KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The shooting by police of Jacob Blake has reverberated from Kenosha, Wis., sparking feelings of anger, fear and frustration inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble, with players from multiple teams raising questions about whether games should continue given the ongoing social justice protests across the country.
Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill said Monday that NBA players “shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest” because playing in the bubble “took all the focal points off what the issues are.” Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, who participated in demonstrations following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, wrote on Twitter: “I want to go protest.” And Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told reporters Tuesday that the possibility of boycotting Game 1 of a second-round series against the Boston Celtics came up in a team meeting.
“If we’re going to sit here and talk about making change,” VanVleet said, “then at some point we’re going to have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. . . . What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a f— about what’s going on or is it just cool to wear Black Lives Matter on the backdrop or wear a T-shirt? What does that really mean? Is that really doing anything?”
The “to play or not to play” question preceded the bubble’s opening last month, with a group of players led by Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving arguing against basketball’s return because it could distract from ongoing nationwide protests. Superstar players, including Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, have repeatedly attempted to keep the focus on the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other police shooting victims. James said Monday that Blake’s shooting was “f—-ed up” and that “guns are a huge issue in America,” adding that Black people are “terrified” and feel that police are “hunting us.”
Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers shares the players’ widespread outrage. In an emotional postgame news conference following the Clippers’ 154-111 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 on Tuesday, Rivers called video of Blake’s shooting “sickening,” said police unions “have to be taken down” and advocated for new police training programs.
“Just watching the Republican convention, and they’re spewing this fear,” Rivers, 58, said. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones who were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you keep doing is hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.
“If you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. How dare the Republicans talk about fear. We’re the ones that need to be scared. What White father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It’s just ridiculous. It keeps going. There’s no charges. Breonna Taylor: no charges, nothing. All we’re asking is you live up to the Constitution for everybody.”
Rivers once lost a home to fire in what was an apparent hate crime, and he guided the Clippers through the Donald Sterling saga during the 2014 playoffs. In the middle of a first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, a tape surfaced of Sterling, then the Clippers’ owner, using racist language.
Sickened by their owner’s words and the prospect of playing for him, the Clippers held a team meeting and considered a boycott. They ultimately decided against it, instead staging a silent protest by taking off their warm-ups, wearing inside-out T-shirts so that the team’s logo wouldn’t be visible, and donning black armbands, wristbands and socks. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later banished Sterling for life and helped broker the franchise’s sale.
Rivers said Tuesday that he would encourage players who are weighing a possible boycott over Blake’s shooting to continue playing.
“My message is go after your dreams,” Rivers said. “You don’t allow anything to take you away from your dreams. During the Donald Sterling thing, Matt Barnes, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and JJ Redick all pulled together. When we were little kids, in the backyard by ourselves and we had these dreams about winning a championship, Donald Sterling was not in our dreams and neither were these cops.”
The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have taken steps to address player concerns, adding Black Lives Matter decals to the court, allowing players to wear social justice messages on the back of their jerseys, and establishing a $300 million foundation to support Black communities.
For Rivers, the act of playing carries its own symbolic value.
“I think you always play,” he said. “We can fight for justice but we should still do our jobs. I really believe that. By doing our jobs, people are seeing excellence from Americans – Black Americans and White Americans. I would still do my job.”
Both games scheduled Tuesday went off without incident. Three games are scheduled for Wednesday, and the Raptors and Celtics are scheduled to begin their series on Thursday.
Despite his strong beliefs on the subject, Rivers acknowledged that the decision to play or boycott should ultimately be left to the players.
“If my players told me no, it would be no, I can tell you that,” he said.