Three days after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin—just 45 minutes south of where the Milwaukee Bucks play and practice—Bucks players held a strike in lieu of Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, leading to a postponement of all playoff games scheduled for Wednesday.
“We’re tired of the killings and the injustice,” George Hill told The Undefeated.
Less than an hour after the Bucks declined to take the court for their 1 p.m. PT game, playoff games between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers were also postponed because of anticipated strikes, according to reports. NBA players will hold a meeting Wednesday night to determine their next steps, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Beyond basketball, the Milwaukee Brewers decided to follow the NBA’s suit and not play their game Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds, and there were reports that more baseball games could feature a similar strike. In the WNBA, pregame press conferences were pushed back as the players discussed what to do about Wednesday night’s games, which were eventually postponed. Players stood at half court and sent a message while wearing T-shirts that spelled out Blake’s name and had seven holes representing the seven police gunshots:
“We have to take a stand at some point,” the Clippers’ Marcus Morris Sr. said Wednesday. “If guys don’t want to play I’m right there with them.”
FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 26, 2020
Blake, 29, was shot multiple times in the back on Sunday by a police officer, and a video of the incident recorded by a neighbor quickly went viral. Blake was reportedly attempting to intervene in an argument between two women when police arrived. Blake was paralyzed from a bullet that severed his spinal cord, according to his family and lawyers.
Social injustice was a major factor in discussions between the league and its players as they considered coming down to Orlando in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others. Players wrestled with the choice, and the league offered players the ability to put social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys and on the court. Only a handful of players opted out of the bubble, mostly due to personal reasons.
But after the Blake shooting video surfaced, many players questioned their decisions to play. After Tuesday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers gave an impassioned response to the video of the Blake shooting:
“It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) August 26, 2020
Doc Rivers delivers an emotional message on the police shooting of Jacob Blake. pic.twitter.com/A0T26OfsDG
On Wednesday, Rivers recounted his own experiences with racism, including the fact that his house was at one point burned by “skinheads.” On the topic of a strike, Rivers said he supported his players, but added, “I hope everyone plays.”
For most of Tuesday and all day Wednesday, every Zoom interview that coaches and players did revolved around potential strikes. Had they discussed one? What did they think about the reports that the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics were talking about that possibility ahead of Game 1 of their series? Coaches expressed support, players expressed frustration—some even talked about wanting to go home—and everyone seemed to leave open the possibility that a strike could be in play.
“Obviously if we sit out a game or the rest of the playoffs, we understand how big of an impact that will have,” the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum said Wednesday. “People would have to talk about it.”
Hours after those players were done speaking, the Bucks put the words into action. As the play clock wound down in the arena at Walt Disney World before tipoff, Milwaukee players declined to exit their locker room. As it became clear what was happening, the Magic, who reportedly wanted to play and were warming up, also left the arena. The clock struck zero and the buzzer sounded with no players on the court.
After their Game 4 win over the Magic on Monday, the Bucks were vocal about their anger over the Blake shooting. “We shouldn’t have even come to this damn place, to be honest,” Hill said. “I think coming here took all the focal points off what the issues are.”
On Wednesday, Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry tweeted out a message of support for the players’ decision:
Some things are bigger than basketball. The stand taken today by the players and org shows that we’re fed up. Enough is enough. Change needs to happen. I’m incredibly proud of our guys and we stand 100% behind our players ready to assist and bring about real change— Alex Lasry (@AlexanderLasry) August 26, 2020
The Bucks have had their share of experience with racism and police brutality. When George Floyd’s slaying prompted nationwide protests, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were at the forefront of a protest in Milwaukee:
In 2015, then-Bucks player John Henson was racially profiled at a jewelry store. In 2018, Sterling Brown was wrongfully arrested for illegally parking, and a video caught police officers using a Taser on Brown, wrestling him to the ground, and holding him down with their knees. One of the officers was arrested; Brown wrote about the incident in The Players’ Tribune this year. Current Buck Kyle Korver has also been vocal, by way of a Tribune essay too, of the injustices and his role as a white teammate.
On Wednesday, as the cameras stayed fixed on the empty court, players around the league began tweeting their support for the Bucks’ actions:
this shit gotta stop ‼️— Ja Morant (@JaMorant) August 26, 2020
WE DEMAND JUSTICE!!!— Jamal Murray (@BeMore27) August 26, 2020
We Demand Change. We so sick of this!!!— Robert Covington (@Holla_At_Rob33) August 26, 2020
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement bans strikes, and as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out, the league does have “failure to appear” language in its operations manual. The punishment outlined is a forfeit of the game and up to a $5 million fine. The Magic have refused to accept a forfeit by the Bucks, according to NBA reporter Keith Smith.
“Social justice protests by elite athletes are not new,” William Parham of the NBPA told me in June. “So the question is: to what degree and in what form will we use our celebrity to get out a message that is bigger than all of us? And I think that that is the added burden among players as we consider reentering and completing this season.”
This piece was updated after publication with additional information.