The NBA Has Returned to Action, but the Players Still Have Leverage

If you had tuned into the Rockets’ media availability on Friday afternoon, you would have seen an important and relevant juxtaposition, courtesy of Russell Westbrook. As Westbrook walked into the frame for his Zoom interview, he was wearing a black T-shirt that said “We Honor” in big white letters and listed the names of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and other victims of police violence. Westbrook was also holding a basketball in his hands, tossing it playfully in the air before sitting down to answer questions—all while making sure his T-shirt was in view.

This one image offered a glimpse into the NBA’s present: One of the league’s most famous stars, on the cusp of returning to play after missing six games with a quad injury, balancing the game he loves with the responsibility he feels to advocate for justice.

“Obviously, basketball is what we do. … I’m excited to play, but I’m more excited that we’re playing for a cause, [to] make sure that there’s action,” Westbrook said. “If there wasn’t any agreeing and no action about moving forward, me personally, I wouldn’t be playing.”

Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to strike and not play Game 5 against the Magic last Wednesday. They did this for a few stated reasons: to demand justice for Blake and accountability from the officers and police force involved, and to encourage the reconvening of the Wisconsin State Legislature in order to address police brutality and criminal justice reform.

Much of the rest of the league followed the Bucks’ lead—as did teams in the WNBA, MLB, and MLS—and in a matter of hours, the sports world experienced a sequence of roller-coaster-like blurs. The NBA playoffs stopped abruptly, looked to be on the brink of cancellation after the Lakers and Clippers reportedly walked out of a players’ meeting Wednesday night, and then were suddenly resurrected, with games starting back up on Saturday. In between, players, coaches, referees, and owners held various meetings, and on Friday, the league and players’ association released a joint statement and course of action:

To those on the outside, the whiplash of headlines, tweets, and reports in those 48 hours was dizzying. To those on the inside, though, the hiatus was necessary, both to get some actionable items on the table and also to take a step back, exhale, and allow the players to use their mental real estate to think about what was happening outside of the bubble.

“We stopped for a reason. … I think we all needed a pause, emotionally, mentally and physically,” Westbrook said. “We needed a break.”

“Everyone expects us to go out and play,” the Thunder’s Chris Paul said over Zoom on Friday. “I get it. But we needed some time.”

This particular setup has taken a toll on the mental health of players, especially given the burden of being cut off from the outside world during times of crisis. Players and even coaches have been adamant that the reset to the restart was needed.

“We needed a moment to breathe,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s not lost on me that George Floyd didn’t get that moment. But we did. And we took it. The players took it and got to refocus on things they wanted to focus on outside of their jobs.”

Before arriving in Orlando, the players had their own private and public debates about whether the restart should happen at all. Protests were going on around the country after the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor—with many players attending and speaking at those gatherings—and some felt that a return to play may undermine those efforts. Ultimately, most players committed to returning and were vocal about how their stage in Orlando could be used to further the cause. That was largely the case in the first few weeks, as questions and discussions about social justice reform dominated the headlines. Slowly but surely, though, those seem to fade as the basketball ramped up.

This recent stoppage seems to have set the players back on their initial course, and some even acknowledged that the game had come to overshadow what was going on outside the bubble.

“Basketball was the vehicle, but we had a mission,” LeBron James said Saturday night after beating the Blazers. “We believed the mission was lost in translation once the playoffs started, playing once every other day. When we’re trying to create change, we can’t lose sight of what the main thing is.”

In the past few days, players have once again used their media appearances to send a message. Denver’s Jamal Murray left his seat during an interview on Saturday and placed two sneakers—featuring the faces of Floyd and Taylor—on the chair for all to see. He kept them up for two minutes. “How long did I put these down for? Two minutes?” Murray asked. “One of those people had a knee on their neck for eight minutes. That’s not right. And if you don’t see it that way, there’s a problem with you.” On Sunday, Murray wore those same shoes against the Jazz and scored 50 points to force a Game 7. Then he delivered an emotional message in his postgame interview:

During an interview Saturday, Giannis Antetokounmpo said that as a rookie, Caron Butler took him aside and told him he needed to take off his hoodie when he walked down the street in America. Giannis’s teammate, Wes Matthews, gave a 22-minute interview and spoke about the impact of talking to Blake’s family. The Raptors’ Serge Ibaka provided an international perspective, saying the “same system killing Black people in the U.S. is killing my people back in Africa.” The Jazz had a team call with the Salt Lake City mayor to discuss ways to aid and improve marginalized communities. Rivers called for the George Floyd bill—that would hold police officers personally liable for damages in lawsuits, ban no-knock warrants, and halt the flow of military surplus equipment to police departments—to reach the Senate floor.

“It’s not the NBA’s job to solve the world,” Rivers said. “It’s the NBA’s job to be a part of the world.”

Being part of the world, for NBA players, means shouldering the burden of trying to balance a career that requires extreme focus with the desire to be empathetic voices for their communities. As mental health professionals have pointed out, the pressure on these players is heightened in the bubble, where a basketball haven can quickly turn into a basketball hell.

“I think I’ve had numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble. I think everyone has,” LeBron said Saturday. “It’s probably crossed my mind once a day.”

And so getting back to play after this recent hiatus doesn’t just involve a return to being vocal about social justice issues, but also an increased emphasis on mental health. Danny Green suggested the league allow players to have dogs in Orlando to help boost morale. Rivers said he’s been talking to Clippers staffers about different things they can do to help players like Paul George, who said he has been dealing with anxiety and depression in the bubble.

“This is a roller coaster being in here,” George said. “All of us are riding this wave together.”

On Sunday, before the Clippers closed out the Mavericks, Rivers said he hopes that the two hours players spend competing in games can be a reprieve of sorts. Of course, that is easier said than done, especially in this environment. Regardless, as players swing back into playoffs mode, they say the process they just underwent helped them realize the leverage they have.

“I know we’ve been heard because once the NBA stopped, everything else stopped,” Westbrook said.

Despite the assurances players have gained—that some team arenas will become voting centers for the next election, and other written commitments from owners—the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown remains skeptical. “I’m not as confident as I would like to be,” Brown said of the proposed actions. “Long-term goals are one thing, but I think there’s stuff in our wheelhouse as athletes, with our resources and the people that we’re connected to, that short-term effect is possible as well.”

Short term, the players decided that the platform Orlando provided them and the olive branch the owners extended was enough to get them to keep playing, even if a few of them have said they were ready to go home. But the precedent the Bucks set has emboldened players. The dam has been broken, and the players have a referendum on how they can effect change by not playing. For now, they’ll continue to project their voices and causes through Zoom interviews. But should the situation present itself, a number have said they’ll be ready to pull the plug once again.

“We feel like we’re stronger together here. Guys individually going to speak out wouldn’t be heard as loud as it’s heard here,” Anthony Davis said Saturday night. It took a strike, but those voices have now created tangible action. And if the league and team owners don’t follow through on what they outlined, Davis says players will have no choice but to act again. “We do have the leverage. … If they don’t [follow through], then we won’t play again.”

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