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What Happened In The NBA This Week?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It’s been an incredible couple of days in the sports world, with athletes using their voices in ways that are nearly unprecedented. The NBA is on pause again tonight, though games in the playoff bubble will resume tomorrow. Before games start up again, though, we wanted to stop and talk about what this strike has meant, what it might accomplish going forward and how the players are changing the conversation.

What did you all make of Wednesday’s strike?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I had already seen the reports about the Celtics and Raptors contemplating whether to call off their game Thursday. But then Milwaukee beat everyone to the punch by doing it themselves. And I probably should have seen that possibility there, given the Bucks’ proximity to the Jacob Blake shooting, and the vocal nature of their players concerning police brutality.

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think for me the biggest thing was the domino effect the Bucks’ decision not to take the court had not just in the NBA, but in other sports. WNBA players have been leading on social justice issues for a while now, and once the NBA players decided not to play, it made sense that WNBA players would follow suit. But seeing players from MLB, the NHL and even the NFL take similar stands was notable.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The snowball of everything was what really caught me by surprise too.

I understood the NBA as a whole being active and speaking up, because that’s become normal. But, when I saw the MLB and NHL was when I realized just how big this could get.

chris.herring: Yeah. I was kind of stunned when the reports on Wednesday night were coming out about the player meetings. At one point, LeBron James walked out, and it briefly looked like the season might be over. I’m still thinking about what kind of statement that would have sent, if that had been the case.

I’ll wonder for a while what that would have done, or how things might have been different.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I remembered it took a moment to fully realize what was happening. Seeing the images on Twitter of the empty courts was pretty jarring at first, and you could almost feel a collective sense of “holy shit, this is big.”

dubin: Right. And at first, it just seemed to me like George Hill was going to sit out. He’d said earlier in the week that the players should never have come to Orlando in the first place, and then he was listed as inactive for the game.

Oh, and before we get into everything else: The coverage on NBATV was absolutely riveting. I thought Bob Fitzgerald and especially Jim Jackson did a remarkable job, and then Sam Mitchell, Chris Webber and more people kept rotating in and out and making it even better.

chris.herring: I found myself peeling away from all the coverage at times. Maybe that’s weird. But it feels weird that people have to put their pain on display for some folks to realize how serious the subject of police brutality — and the lack of justice when it happens — is in the Black community.

The pandemic has magnified it for whatever reason, and the players protesting did, too. But it shouldn’t take all this to draw attention to it. I’m glad the attention is there now, though.

dre.waters: The craziest part to me was when I saw Elle Duncan’s tweet about the only other boycott of a game in the NBA in 1961.

And seeing this boycott is about the same issue of racial injustice really hurt.

sara.ziegler: That’s a great point, Dre. Black athletes are still having to fight the same fights, 60 years later.

dre.waters: I guess I’m pretty young … so I had never heard much about the Celtics boycott. But as soon as I saw the tweet, my only thought was WTF…

dubin: It’s definitely uncomfortable to watch people process such raw pain on TV. It shouldn’t take something like that to raise awareness for an issue that’s been so glaringly obvious for so long, but if it did make even one person more aware and wake them up to how much it affects Black people (and specifically young Black men like the players are and the former-player commentators once were), I feel like that’s good.

What stuck out to me, too, was how proud it seemed like the former players were of the current players for taking this stand. That was a big part of what C-Webb said, and you’ve seen guys like Bill Russell say the same thing on Twitter and elsewhere since. Considering how often former-player commentators rag on today’s game and some of the players, it was pretty striking.

sara.ziegler: Kenny Smith walking off the TNT set was also very moving, to me.

I confess that I was a little surprised that they did decide to start playing again — I thought this was it for the season. Did that surprise you guys?

tchow: I definitely thought by Wednesday night, after hearing those reports about the meetings Chris mentioned, that the season was done. It was difficult to see how they would continue and get back on the court after that.

dubin: It didn’t help that the reports about the meetings were conflicting, depending on whose timeline you were following. I think that contributed to making it seem more like the season was over.

dre.waters: The reports about the Lakers and Clippers voting not to continue is when I really thought it was over, honestly.

sara.ziegler: And LeBron! Seems like it would be hard to keep going if your biggest star doesn’t want to play.

dubin: Right. When we heard LeBron walked out of the meeting, I thought it was done. But then within like a half-hour, we heard that the votes from the Lakers and Clippers were more of an informal poll. Or something. It was all a lot, obviously.

dre.waters: Who could imagine the playoffs without LeBron and two of the favorites to win the championship?

dubin: Plus, the Bucks were the first team to not take the court, and the day before, it was the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet talking about how the players need to “put our nuts on the line” to get something instead of just T-shirts and slogans. Those might be the four most likely teams to win the title. Their willingness to sacrifice so much for real change was powerful.

chris.herring: Yeah. The season would have been over — there would’ve been no coming back from that.

sara.ziegler: How strange will it be on Saturday to just go back to playing the games? I don’t really want to “go back to normal” right now.

chris.herring: It probably depends on who you’re asking. It might be a bit strange for some of the players. I truly wonder how someone like George Hill — who’s already said he doesn’t know why they went down to Florida in light of some of this stuff happening — feels at a time like this.

