Players and coaches had been outspoken about the shooting of Jacob Blake by police Sunday in Kenosha and social injustice in general.
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Referees stand on an empty court before the start of a scheduled game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic for Game 5. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic was on the court warming up. The referees were there, too. As the clock ticked down toward Game 5 of a first-round playoff series scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday, though, the Milwaukee Bucks were nowhere to be seen.
There’s no doubt the Bucks were in the building. Brook Lopez and D.J. Wilson were photographed entering wearing shirts that read, « Black Excellence. » Pat Connaughton was sporting a T-shirt with the handwritten words, « Protect Kids Not Guns » while the back of George Hill’s shirt featured the message: « Change the Narrative. »
As it turns out, they were together in the locker room with no plan to come out. Indeed, they were intent on changing the narrative.
Unbeknownst to anyone outside their locker room, the Bucks had collectively made the decision not to play Wednesday’s game in light of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who on Sunday was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha.
While staying in their locker room for more than three hours, the Bucks spent time on a conference call with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, according to an ESPN report and confirmed by the Journal Sentinel. The team’s goal in those conversations was to learn more about the situation and process as well as to discern meaningful steps they could take.
When the Bucks emerged from their locker room, they did so as a united front, offering a statement they had crafted together. Hill, who together with Sterling Brown delivered the statement, explained that the process had taken such a long time because the team wanted to take time to brainstorm, educate themselves and avoid speaking with raw emotion.
“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities. Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.
“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.
“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on Nov. 3.”
Following that statement, the Bucks left without taking any questions. However, long before that statement came, their first-of-its-kind decision not to play on Wednesday in Game 5 of a playoff series in which they led, 3-1, had already spoken volumes and set off a domino effect that spread through the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball as players began to opt out of other games, including the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ultimately, in light of the Bucks’ decision, the NBA chose to postpone all three games scheduled for Wednesday. That being the case, the NBA had been backed into a corner. Its players, in solidarity with the Bucks, weren’t going to play anyway and the Magic, which hadn’t know about the Bucks’ protest, weren’t going to accept a forfeit. The games weren’t going to happen whether the NBA postponed them or not.
With their choice, the Bucks caused an unprecedented work stoppage in the NBA – in a season already defined by an unprecedented work stoppage due to coronavirus – one that may continue as players from the remaining playoff teams meet to determine what action to take next. The NBA’s Board of Governors will reportedly hold a special meeting Thursday morning.
Milwaukee’s decision not to take the court came a day after the Bucks held a team meeting to discuss the events of the previous couple of days. During that talk, Bucks guard Wesley Matthews and assistant coaches Darvin Ham and Vin Baker were among the people who made impassioned speeches.
The take-home message from that session was that, to them, nothing was more important than advancing the causes of social justice, racial justice and ending the preponderance of police violence.
« I don’t think it’s a distraction because it’s where our focus should be, » Bucks center Lopez said. « This issue is where our No. 1 focus should be at the end of the day. Basketball is basketball, playoffs are playoffs, they’re going to happen, what happens, happens, but the focus needs to be on this issue. Day-to-day, in the long run, in the scheme of things, that’s where the focus should be.”
The Bucks have been outspoken in the days following Blake’s shooting. Budenholzer opened his pregame media session Monday with a statement of support for Blake and his family that also decried the continued instances of police violence against Black people and social injustice.
After Game 4, Hill and Bucks wing Khris Middleton were even more passionate. Hill, clearly frustrated and at times sounding hopeless, said he, his teammates and the NBA as a whole « shouldn’t even have came to this damn place, » referring to the restarted season at Walt Disney World.
« Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are, » Hill said. « But we’re here. It is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here. But definitely, when it’s all settled, some things need to be done. This world has to change.
« Our police department has to change. Us a society has to change. Right now, we’re not seeing any of that. Lives are being taken as we speak day in and day out. There’s no consequence or accountability for it. That’s what has to change.”
Middleton, who was in Charleston, South Carolina, when nine Black people were shot and killed during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, was similarly outraged with another shooting, virtually in his backyard, this time in Kenosha.
“I mean, I think this is why we have so many people outraged all over the country, » Middleton said. « The man was shot seven times at point-blank range in the back. It doesn’t get any sicker than that.
« I think people are starting to see why Black people, colored people are so afraid of police because at any time, no matter what type of position, no matter what they did right or wrong, their first act is to shoot us. That’s a very scary situation to be in when they’re supposed to protect us.”
It’s not as if the Bucks had to look for stories of police using excessive use of force against a Black person. Brown had his own experience with police using excessive force when in 2018 he was tasered and had one officer kneel on his neck and another on his ankle over a parking violation at a Walgreens.
That incident led to multiple officers being suspended as well as a civil rights lawsuit filed by Brown against the City of Milwaukee. In May, Brown’s lawyers motioned to throw out the city’s offer to settle the suit for $400,000. Brown also penned a letter for The Players’ Tribune, titled, « Your Money Can’t Silence Me, » in which he detailed the events of that night and his response to it.
As an organization, the Bucks fully threw their support behind Brown following that incident, speaking out strongly against the excessive use of force in that instance and countless others that happened to individuals out of the public spotlight.
The organization’s clear and unwavering support was also on display in 2015 when then-Bucks center John Henson was racially profiled in Whitefish Bay. Middleton and fellow Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo were both on the team when that incident occurred.
Over the past few years, the Bucks have often been at the forefront of the NBA in addressing social injustices. From top to bottom, the organization was in full alignment with the team’s decision on Wednesday.
« We fully support our players and the decision they made, » Bucks co-owners Marc Lasry, Wes Edens and Jamie Dinan wrote in a statement. « Although we did not know beforehand, we would have wholeheartedly agreed with them. The only way to bring about change is to shine a light on the racial injustices that are happening in front of us. Our players have done that and we will continue to stand alongside them and demand accountability and change. »
The Bucks joined with the Sacramento Kings to hold summits called, “Team Up for Change,” each of the past two years, designed to address social injustice in both cities and the country at large. In December, the Bucks visited the Racine Correctional Institution to listen to the stories of the incarcerated individuals there in an attempt to listen to their stories and share some moments of humanity with them by playing basketball together.
That experience, which was unanimously described as moving and deeply meaningful by players, coaches and staff, was part of the NBA’s “Play for Justice” initiative and in partnership with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Represent Justice.
After the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May, numerous Bucks players took to the streets of Milwaukee to join and support Black Lives Matter protests. On June 7, the Bucks planned and held their own protest march – making them the first NBA team to do so – which featured Brown at the front of the group with a bullhorn.
“For these white people and everybody that’s not Black to walk up the street and say Black lives matter – if they really mean it, then something’s gonna come out of this,” Brown said that day.
Now, the Bucks are again in a protest situation that has made waves not just in Milwaukee or in the NBA, but across the world. Again, they’re hoping something good is going to come out of it.
When it comes to basketball, it’s unclear whether this NBA season will resume or not. This second stoppage initiated by the Bucks may prove to be the thing that undermines the team objective the top-seeded Bucks had carried into the Walt Disney World bubble – becoming champions.
Ironically, with their actions on Wednesday, they may have actually ensured that will be the case in the eyes of many. By deciding to opt out of Game 5, the Milwaukee Bucks became champions for the causes of social and racial justice and champions of reform when it comes to the issues of policing, particularly police violence perpetuated against Black Americans.
They may have sacrificed their season, the support of some fans and their own earnings, but it seems clear from their unified actions the Bucks believe that trade is worthwhile.
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