LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As the NBA sought to resume the season, players had to weigh whether playing basketball aided or distracted from their calls for social justice reform.
Those discussions are starting again.
With the second round of the postseason set to begin Thursday when Toronto plays Boston, players from both teams say there have been discussions about whether they should boycott games following the police shooting in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, a Black man.
Players and coaches around the league say they have been frustrated and are upset after seeing cellphone video that showed Blake being shot multiple times after they have spent a month and a half in the bubble calling for reform.
“But it’s not working, so obviously something has to be done and right now our focus really shouldn’t be on basketball,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “I understand it’s the playoffs and everything like that but we still have a bigger issue, an underlying issue that’s going on and the things that we've tried haven’t been working.
"So we definitely need to take a different approach and we need to try new things out to try to get this thing working the way that we know it should and get our voices heard even more.”
They've certainly been trying. At Disney, players have walked onto a basketball court lined with the words Black Lives Matter, went to a knee for the playing of the national anthem, and afterward used interviews to call for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was shot eight times in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13 by plainclothes officers serving a narcotics search warrant without knocking at her apartment. No drugs were found.
In the early weeks at Disney, players felt their message was getting out when anger over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police was still so fresh. But lately, having moved into the playoffs, the conversations had largely shifted toward basketball.
Now with Blake's shooting coming so soon after the start of the playoffs, Toronto guard Fred VanVleet said it was hard to get excited about the second-round matchup with Boston — if they decide to play it.
“Coming down here, making the choice to play was not supposed to be in vain but it's starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions and nothing's really changing," VanVleet said, "and here we are again with another unfortunate incident.”
"At some point, we're the ones always with the microphones in our face," the 26-year-old VanVleet said in a press conference. "We're the ones always who have to make a stand. "We're the first ones and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed. Are we going to hold everybody accountable or we're just going to put the spotlight on Black people who are Black athletes or entertainers and say: 'What are you doing, what are you contributing to the community, what are you putting on the line?' "
Blake was shot Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On Monday, George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks said players shouldn't even have come to the bubble because it took focus off the racial injustice issues, where they wanted the attention to be.
Some players, including LeBron James, wouldn't comment on Hill's thoughts. But they understand the frustration of not being able to join protesters or activist groups in their communities.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s anything we can do here that’s going to stop what’s happening across this country, with the latest example being Kenosha," Denver coach Michael Malone said. “I saw George Hill say in his press conference, why are we even here? Why are we doing this? By being here we’re isolated and can’t help where maybe we need to help. It’s frustrating for a lot of players, a lot of coaches to be here.”
"All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said in reference to the Republican National Convention before Tuesday's playoff game between the Clippers and Dallas. "We're the ones getting killed. We're the ones getting shot. We're the ones that we're denied to live in certain communities. We've been hung. We've been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear."
Toronto's Normal Powell wondered if the images that TV viewers are seeing from the bubble, such as players wearing Black Lives Matter warmup shirts, have become so familiar that that aren't resonating anymore.
“It’s starting to get washed out,” he said.
Players are trying to figure out not only how to revive them, but keep them going long after they leave the bubble. James has focused on the need to vote, not only in November but long after, no matter who wins the presidential election.
But voting comes later. Players want actions they can do now.
Boston's Jaylen Brown marched with protesters in Atlanta. He said being in the bubble gives a feeling of helplessness, because he isn't able to do that again.
“I do think the NBA has done a great job — initially — to kind of give us the platform to speak on certain things and things like that, but I do kind of do feel like it is kind of lessened as the playoffs have gotten started," Brown said.
“Things have kind of diminished. I'm curious to see in what creative ways that people put their minds together to continue to push these conversations and make me feel more comfortable about playing basketball in the middle of like a lot of things that are going on.”
Information from ESPN is included in this report