The NBA players’ initiative was an unprecedented display of power from professional athletes, the pinnacle of a black protest tradition started by legends such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. After the initial decision not to go on the pitch, a period of feverish uncertainty arose: Should the players end their season or continue playing? Was Brooklyn Nets goalie Kyrie Irving still right that the season should never have resumed? More importantly, how could this group of rich, famous, predominantly black men use their influence to end police violence?
The answers revolve around the three basketball courts at Walt Disney World in Florida, where the NBA has created a coronavirus-free bubble amid the life-changing pandemic as we know it. This is where NBA players have the most opportunity, focus and leverage to change the sport as we know it and create the most powerful player movement in history.
Carlos and Smith would have been ignored if they had raised their fists during a protest march rather than the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Kaepernick would still be in the NFL if he protested on Tuesday instead of Sunday. To maximize their impact, NBA players need the NBA scene. They need to stay in the bubble, where they can exert the most influence.
“When I raised my fist at the Olympics, I couldn’t do it in front of the Apollo Theater. I couldn’t go do it in Central Park, ”Carlos told me this week. “I had to do it where the world could see it so they could assess it in terms of ‘Hey, man, am I involved in systemic racism?’ ”
Outside of the bubble, the voice and collective presence of players would be diluted. They might be walking the streets – or not, as the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown pointed out – but they wouldn’t have millions of viewers and dozens of captive media interviews in Orlando, Florida. Irving is a perfect example of how little attention even star players get outside of the bubble: after the injured Nets guard said the season should be called off to stay focused on social justice, activism and Irving’s charities have received less coverage than, say, the strip club’s chicken wings named after LA Clippers goalie Lou Williams.
It would be easy, but short-sighted, to call the decision to resume play selfish or to claim NBA players care more about winning games than saving lives. Yes, the players have millions of dollars in wages to lose. Their championship windows are ephemeral. They don’t want to alienate the fans who are starting a new employment contract with the owners. And most of them have an almost overriding desire to gamble. Hoops need hoops no matter what.
But in this case, the best social justice strategy matches their personal interests. The only people their strikes can directly force into action are the NBA team owners. The multi-day playoff stoppage prompted owners to invest more of their billions in meaningful social change. Canceling the season would have been the nuclear option for the players. It would have forced the league to fight for its own survival, not that of black people. This would not have put significant pressure on state legislatures to pass stricter use of force laws or end qualified immunity for police.
By continuing to compete, the players kept their options. As former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson told me in his autobiography, when he discussed the strategy behind his legendary walkout on the NCAA’s discriminatory rule on academic eligibility, Proposition 42, “The fear of riot is more powerful than the riot itself.
So what are the options for players if there is another insane shot? Perhaps they could delay the start of a match to broadcast video of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Jacob Blake’s final moments. They could let the referee throw the opening board, then walk off the pitch and talk about the murder of Breonna Taylor. Perhaps the Bucks, who started this move, will reach Game 7 of the Finals against LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers – and both teams could decide to end the season there, without a champion. Now that they have decided not to finish the season yet, the possibilities are endless.
The greatest moments in sport are getting up and performing under pressure. This is the moment. The stakes are in fact life and death. By continuing to play, the NBA Brotherhood can shed light on injustice and stand up for victims of oppression.
Carlos, the 1968 Olympic hero, said the Lakers invited him to speak to their team via Zoom about a week ago, before the strike was conceived. He refused to fully disclose what they had spoken of, “but I said this – they are at a crossroads, as I was in Mexico. I had my vision, my ideas on how we could make this society better. But I realized that if I lost this focus, it would never happen. I had to stay focused and make sure I was on the winning stand.
“If I haven’t made it to the victory stand, everything else is out the window.
Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving some weirdness to guys at a basketball court near you.