The restart is about to restart.
Basketball will be played again inside the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World on Friday, albeit of the practice variety. Playoff matchups are set to resume on Saturday, meaning games will have stopped for three days while players protested the shooting of a Black man by police in Wisconsin earlier this week.
To shut up and dribble has never been less of an option for players. LeBron James is helping lead a massive get-out-the-vote effort, and Stephen Curry appeared with his family in a video aired as part of the Democratic National Convention last week. The bubble’s purpose was two-fold — crown a champion, and help players seek societal changes that simply haven’t come fast enough for their liking. That was what brought them to Central Florida, and ultimately, that’s why they decided to stay now.
“There’s a lot of emotions built up with what’s going on,” Miami’s Andre Iguodala said Thursday night from the bubble at Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Iguodala, the First Vice President of the National Basketball Players Association — making him the second-highest ranking player in the union behind only Chris Paul — wrote a best-selling book last year, a 256-page memoir of his life and career.
The saga of this week alone is another story in itself, he said.
“The last 24 hours would be another 256 pages,” Iguodala said Thursday. “It’s been very interesting.”
There was the refusal to play by the Milwaukee Bucks, something that caught the league — and even the Bucks’ would-be opponent Wednesday, the Orlando Magic — by surprise. That led to two other games being called off, and ultimately a three-hour meeting involving players, coaches and others where some suggested the prudent move would be to end the season.
By Thursday morning, cooler heads prevailed, and players decided to continue the playoffs. Iguodala said players reminded one another of why they decided to reboot this pandemic-interrupted season in the first place — to use the stage of the NBA playoffs as a platform to urge social change. And walking away now, many said, would do much more harm than good.
“It’s bigger than basketball, but the platform is one of the largest platforms on the entire earth and we’ve got to continue to leverage that platform,” Iguodala said. “The reason why we came down here was continuing to shed light on it. And we didn’t want that to be taken away by those who don’t want us to see that mission seen all the way through.”
Some players were asked earlier this week if they were concerned that the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” being painted on the courts, many players and coaches kneeling en masse for the national anthems, phrases urging social change and awareness on the back of most uniforms, all of them being steps unprecedented in NBA history — was getting stale, if there was a concern that fans were tuning it out.
That wouldn’t seem to be the case now.
Not playing the games surely made people, whether they support NBA players or criticize their efforts, take notice. Even President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of the league and its players, said Thursday that the NBA has become like “a political organization.”
Just as when the pandemic hit and the NBA suspended play on March 11, other leagues followed. The NBA was the first league to stop for the coronavirus; it was the first league to stop play in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, some 40 miles from Milwaukee. The WNBA, some teams from Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, and even professional tennis all stopped play this week as well.
“As an African American you’re facing backlash no matter what decision you make,” Iguodala said. “You decide to go play and you’re being chained. But if you don’t play, you’re ungrateful. … We’re able to go out and be advocates for the issues that have come about before we got here and we’re trying to rid them. They won’t be gone before we leave or after we leave, but we going to try to make it incrementally better any way we can.”
Michael Jordan, the NBA legend who now owns the Charlotte Hornets, spoke to players Thursday, officially in the capacity of his being the league’s Labor Relations Committee Chairman — but also as a Black man struggling with the challenges of these times.
Playing basketball didn’t prevent Blake from being shot seven times, apparently in the back, as his three children watched. Playing basketball hasn’t provided justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot when police officers burst into her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation on March 13. And it hasn’t helped players get over the sight from May 25, when George Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into the Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
Restarting the restart won’t keep another atrocity from happening.
But by staying in the game, NBA players clearly believe they’re staying in the fight for change.
“They’re trying to find out what to do or what can they do,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers told Fox Sports West. “It’s funny. You realize you can’t solve the world’s problems, but you can definitely get involved with the world’s problems. And I think that’s what our guys are trying to do.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org