When the first few games of the NBA bubble started in late July, the league took great care to make sure that all the correct visuals were in place. The NBA understood that to maintain the careful balance of being a player-driven league—as opposed to the NFL with its devotion to “the shield”—and the most “progressive” of the four major sports leagues in the United States, it couldn’t afford to ignore the protests that erupted after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, ignoring his pleas as he used his final breaths to cry out for his mother.
Players were allowed to wear custom messages, like “Say Her Name” and “How Many More?” on the backs of their jerseys. All of the courts were branded with the words “Black Lives Matter.” Coaches wore pins on their shirts reading “Coaches for Racial Justice.” The commentators had prepared segments to explain what viewers were seeing and to briefly discuss what was unfolding outside the bubble. Things seemed to move seamlessly from there, aided by several tight playoff series.
On Sunday night, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times, paralyzing him from the waist down. Games on Monday and Tuesday resumed as normal. The commentators rolled out more packages discussing the shooting. The bold print on the courts blared the same message. Then a white 17-year-old in Kenosha shot and killed two protesters and seriously wounded a third just after Kenosha police were filmed giving him water and thanking him for his help.
Something had shifted by Wednesday evening. The Milwaukee Bucks—the top playoff seed in the league’s Eastern Conference and a team whose home city is located just 40 miles out from Kenosha—refused to exit the locker room ahead of their scheduled 4 p.m. tip-off against the Orlando Magic. Several minutes after the game was supposed to start, the Magic players and coaching staff left the court. Cautious outlets called it a “boycott,” a mealymouthed way to avoid naming the player action for what it was: a political strike.
The move caught fire. Soon after the Bucks made their statement, the Portland Trailblazers, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Houston Rockets—all of whom were scheduled to also play the fifth game in their best-of-seven series—announced they too would refuse to play, in protest of the Kenosha police shooting. The strike was on.
The tactic is technically banned by the collective bargaining agreement signed by the league and the players’ union, but as in recent teacher union strikes, the players had the numbers to pull off a wildcat action. After that, the contract is really just some paper.
Lakers superstar LeBron James tweeted, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” shortly before the full strike was revealed. Just as it couldn’t afford to do nothing at the start of the restart, the NBA likely can’t afford to be seen as acting punitively against its top players for taking a stand on civil rights it purports to also back.
Anyone who claims to be surprised by the strike has not been paying attention to how closely the issue of police brutality has actively affected Black NBA players and executives. Bucks guard Sterling Brown is currently in the middle of suing the city of Milwaukee after he was shoved and tasered by an officer outside a Walgreens, who subsequently stood on his ankle and knelt on his neck. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri—arguably the best G.M. in the game—was just vindicated by video last week regarding an incident from the 2019 NBA Finals in which an Alameda County cop working the championship’s final game blocked Ujiri from celebrating on the floor with his players, shoved him with two hands, and told him to “back the fuck up.” The Alameda County police department then publicly claimed that Ujiri punched the cop (he didn’t) as the officer involved tried to sue Ujiri and collected $150,000 in disability from the supposed trauma caused by the incident. (Said cop is now being sued by Ujiri.) Rockets forward Thabo Sefolosha had his leg broken by police in New York after he was wrongly arrested in 2015, forcing him to miss time in the league and take the officers to court.
As Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, a former player, told the media following his team’s game Tuesday night, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, referencing the dissonance he felt between the league’s show of visual solidarity and the necessary action to make change, said, “It’s starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions, nothing’s changing.”
It’s unclear what comes next. This is new territory. More often, strikes in sports have been born out of failed contract negotiations and profit-sharing deals. The league’s players will convene Wednesday night for a bubble-wide meeting to determine what their next steps will be. The only sure things are those that we’ve already seen: There will be criticism from the right, who have already used the league’s tepid stances as a dog whistle for its typical racist rhetoric. The league’s owners will try to cobble together a cohesive response to being rendered relatively powerless, putting some kind of a smiling face on seeing their financial and managerial interests blown up so spectacularly and so publicly all at once. There will be more prepared packages from commentators trying to explain to the average white fan why there was no basketball this week. But the empty show from league management is over.
Now it’s the players’ turn—now it’s a strike. These are men who could have otherwise tuned out the world aflame behind them and cashed their checks and played ball. But as VanVleet continued to ask the press rhetorically last night, “What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a fuck about what’s going on, or is it just cool to wear Black Lives Matter on a backdrop or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”