Likewise, why did this police shooting occur after the tumultuous events following the death of the African-American, George Floyd, on Memorial Day, only three months ago?

Is it any wonder so many are baffled and flabbergasted and quite frankly, just angry. It is why Washington Post Opinion-Columnist, Eugene Robinson, remarked: “The Black Lives Matter protests must continue because some people, especially some police officers, still act as though Black lives are worthless. Witness what happened Sunday to Jacob Blake.”

Prior to the shooting, allegedly, the 29-year old Blake was holding a knife, and was tasered by the police who had arrived on the scene. The police supposedly arrived because Jacob Blake was not supposed to be on the property of his ex-girlfriend. Some of the details regarding Blake’s interaction with the Kenosha police are difficult to verify since Kenosha police did not wear body-cameras at the time. As a result of the shooting, Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down. Truly, it is remarkable Jacob Blake did not die from the incident.

Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, observed about the Blake shooting: “What I saw in the video makes me sick. Once again, a Black man, Jacob Blake, has been shot by the police in broad daylight with the whole world watching.” And Biden also proclaimed after speaking to the Blake family: “I told them, ‘Justice must be done and will be done. Our hearts are with his family, especially his children.” But Biden also condemned the needless and unnecessary violence destroying Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, following the Blake shooting, some protesters have caused extensive property damage—setting a car dealership ablaze, destroying buildings, and other property in Kenosha. Such lawlessness, prompted the White House to sanction the deployment of National Guardsmen to Wisconsin and other federal authorities.

Today, in the midst of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, decided to boycott their game against the Orlando Magic in protest to the Jacob Blake shooting. As a result, even in an unprecedented basketball season with COVID-19, and the remainder of the NBA season being played in a so-called “Bubble” at Disney World, the other NBA teams scheduled to play today also postponed their games. These other teams included, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets, and the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trailblazers—all game 5s in the first round of the playoffs. Some players’ spokespeople are talking about postponing the NBA playoffs, or even ending the NBA season altogether.

Many NBA players and NBA coaches and sports commentators had some remarkable words to say following the Jacob Blake shooting and the nation’s current state of affairs with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement and the “systemic racism” inherent in the United States. Such systemic racism has been poignantly described in a more academic sense by Ibram Kendi’s excellent book, Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016).

In my view, it is important to listen to what these NBA athletes, NBA coaches, and NBA commentators, say over the Blake shooting, not only because of the rawness of their emotions concerning another racial injustice but because how influential these voices are for Black Lives Matter, for African-Americans, and for US society as a whole.

Head Coach of the L.A. Clippers, Doc Rivers, in an interview following a playoff win over the Dallas Mavericks, was quoted as saying: “As far as the other situation, it’s just so sad. You know uhm…what stands out to me is, ah, just watching the Republican convention…and there is this fear right…and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. Uh, we’re the ones denied to live in certain communities. Uhm, we’ve been hung. We’ve been shot and all you do is keep hearing fear [with emotion in his voice]. It’s…it’s amazing, why we [African-Americans] keep loving this country and this country does not love us back. And it’s really just so sad. Like I should just be a coach and I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We gotta do better. But we gotta demand better also.”

Here is what Los Angeles Lakers Superstar, LeBron James, said on the Blake shooting: “What I can say if you are sitting here telling me, there is no way to subdue that gentlemen or detain him before the firing of guns. Then you are sitting here you are not only lying to me but every Black person in the community because we see over and over and over. There was multiple, if you watch the video, there was multiple moments. If they wanted to they could have tackled him; they could have grabbed him, you know; they could have done that. Why does it always have to get to a point where we see the guns firing? And his family is there. And his kids are there. And it’s in broad daylight. And uhm, and who knows, if that video is not being taken by that person across the street, do we even know if we see that video?…Quite frankly it’s just F***ed up in our community. And as you know, people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids—we are terrified. Because you don’t know. You have no idea.”

The Milwaukee Bucks guard, George Hill, stated after the shooting incident: “And it’s just sickening, it’s a heartless situation. It’s a f***ed situation. Like I said, you are supposed to look at the police to protect and serve. And now, it’s looked at them to harass or shoot. We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t even have come to this damn place to be honest.”

Former NBA player and TNT sports commentator, Kenny Smith, remarked: “Right now my head is ready to explode, like in the thoughts of what’s going on. And uh, I don’t know even if I am appropriate enough to say it, what the players are feeling and how they are feeling. And uhm, I haven’t talked to any of the players but even like driving here and getting into the studio. Hearing calls and people talking. And for me, I think the biggest thing now is as a Black man and a former player, I think it is best for me to support the players. I think it is best for me to not be here tonight. And figure out what happens now. I just don’t feel up to it.” And Smith just walked off the TNT NBA studio set in solidarity with the Milwaukee Bucks and other NBA players.

