Black Excellence in the Bubble
By Efan Willis
In the midst of the fight for racial equality across the globe, few sports associations have shown their unwavering support for the cause as much as the NBA and its athletes. The NBA was forced to postpone its 2019/20 season in March after the COVID-19 outbreak compromised the safety of thousands of employees. On July 22nd, the season resumed, but under unique circumstances; the remainder of the season was to be played in a Coronavirus-free ‘bubble’ setting. Players and staff members would have to self-isolate independently before flying to Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, which is where the NBA chose to house the bubble. This is where they would stay, cut off from the outside world, until one team was crowned champion. During the season’s hiatus, many ambassadors of the sport showed their support for the Black community in the midst of nationwide protests, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement officers. Current NBA players, such as Jaylen Brown, Trae Young, and Russell Westbrook, took to the streets in solidarity with their community.
NBA greats, such as Bill Russell, also shared their experiences with racial injustice during the 1960s, and how they have noticed very little in the way of change to the treatment of Black Americans since their youth. Russell, a stark proponent of the civil rights movement during his playing days in the 1950s and 60s, was a pioneer for Black athletes in all major sports. He was the first ‘superstar’ the NBA could market to their audience, even if he was subjected to racial abuse at the hands of white fans and opponents during every game he played. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships (still the most of any player in the league’s history), but according to Russell, when the team polled fans on how to increase attendance at the games, “more than 50% of the fans polled answered, “Have fewer black guys on the team”.” During his playing days, there were “still only around 15 Black men playing in the League”, so when he boycotted a game against the St. Louis Hawks in 1961 as an act of peaceful protest, the white players simply suited up and played without him.
Since the days of Bill Russell’s playing career, the NBA has gone to great lengths to ensure that Black athletes, who now make up 81% of the league’s players – which is the highest percentage of any major sports league – have their voices heard. Following the resumption of the season in the bubble, players were allowed to adorn their jerseys with messages in support of the BLM movement, or any worthy cause of their choosing; ‘Black Lives Matter’; ‘Justice’; ‘Say Their Names’; and ‘Love Us’ were among the most popular messages the players chose to use. Players were also encouraged to peacefully protest, by taking a knee during the performance of the US National Anthem, which is traditionally performed before the game tips off. ‘Taking the knee’ is a symbol of unity that has become synonymous with Black athletes worldwide, since it was made famous by ex-NFL Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, in 2016.
No act of protest, however, was more significant and impactful than the players’ decision to boycott nationally televised NBA games, following the news of 29-year-old Jacob Blake’s murder at the hands of a police officer. Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill organised the boycott in protest of the lack of accountability taken by the police officers in question and their governing bodies. Hill stated that “when we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and at this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement,” and on August 26th, the Bucks’ playoff game against the Orlando Magic was postponed.
Hill’s decision to organise a boycott garnered support from his peers, and athletes from a host of other sports leagues. All NBA games scheduled between the 26th-28th were cancelled. The same was true for all Major League Baseball games. On August 27th, a total of nine NFL teams opted not to practice, in an act of solidarity with the NBA bubble teams, and on the 26th, Naomi Osaka, ranked 3rd in world tennis by the WTA, announced that she would not play her semi-final matchup at the Cincinnati Masters, following Jacob Blake’s death.
A meeting was held by all remaining NBA bubble teams following the Bucks’ decision to boycott their match, where they deliberated on how to continue their fight for racial equality. The Lakers and Clippers voted to boycott the rest of the season entirely, citing basketball as a distraction from the broader issues of racism and police brutality that have plagued the nation for centuries. The rest of the teams present voted instead to continue playing, promising to use every remaining game as a vessel to assert a message as important as any other: that Black lives matter.
Without question, the meeting held by NBA players on the evening of August 26th is one of the most defining events in the history of the National Basketball Association, and perhaps of professional sports as a whole. Basketball has been a familiar part of Black culture for decades, but for the first time in the league’s history, its fate, financially and culturally, rested firmly in the hands of its Black athletes. The protests taken by athletes worldwide following Jacob Blake’s death served to affirm an irrefutable truth: that without Black athletes, the sports world stands still.