Denver Nuggets balance NBA playoffs, fight for social justice

Jamal Murray entered his scheduled media appearance and placed his sneakers on a chair and immediately walked away.

Under normal circumstances, the move might have appeared odd. But in a year of heightened social awareness in light of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other African-Americans due to police brutality, the gesture sent a message.

“I just wanted it to resonate with you guys,” the Nuggets’ point guard said. “How long was that [the sneakers on the chair]? Two minutes? One of the persons on my shoes had a knee on their neck for eight.”

Murray is referring to Floyd, who was killed during an arrest by a police officer for allegedly using a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis, MN. Floyd’s face is illustrated on Murray’s left shoe. The face of Taylor is illustrated on the right. Taylor was killed after being shot eight times during a no search warrant entry of her home in Louisville, KY.

“It doesn’t take me [alone], at 23, to realize that is not right, that should be in everybody’s mind. If you don’t see it that way, then there’s a problem with you,” Murray said.

The fourth-year pro joined head coach Michael Malone and reserve point guard Monte Morris in the Nuggets’ first press conference since the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic Wednesday. The Bucks’ decision triggered several other teams to follow suit in protest, resulting in a play stoppage that extended through the rest of the week. MLB, MLS, the NHL, and tennis player Naomi Osaka all decided to sit out scheduled competitions to recognize social injustices.

Malone’s raw emotions during his opening remarks showcased just how challenging, juggling societal issues with responsibilities of playing being a professional basketball player.

“Yesterday [Friday] was probably the worst practice that I’ve been a part of in my five years [as the Nuggets coach],” Malone said. “I wasn’t surprised and I understood it. I sympathize with our players because so much is being asked of them on the court and so much is being asked of them off the court.”

Following Wednesday’s boycotts, the 2019-2020 season was reportedly on the brink of another suspension or even cancellation, but, in the end, the players voted to resume the playoffs. Morris, the Nuggets’ Players Association representative in those meetings, was at the forefront of the talks.

“There was always that elephant in the room that this thing [the season] could be over,” Morris said. “So, we tried to stay positive and stay as a unit,” Morris said. “I think this brought the whole NBA, coaches, owners, and players even closer to figure this out. I think it shows the world we are really trying to do what we can on our side, especially postponing the games and things like that. I think it was good to show that we’re actually trying to be involved.”

Morris alluded to several initiatives that the players proposed, including getting all players to vote and utilizing NBA arenas for polling sites. He also insisted that all parties are going to continue to fight for other ways to bring about positive change in the African American community. However, balancing the desire to enact real change and remain focused on the responsibilities on the court will be a delicate situation.

“Coach Malone brought us in yesterday after practice and just said, ‘Look, I know it’s been a tough few days, but just know we’re all together and we are one. We down here to play a playoff game and we win or go home,” Morris said. “So we have to try as hard as we can and flip our minds back to that mentality,” Morris said. “Yesterday, that practice was real. It was a tough one and emotions were flying…Today, definitely helped us. We were back energized about what was going on, as far as on the basketball side and us [not] wanting to go home tomorrow.”

“We are going into an elimination game tomorrow night, where we need to fight and compete for 48 minutes if we’re going to have a chance to force Game 7,” Malone added.

“I put myself in our players’ shoes and its hard man. It’s a delicate balance. I want to do what’s right for society. I want to do what’s right for my people and I also have a game to play and I also want to represent our fans back in Denver and across the nation.”

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In some ways, the recent boycotts by NBA players have made them the face of the movement for social justice. Murray believes it’s important that players demonstrate why these issues are important but also admitted it will take more than just athletes to bring about equality.

“It’s not going to take just us, we’re going to need a whole lot of help,” Murray said. “No one is asking us to do this, this is coming from the heart. That’s why it means so much more because guys are really hurt and guys are really feeling like not playing sometimes. Until we see change, it’s tough to go out there and keep a good headspace at times, knowing that stuff in the world is still happening. We don’t want this to be a distraction, we want this to help everybody, help the people back home.”

Murray, Morris, and Malone all insisted the team’s focus will be there in a critical Game 6 against Utah Sunday night (6:30 p.m. MT/Altitude). Still, the present issues, in this country and across the world, will remain a priority for the foreseeable future.

“There are quite a few people out there they want players to shut up and dribble and they want coaches to shut up and coach. I think we’ve all shown I’m not going to do that,” Malone said. “It’s not my nature to shut up. I’m going to do my job. I’m going to help educate our players and I’m willing to put my voice and beliefs on the line. Whether you like it or not, my job isn’t to keep everyone happy… I’ve had so many people say ‘Thanks for what you’re doing.’ I tell them I’m not doing enough. We all want to do more and we all have to do more.”

Morris agreed and pointed to the recent shooting of Jacob Blake as an example of the struggle African-Americans face consistently. Blake was shot seven times in the back in front of his three children after he resisted arrest from the Kenosha, WI police.

“Seeing what’s going on with police brutality, it’s a tough, tough topic because you know it’s definitely not going to be the last shooting and that’s the crazy thing,” Morris said. “Seeing stuff like, it can be any one of us. So, I hate when people try to not pay attention to because it’s not them or their family members involved in the situation. So, I try to take it upon [myself] as if Jacob Blake was a part of me.”

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