The NBA playoffs games scheduled to take place on Wednesday night were called off after players of the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Although Bucks’ opponents, Orlando Magic, had been on the court to warm-up, the Bucks stayed in their locker room. Bucks have a home in Winsconsin not more than a 40-minute drive from Kenosha where Blake was shot seven times in the back by officers.
Like dominoes, the decision taken by the Bucks players triggered postponements in other games in the NBA playoffs as well as in other association sports. Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Women’s NBA all called off the night’s games.
Support for the postponements has come from various quarters of American society including from former President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as well as from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Obama tweeted: “I commend the players on the @Bucks for standing up for what they believe in, coaches like @DocRivers, and the @NBA and @WNBA for setting an example. It’s going to take all our institutions to stand up for our values.”
Later, ESPN reported that an emergency stakeholder meeting was held between players and officials of the NBA to navigate the way forward. But Los Angeles Lakers players, led by forward LeBron James elected to end the NBA season.
James and the Lakers were backed by hometown rivals Los Angeles Clippers. James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard are said to have then stormed out of the meeting along with the rest of their teams.
“F**K THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” tweeted James on Wednesday night. There are no prizes for who James abused in his tweet seeing that he has on a few occasions accused President Donald Trump of divisive leadership.
But James’ commitment to leveraging the value he provides to millions of Americans on and off the court in order to bring attention to racial justice is not a new strategy.
In 1961, after a Kentucky coffee shop refused to serve two Boston Celtics players Satch Sanders and Sam Jones, NBA legend Bill Russell, along with K.C Jones, Al Butler as well as Sanders and Jones, refused to honor a preseason game.
Interestingly, the African-American players were supported in their own form of civil disobedience by Red Auerbach, their coach. Auerbach personally drove the players to the airport to catch a flight out of Kentucky.
Auerbach would later go on to field the first all-Black starting lineup in the NBA – Russell, Sanders, Jones, Jones, and Willie Naulls. And when he retired, Auerbach wanted his predecessor to be Russell, making Russell the first Black coach in NBA history.
Russell would go on to spend his life between winning games on the court and pushing for civil rights off it. Even more than the global superstar LeBron James, Russell was an explicit advocate of Pan-Africanism, once telling schoolkids in Liberia, “I came here because I am drawn here, like any man, drawn to seek the land of my ancestors.”
Sixty years later, Russell’s fight does not seem much different than James’ of today. Russell himself tweeted his support for James and co: I’m moved by all the @NBA players for standing up for what is right…Thank you for what you did to show your support for the players. I am so proud of you. Keep getting in good trouble.”
Sixty years apart, Black athletes are utilizing every avenue available to them to make a case for human dignity. It is up to America if it wants to treat this as an opportunity or a slap in the face.