I think them coming back after a couple days will feel normal to a huge number of fans. And that, in some ways, is the problem. It’s certainly an enormous part of the challenge, with the media, too: Instead of focusing on issues, we inevitably shift our attention back to the games. It’s why stuff seemed to get through so much more at the beginning of the pandemic, IMO: There weren’t other things like sports to distract us from the reality of how shameful this stuff is.

dubin: I think that for the teams that make the second round, having their families be able to come down within a few days could be a source of relief. Not necessarily to distract from what they want to accomplish, but being away from their families when another shooting happened has to have played a role in so many guys just saying enough is enough and we don’t want to be a distraction right now.

chris.herring: Amen to that part. The family members who are quarantined are supposed to be able to join them on Monday.

tchow: I can’t imagine the story of what happened Wednesday night and why it happened will go away anytime soon? I’m sure there are fans or media personnel who can’t wait to go back to covering Luka Dončić triple-doubles and James Harden highlights and all that. But it’s hard to see a world in which the media at large goes back to business as usual and covering these playoffs without constantly reminding fans of what happened this week.

dre.waters: I’m really interested to see how they go about covering this going forward. Much like we’ve talked about all through the quarantine, what is the new “normal”?

tchow: Or maybe I’ll reword that. It will say a lot about the U.S. if, by this time next week, we’re only reading about the Lakers’ chances of making the Finals or if Russell Westbrook will return to play.

dre.waters: They mentioned in the statement that the league and networks will use advertising spots to promote civic engagement, etc. What does that actually look like?

dubin: Also, does that actually do anything? I saw Diana Moskovitz say that the NFL has been doing that for a few years, and I didn’t even know about it. Seems … not effective.

chris.herring: I keep saying how conflicted I feel about all of this in one sense: The decision to stop playing — not just for a day, but for the rest of the season — would have been monumental. It would have been the biggest statement you could possibly make. I think LeBron probably could have triggered something along those lines by himself.

I also think it would have been incredibly risky. Not every player could afford to do that. It could have triggered a lockout. But I also imagine it would have helped the players get a seat at certain tables and afforded them more power to ask for more action, or more money for certain things to tackle some of these highly systemic problems.

The feeling I had after hearing that, one day later, they’d agreed to go back to play was similar to how I felt when Colin Kaepernick settled his suit with the NFL.

No sense of disappointment on my part whatsoever. Because I know how much it must be to bear that weight on their shoulders. And it’s personal to their lives, as far as money and the ridicule they face by staying in that moment. But I will always be curious about whether more could have been achieved had they gone all the way with it and ended the season. We’ll never know.

sara.ziegler: I completely agree with you, Chris. I wish we could know what response would have had the best outcome.

tchow: What I would give to be in these meetings to learn how much it took for the players to agree to come back to play. Because this is such a drastic statement, I can’t imagine the players would agree without some reluctance. With the initiatives and commitments they announced, I want to know if the players think this is enough. Is it a good enough start? I have so many questions.

dubin: There has been some positive movement already:

That’s explicitly what the Bucks asked for in their statement.

sara.ziegler: Oh, wow.

dubin: But it’s something a lot of people have said the past few days: For all this to be on the shoulders of NBA players is asking way too much of them. It’s so much responsibility and so many different competing and possibly conflicting motivations. Even handling it the way they did is pretty incredible.

chris.herring: Absolutely, Jared.

That part is so important: It’s not their responsibility.

dubin: Like, a) it should not have to fall to Black people to fix systemic racism; b) it should not have to fall to young people to fix systemic racism; and c) it should not have to fall to young, Black people who are separated from their families at such a fraught time to fix systemic racism or anything else, really.

chris.herring: It’s so bizarre to me that they’ve done so much to shine a light on all this stuff, yet people still expect more of them, as if it’s not people that look like them that are being shot and disproportionately killed while unarmed. That they’d play in the middle of a pandemic that’s disproportionately infecting and killing off their community, and play in a bubble away from their families. That a number of them have started organizations to support voting reform. That a number have spent time talking about solutions with police and people in their cities. And yet people will hit them with a “What about China?” as if the players don’t actually care about the stuff in their backyards and their own communities.

(I also think a ton of people disingenuously ask that question, much the same way people ask “What about Chicago?” whenever a community of folks is rightfully up in arms over a police shooting.)

sara.ziegler: ^^^ THIS

dubin: Definitely agree with that. But also, it’s possible for people within the NBA (or outside it) to have been wrong on things relating to China and 100 percent right about this.

chris.herring: Absolutely.

tchow: From the statements we’ve seen both written and those that players have read aloud or said to the media, it feels like this action comes more from just exasperation and frustration. They are TIRED. And I think that sentiment can be shared by a lot of Americans right now.

dubin: It’s exhausting and frustrating to me, and I’m a white man who doesn’t have to physically fear for my life in every interaction I have with police. I can’t imagine how it is for people who have to live that reality every day.

chris.herring: I’m quite tired of people being held to a standard of caring about something that the critics don’t hold themselves to — especially when the players appear to be taking actionable steps on so many other human rights issues that are happening in this country.

dubin: Also tired of people pretending that because (some) NBA players make hundreds of millions of dollars, these things don’t affect them.

tchow: YUP

dre.waters: AGREED!

dubin: Also, every player in the NBA has family and friends who are not in the NBA. They also were not in the NBA from birth. They had to grow up into the people they are now. So, they didn’t always have this fame or money or influence.

And then something that doesn’t get talked about a lot: most NBA players are, comparatively speaking, HUGE compared to the rest of the population. In a world in which police can exaggerate the size of Black men to justify being scared and then using force, already being really, really big could make things even more dangerous for them.

dre.waters: That’s a great point, Jared.

tchow: Yeah, one thing I’ve noticed recently is the number of NBA players who are sharing NEW stories about the times they’ve been profiled by the police and a lot of their interviews to the media have acknowledged that “when I leave the court, I’m still Black” sentiment.

dre.waters: Watching all the coverage of this should be a reminder of that. How many Black commentators and former players have we seen still mention that they have the same talks with their families and loved ones that every other Black family has to have?

sara.ziegler: I hope that white fans are listening to that — and really hearing it.

chris.herring: I’m cynical. But I hope at some point I’m wrong for being that way.

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.