‘They will not let this die’: The NBA’s fight for social justice from inside the bubble

FRED VANVLEET TRUDGED from the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Naples, out the double doors and into the stifling Florida humidity. The Toronto Raptors guard squinted, his eyes adjusting to the sunlight as the words came into focus.

He saw “Black Lives Matter” in large, white letters across each side of two buses that had arrived to take the Raptors to the NBA’s campus at Walt Disney World Resort.

“It was dope,” VanVleet said. “They didn’t even tell us they were doing that.”

The defending NBA champions were sending a message as they entered the bubble on July 9.

Along the three-hour trek north, VanVleet said, the buses passed through neighborhoods with manicured lawns featuring signs endorsing President Donald Trump, who called the Black Lives Matter movement a “symbol of hate” earlier this month.

“I was looking out the window like, ‘Oh s—,'” VanVleet said. “That was the first time I really thought about it. They probably weren’t going to be too happy with this bus. I thought that was a big, big gesture for sure by the team.”

After some considered not playing, many NBA players chose to enter the bubble in large part because they saw an opportunity to use their platform to amplify their message. Although they are still determining how to best promote their cause, the past few weeks have seen an increased push from players, coaches and the league leading up to Thursday night’s restart opener inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

With play resuming, players have been determined that these discussions about racial inequality and police brutality against Black people won’t fade.

“Our performance on the court is a distraction,” VanVleet said. “People love sports, and it takes you away from whatever you got going on. It’s going to be our job and the league’s job to give you the entertainment and still give you the message at the same time. …

“We have a lot of great players and great leadership. We’re going to keep finding great ways to get our message across.”

MORE: Why the only NBA player who wears ‘Sr.’ on his jersey chose a different message

IN THE DAYS leading up to the NBA restart, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell connected with New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday. They discussed how they could use the opening game of the restart to send a message.

A plan was formed: Both the Jazz and the Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matter wording near center court — the only thing on the hardwood beyond the NBA logo and lines governing play — in a show of solidarity during the national anthem.

Instead of having two groups protest separately, both teams want to display a united front, sources said. The coaches are expected to join the players in the demonstration.

“There’s a lot of buzz that I’ve been hearing,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said, referring to the potential for players to kneel. “I’ve always trusted our players to do what is best and to do what’s in their hearts.”

Thursday’s demonstration will showcase their effort on the national stage, but many NBA players have been using their platform to advocate for change since they arrived at the Florida campus in early July.

Nearly 40 players dialed in to a Zoom conference on the afternoon of July 19 from their hotel rooms inside Disney’s Grand Floridian, Yacht Club and Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs resorts.

On the line were politician and activist Stacey Abrams and Tamika Palmer, the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by Louisville police officers in May after they served a no-knock warrant.

Abrams moderated the discussion between the players and Taylor, who was invited to the call by Oklahoma City Thunder guard and NBPA president Chris Paul. “We just want to be soldiers for her and her family and just continue to keep [Taylor’s] name out there,” Paul said.

Roberts said that initially, some players didn’t know that Palmer was on the call.

“[The emotion] was palpable,” Roberts said. “She didn’t give a speech. She sort of acknowledged she was there and was really pretty quiet and said she obviously loved her daughter and just wanted to make sure everyone understood what happened.

“And the pain in her very limited number of words spoken was clear, and then of course the players’ response, letting her know that they would be there for her and were not going to let this thing just die on the vine.”

According to one person on the call, player after player asked what he could do to help Taylor’s family.

They were told, one player on the call said, that it would be helpful for players to bring up Taylor’s case when they speak to reporters before and after practices and games, the way Denver Nuggets forward Jerami Grant did days earlier.

“Our job at the least is to keep these conversations going. We’re not political elites. We’re not politicians. We’re not educators. But we have influence.”

Celtics guard Jaylen Brown

The following day, Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris used his news conferences to talk about Taylor’s death, demanding that the law enforcement officials involved be arrested. Over the next week, several players — including the Los Angeles LakersLeBron James and Alex Caruso, the LA ClippersPaul George, the 76ers’ Mike Scott and the Boston CelticsMarcus Smartdedicated entire news conferences to talking about Taylor.

“Every player needs to get behind [Taylor],” Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown said. “It’s not something we need to let slip away. …

“For her to lose her life and her family to lose her, I wouldn’t sleep easy if I went about my day not trying to help her and her family as much as I can.”

Before arriving in Florida, some players expressed concerns about whether resuming play would distract from ongoing social justice protests and demonstrations. Some worried that the environment could complicate their organizing efforts.

To confront those possibilities, players have been vocal about their desire for reporters to jump-start conversations about social justice and racial inequality. Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma took to Twitter last week to ask for more social justice questions. Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson ended his media session Saturday — after he wasn’t asked any such questions — by prodding those on the call.

“Some of you guys have the biggest platforms in the media and talking points, and lots of people follow you guys, so I want to challenge you all,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We know what is going on in the world and where our focus should be.”

The NBA’s safety protocols have presented challenges, too, and players’ early activism efforts have been a work in progress as they settle into new routines and living quarters. For two weeks after players arrived in Orlando, Florida, they weren’t allowed to visit hotels other than the one in which they are staying.

Now that those restrictions have been lifted, Brooklyn Nets guard and NBPA vice president Garrett Temple has been able to find like-minded players interested in the same matters of social justice.

