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How the Milwaukee Bucks kicked off a historic NBA protest

The Bucks refused to play in the middle of the NBA playoffs to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The NBA postponed playoff games Wednesday night after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in their matchup in solidarity with Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot by police seven times in the back this weekend in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The team was scheduled to tip off against the Orlando Magic at 4 pm Wednesday for Game 5 of their seven-game first-round playoff series, but they never emerged from the locker room. The Magic, who are currently losing the series three games to one, are “not accepting the Bucks’ forfeit,” according to NBA reporter Shams Charania.

The Bucks’ protest makes sense: Not only was Blake shot just several dozen miles from their training facility, they also have had experience with police brutality before. In September 2018, a Bucks player, forward Sterling Brown, was tased and arrested by Milwaukee police, but never charged.

But even before the association postponed all the night’s games, the Bucks didn’t seem like they would have been alone for long — several other teams were considering doing the same.

The Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were scheduled to face each other later on Wednesday, decided to boycott their own Game 5 matchup, as have the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.

The NBA has had a long history of player activism: Professional basketball players in 2014 donned “I can’t breathe” shirts in solidarity with Eric Garner, who was killed by police. One of the league’s biggest stars, LeBron James, has become a major political force for racial justice and voting rights, and multiple players joined protests after the police killing of George Floyd in May. Wednesday’s walkout — which could become an official strike later Wednesday night — is a powerful escalation of that tradition.

Alex Lasry, the senior vice president of the Bucks organization, voiced his support for the players on Twitter.

“Some things are bigger than basketball,” he tweeted. “The stand taken today by the players and org shows that we’re fed up. Enough is enough. Change needs to happen.”

A not-so-surprising surprise boycott

The team’s refusal to play is historic — but not completely out of the blue. Earlier this week, Bucks guard George Hill expressed regret about traveling to the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, for the league restart.

“Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are,” Hill said Monday. “But we’re here. It is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here. But definitely when it’s all settled, some things need to be done.”

During a Wednesday press conference in which players for the Toronto Raptors spoke about the difficulty of watching another Black man be shot by police, Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell discussed other options for advancing the conversation around racial justice.

“I think everybody’s at the point (where) sitting up here and saying Black Lives Matter — and sitting up having discussions and Zoom calls and this, that, and the other, putting apparel on — that’s not getting the job done,” Powell said. “Taking the knee for the anthem, that’s not getting the job done. It’s starting to get washed out. I feel like Black Lives Matter is just another part of the conversation now because you see it so much. It’s everywhere.”

Nonetheless, the boycott is said to have taken the NBA by surprise.

“The NBA, owners and front offices didn’t see this wave of player boycotts coming today,” NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday. “Hours ago, they all expected to be playing these games tonight. This is a pivot point for the NBA and professional sports in North America.”

Now it’s a question of how far things will go: In a statement released shortly after the boycott, the NBA announced that all three Wednesday games — Bucks-Magic, Rockets-Thunder, and Lakers-Blazers — would be rescheduled.

However, it’s unclear if any of the teams involved will agree to play at a later date. According to Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Mannix, several teams, including the league-champion Toronto Raptors, have discussed leaving the playoff bubble and going home entirely. Jared Weiss reported that the NBA players association will hold a union meeting Wednesday night where they will debate holding a vote to officially go on strike.

The protest could also spread beyond basketball: At least one baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers, have announced they will not play a scheduled Wednesday game.

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