Content Warning: this article contains references to police brutality.
After a spring that left the sports world unsure if the NBA would return to finish the 2019-2020 season, a plan finally began to take shape. The top teams in the NBA, along with teams on the fringe of making the playoffs, were to relocate to Disney World in what would become the now-famous NBA bubble. After the players arrived in early July, a couple weeks of mini-camps and practices were needed before the teams were ready to have real competition. On Thursday, July 30th, the NBA season returned with the marquee matchup being the LA showdown between the Lakers and Clippers that ended in a close 103–101 victory for the Lakers.
Beyond the lack of fans in the stands, the return to the NBA had other notable developments. Before returning, the players demanded that the NBA step up commitments to advancing racial justice and putting an end to police violence in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. The players kneeled for the national anthem, wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. They were able to choose from a number of messages to wear on the back of their jerseys, such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Liberation,” and “Freedom.” The courts also had Black Lives Matter written across the midcourt line.
Clippers’ star forward Kawhi Leonard was interviewed for ESPN regarding the on-going protests.
“We see what’s going on outside,” Leonard said.“Even though we’re here playing basketball, we still want things to get better. We all came together down on one knee. That pretty much was my mindset, just helping stopping this racial conflict right now.”
The Clippers’ veteran coach, Doc Rivers, also had powerful words to describe the experience of kneeling for the anthem.
“In the middle I’m thinking, in two minutes my knee is hurting, yet there was a guy that had his knee on someone’s neck for eight minutes,” Rivers said in an ESPN interview. “Think about that. The national anthem took two minutes. There were guys that needed towels and things under their knees. And yet someone kneeled on another human being’s neck for eight minutes. That’s nuts when you think about it.”
In the wake of the anthem protests, President Trump criticized the players for bringing politics into sports. Lakers forward LeBron James, perhaps the most influential player in the NBA, responded with force.
“I hope everyone, no matter the race, no matter the color, no matter the size, will see what leadership that we have at the top in our country and understand that November is right around the corner and it’s a big moment for us as Americans,” James said.“If we continue to talk about, ‘We want better. We want change,’ we have an opportunity to do that. But the game will go on without his eyes on it. I can sit here and speak for all of us that love the game of basketball: We could care less.”
Even as NBA players have demonstrated powerful acts of resistance on the court, the game itself has had some amazing moments. One of the biggest stories of early August was the play of Damian Lillard, who singlehandedly willed the Portland Trail Blazers into a playoff spot. The Phoenix Suns were another Cinderella story from the bubble, going 8–0 and falling just a game short of making the playoffs. Rising star Devin Booker looks to be one of the best young players in the league, and Phoenix’s run only cemented that.
With the regular season at an end, the playoffs began on August 15 with a new play-in game. Lillard once again stole the show, bringing the Trail Blazers into a first round matchup with the Lakers. The first round of the playoffs was off to a fast start until the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This drove players to once again confront ownership about how the NBA could respond to police brutality and state-sanctioned violence.
The Orlando Magic arrived at the court on August 26th and remained for 20 minutes before realizing that the Milwaukee Bucks were boycotting the game. Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams said in an interview that, “we support them and are there for them.” In the wake of the Bucks’ protest, the rest of the NBA followed suit, each team boycotting their respective playoff games.
Bucks player Sterling Brown, who himself was a victim of police brutality, said in an interview that “despite the overwhelming pleas for change, there have been no actions, so our focus cannot be on basketball.”
Brown’s sentiments were echoed several times in the following days as players held league-wide conversations about how they could best use their platform to demand change.
After multiple days of negotiations with owners, the players decided to return to play. However, in only a couple days, the players succeeded in demands to convert team-owned facilities into voting locations for the 2020 election. Additionally, they forced many owners to call politicians to advocate for change. Most notably, in Wisconsin, the home state of the Bucks, a police reform bill was brought forward into the state legislature. Beyond the NBA, athletes from all the major sports leagues across the U.S. protested their games.
When the athletes returned to play, the competition remained just as fierce as before. The highlight of the final half of the first round was the gut-wrenching series between the Jazz and Nuggets, where young stars Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray each dropped two fifty point games en route to a seven game thriller. With the second round underway, the Celtics and Heat look to be on a collision course in the Eastern Conference, while the West remains open.
While basketball has certainly been entertaining, the players’ staunch commitment to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement has been their most impressive showing this summer.
John Vernaglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Annie Roach can be reached at email@example.com