Another former NBA player and TNT commentator, Chris Webber, declared: “…I keep hearing the question: what’s next? What’s next? Well, you gotta plan for what’s next. You have to figure out what’s next. Uhm, I’m very proud of the players. I don’t know the next steps are. I don’t really care what the next steps are because the first steps are to garner attention. And they have everybody’s attention around the world right now. Then leadership and others will get together and decide the next steps. So, we know it won’t end tomorrow. We know there’s been a million marches and nothing will change tomorrow…we keep hearing vote, everybody vote. But I’m here to speak for those that are always marginalized. Those that live in these neighborhoods where we preach and tell them to vote and walk away. Charles Barkley [famous NBA player and fellow TNT commentator], came to my high school. Just seeing him [Barkley] in the locker, seeing his hands, his body, that inspired me. You can’t see something. You can’t be something until you see it. And when I tell you the little kids who have called me upset, I have a Godson who has autism and I have to explain to him, why we aren’t playing. I have young nephews, I’ve had to talk to about death before they have even seen it in the movies. If not now, when?! If not during a pandemic, and countless lives being lost, if not now when?!” He went on to say he applauded the Milwaukee Bucks and other NBA players for walking out because change, meaningful change will take time.

ESPN sports commentator, Michael Wilbon, on his show, Pardon the Interruption, proclaimed: “The long-term play doesn’t work any more. We’ve gotta play for now. So, what you’re hearing, I heard the desperation. And I said this months ago. I’m older than those guys. So, my frustration has been, you don’t hear me. In this country, at the Republican national convention, they’re not hearing this. They’re not giving a damn about Black lives. They don’t even mention Black lives. So, we’ve got a portion of people in this country who are not nearly ready to get on the bandwagon. Tony [Kornheiser, his co-host], and this is the frustration and desperation that you hear; whether it’s from Doc Rivers [L.A. Clippers Coach]; whether it’s from a player; whether it’s from whomever and there are points about what the [NBA] league is going to do. This league is not just going to push back on these players as I suspect another league in the NFL [National Football League] would have done months ago, if not weeks ago. I think [Roger] Goodell [NFL Commissioner] has made a U-Turn but I don’t know if the [NFL] owners back him. This [NBA] league is not going to do that to these players and coaches. The question is what does the NBA now want to do?…I talked to a few people in the ‘Bubble’ [isolated area at Disney World for the NBA] and a lot of people outside of it and this was percolating. Because the short-term Tony is to get people to stop killing folks. That’s the short-term goal. Stop shooting me. Stop! Make it so that I am not afraid to see a police car driving down the Dan Ryan [Expressway] in Chicago or the Beltway in [Washington] DC or wherever the hell you want to be, the [Interstate] 405 in L.A. Make it so that I cannot look over my shoulder at a police car and worry if my son is going to be safe in the car. These are the immediate questions we are dealing with and this is the emotion you hear in Doc’s [Coach River’s] voice.”

From another perspective, NBC sports analyst, Mike Tirico on the Joy Reid Show on MSNBC, commented: “…What you are seeing is the largest, most widespread day of sports activism that our country has ever seen.”

With all that is going on now—COVID-19, Hurricane Laura, the wildfires in the western U.S.—sports has once again become relevant in the national discussion over race. There is a long history of this relevance, even if many believe sports should stay out of politics.

Most recently, there was former NFL San Francisco 49ner quarterback, Colin Kaepernick’s controversy of kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a protest against racial injustice. Kaepernick’s protest essentially ended his NFL career, and for many, still provokes negative feelings in regard to disrespect for the national flag and the national anthem.

And yet, if we recall in sports history, there was the 1968 protest at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City when Americans, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, raised their fists with black gloves on at the medal podium for “Black Power”. Following their demonstration, both athletes were then expelled from the 1968 Olympic games.

Remember too, when Muhammed Ali refused to be enlisted in the U.S. Army because of religious objections in 1967. Ali’s rejection of enlistment came at a heavy price. He was stripped of his title and he was banned from boxing. In an interview about his decision, Muhammed Ali stated: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother. Some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America and shoot them for what? They never called me N***er!”

The NBA basketball legend, Bill Russell, who played for the Boston Celtics (1956-1969), maybe the greatest basketball player of all time with eleven championships to his name, asserted: “I was aware I lived in a totally segregated place and that the majority of the population was very unkind. My mother and father loved me dearly. They gave me such confidence. So, when I went out and met other people and someone saw me and didn’t like me, that was their problem, not mine. Because these two marvelous people loved me so much, I must be okay.” Fans often jeered at him with racist epithets because he was the only Black athlete on the court. As Russell maintained about his political activism: “Being a high-profile athlete, there was a forum there for me if I chose to use it, and I chose to use it.”

Since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the issues surrounding race in the United States continue to this day.

In a recent Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, one of the greatest NBA players of all-time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all-time leading scorer with six MVP awards, and author of sixteen books and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, wrote: “The moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice unless pressure is applied. In my seventh decade of hope, I am once again optimistic that we may be able to collectively apply that pressure, not just to fulfill the revolutionary promises of the U.S. Constitution, but because we want to live and thrive.”

Hence, while the NBA Milwaukee Bucks’, and other present-day NBA athletes’, boycott and demonstration, are nothing new in terms of Civil Rights activism and addressing racial injustices through the platform of professional sports, they are this generation’s response to police brutality and police killings. They are a response to systemic inequalities and institutionalized racism and in many ways represent an unprecedented reaction to social issues in sports today.

A couple of months ago, Bill Russell in an Op-Ed wrote for the Boston Globe: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for America to live up to that promise and the fact that it hasn’t, that in America the systemic and pervasive killing of Black and brown people has never been strange in the ‘out of the ordinary’ sense of the word…Yet, I am heartened by the waves of Black Lives Matter protesters risking their lives to march among our streets….And I sincerely hope that these kinds of strange days are forever behind us, and that real, lasting change will finally be realized. Our lives depend on it.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).