Temple said he formed a group chat with the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry, the Portland Trail BlazersCJ McCollum and the Indiana PacersMalcolm Brogdon focused on education reform. (While in Orlando, Brogdon unveiled a new foundation focused on bringing clean water to African countries and education reform to the United States.)

Temple said the group plans to have regular dinners to discuss policies, and the players’ union has been organizing a speaker series. One installment, held Sunday, featured former First Lady Michelle Obama on the importance of voting.

“You still don’t know exactly how you want things to play out, what you need to do,” Temple said. “Over the next week-and-a-half, two weeks, we may be able to get to a point where we can try to find some common ground with guys and start talking about what those tangible, actionable items are.”

LeBron James, who on Thursday addressed reporters about Taylor and Black Lives Matter, said that he hopes more players will feel comfortable speaking out as the season restart unfolds.

“The greatest thing that could come out of this is guys in this bubble, guys who are maybe scared at points in time [might not] speak about this because they feel like it may affect how people view them,” James said. “They say, ‘I’m not LeBron. I can’t do that. He can go up there and say that. It might affect my livelihood.’

“This is a time where we’re being heard.”

BRETT BROWN PUSHED through a pair of teal doors to the ballroom-turned-practice-facility inside the Coronado Springs resort. The 76ers’ head coach called center Joel Embiid away from his hamstring stretches and asked forward Ben Simmons to take a break from shooting and join him with the rest of the players near the baseline.

Standing in front of a television, Brown pointed to an image of Rep. John Lewis and asked the players gathered in a semicircle around him:

“Do you know who this is?”

Several players murmured yes. Others shook their heads no. Brown explained that Lewis, who died the night before on July 17, was the last of the living “Big Six” activists, Civil Rights leaders who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. (Several teams have recently watched “Good Trouble,” the documentary about Lewis’ activism.)

“I know who I am,” Brown told his players, who are predominantly Black. “I am a 59-year-old white man who doesn’t walk in your shoes. But I know what a good heart is. I know right from wrong.

“While we’re on this path in Orlando, we don’t want to be full of s—. It’s called virtue signaling. We don’t want to do that. It’s going to be on you.”

As players make their voices heard inside the bubble, coaches have also taken on a prominent role in furthering discussions about race and policy changes. In every game, coaches have worn large pins that read “Coaches Against Racial Injustice.” The Portland Trail Blazers’ Terry Stotts conducted a Zoom interview in a “Black Lives Matter” shirt. The San Antonio Spurs‘ Gregg Popovich wore a shirt that read “Vote: Your life depends on it” during practice.

“The only way to overcome racial inequality is to reckon with our past and talk about it.”

Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle

The Clippers’ Doc Rivers has been pleading for people to vote during his media sessions. The league, meanwhile, has provided players with voter registration resources in Florida through a smartphone app.

On July 15, Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan showed his players “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865.

“I am a coach. I am not trying to be an activist. I am not trying to be a history teacher by putting this film on in front of our players,” McMillan said. “I just want us to be aware, and I wanted our players to be able to speak out.”

The league’s coaches have unified, in part, because of the leadership of one of their brethren outside the bubble: Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.

Pierce, one of eight Black head coaches in the NBA — five Black head coaches are inside the bubble — chaired a subcommittee focused on racial injustice and social reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, on May 25.

“We had a call the next night,” Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “And since then, in each of the [NBA] cities, we have been organizing. … The key is to work with people who understand how we get things changed. That’s law, policy, procedure.

“I don’t think anybody is looking to do photo ops.”

Pierce also connected the NBA Coaches Association with Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The meeting led to a plan for coaches, including the Utah Jazz’s Quin Snyder and the Dallas Mavericks‘ Rick Carlisle, to use a portion of their daily Zoom calls with reporters to bring to light moments of racial injustice in America’s past.

On Thursday, Carlisle discussed the events of July 23, 1910, when a Black taxi driver was shot to death by a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Part of our thing is to educate people,” Carlisle, who has been president of the coaches’ association since 2006, said of the mission. “The only way to overcome racial inequality is to reckon with our past and talk about it.”

THURSDAY’S NBA RESTART will see pregame demonstrations give way to the players’ unveiling to a national audience league-sanctioned messages, including “Say Her Name,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Education Reform” and “Vote,” on the backs of their jerseys.

Mavericks players Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, J.J. Barea and Maxi Kleber will have “Equality” displayed in their native languages. Other players, such as Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers, said they will not be putting one of the messages on their jerseys.

Rivers said he would’ve preferred to name Trayvon Martin — the 17-year-old who was fatally shot while walking in a Florida neighborhood in 2012 — but the league did not approve using specific victims’ names on jerseys, citing concerns about offending those close to someone whose name might not be used. (When the WNBA opened its season on Saturday, the backs of jerseys read “Breonna Taylor,” to whom players dedicated the season.)

The NBA has explored playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, at games, league sources said.

“Our job at the least is to keep these conversations going,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “We’re not political elites. We’re not politicians. We’re not educators. But we have influence, and we care about our community. …

“Are we playing basketball through a pandemic, or are we playing because we want to show solidarity and awareness to things going [on] outside the world?”

Players insist that they are in this for the long haul. Their organizing efforts might be in the formative stages, but the players realize that three months of developments will take place inside the NBA bubble — during an election year.

“I am proud of this whole group of guys because I don’t think they will let it die,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said. “I don’t think LeBron James will let it die. I don’t think Donovan Mitchell, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, they will not let this die.”

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this story.

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