NBA Playoffs resume after major strike for Black lives
Members of the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic kneel during the national anthem before an NBA basketball first round playoff game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. | Ashley Landis/AP

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks came to the arena and prepared for a game, just as they did three days earlier.

This time, they played it.

The rescheduled Game 5 of the Bucks’ series against Orlando began Saturday as the NBA postseason resumed after a historic stoppage that players hope will bring change in their communities.

“It was a moment in which the world needed and obviously we know this is going to be a long, ongoing process,” Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said. “But we’re in. We’re in the trenches and we’re in this fight for the long haul.”

The teams were scheduled to play Wednesday afternoon, but the Bucks decided not to take the court to show their frustration over the police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, along with other acts of racial injustice.

That led to a two-day postponement of games that ended when players and owners agreed to expanded initiatives, many tied to increased voting awareness and opportunities, such as the use of NBA arenas as polling sites. Teams then began practicing again Friday and three games were to be played Saturday.

The Bucks won 118-104 to reach the second round.

Matthews said he was putting on his uniform shorts about 20 minutes before the game was set to begin Wednesday when the Bucks decided they wouldn’t play. The Magic were already on the court warming up.

Guard George Hill, who earlier in the week said teams shouldn’t have even come to the bubble because it took attention away from fighting racial injustice, decided he wouldn’t play. So did Sterling Brown, who has a federal lawsuit pending against the city of Milwaukee alleging he was targeted because he was Black and that his civil rights were violated in January 2018 when officers used a stun gun on him after a parking violation.

The Bucks followed along and were prepared to forfeit, which would have trimmed their series lead to 3-2.

“Obviously there’s consequences that happen with not going out there and as a team we decided to forfeit the game, but I did not even second-guess what I was doing even for a second,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “As I said, I love G-Hill, I love Sterling. I’m proud of my teammates, everyone, that we were able to be in the right side of history.”

Antetokounmpo said he had experienced racism growing up in Greece, but didn’t understand the fear Blacks feel in the U.S. until his rookie season. Former Bucks forward Caron Butler, who grew up in Wisconsin, told him to pull down the hood of his sweatshirt whenever he was walking late at night.

The Magic refused to accept the forfeit and NBA players stood behind the Bucks, even though some were frustrated the Bucks acted alone without consulting them.

Matthews apologized for that but said the aftermath has confirmed for the Bucks that they made the right decision.

“We didn’t think that this was going to turn the way that it did, but we are grateful for the fact that that moment, that pause, that postponement was able to help everybody reflect again and realize that everybody’s got to step up,” Matthews said.

Coach Mike Budenholzer praised his players for their leadership and commitment in taking the risk they did.

The Bucks remained in their locker room for hours after the game was set to begin, during which time they spoke with Wisconsin officials. Matthews said that showed the impact athletes can have.

The players had another meaningful call, speaking to Blake’s family.

“I think that brought tears to everybody’s eyes because you felt that,” Matthews said. “We didn’t need any other validation after talking to them about what we did, to hear that we were able to bring a smile to not only his face but the face of his parents.”

Hill said at one point he considered leaving Disney but decided he can’t give up on his team, that had the NBA’s best record.

“We’re trying to continue to make change for our city. I told them I want to stand with them just as much as they stood with me the other day,” Hill said. “I decided to go back out there, leave my own personal ego back where it is and focus on my team and my brothers, and that’s what I did today.”

Coming off the heels of this historic moment is an example of how collective worker power can be used to leverage and create change.  As part of their negotiated return to work (playoffs) the NBA and NBA players union agreed on three joint-conditions as part of the return:

  • The NBA and its players agreed to immediately establish a social justice collation, with representatives from players (union members), coaches, and team governors, that will focus on a broad range of issues, including access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaning police and criminal reform.
  • In every city where a league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local elections officials to convert the stadiums into voting locations for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to Covid-19
  • The league will work with the players, and network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.

Where elected officials have failed, organized labor, in this case unionized sports picked up the slack, and showed what can truly be done, in and out of the shop (or arena) when workers take control.

–People World’s staff writer Al Neal contributed to this report.


Brian Mahoney
Brian Mahoney

NBA writer for The Associated Press, focusing on areas such as the Knicks, Nets, and USA Basketball.