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On August 26, 2020, the NBA expected to draw millions of eyes for its on-court action, with America seeking respite from the COVID-19 pandemic and protests of racial injustice.
Instead, the league seized the attention of the world by putting the game aside to focus on something far bigger.
August 26 was the day the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic refused to play their playoff game in Disney’s NBA bubble in Orlando to protest police violence against Black Americans following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23.
Their protest touched off three days without NBA basketball as players, coaches, executives and media, including those from the Boston Celtics, grappled with the aftermath of yet another national police encounter, with the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Breonna Taylor hanging over the bubble’s proceedings since its inception.
A year later, Allison Feaster of the Celtics and Gary Washburn, NBA and Celtics reporter for the Boston Globe, recall their own experiences in the NBA’s playoff bubble and remember the day the NBA stood still.
No “basketball as usual”
When the NBA postponed its season last March as the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge, there was already was no guarantee basketball would be played again in 2020.
Then, as talks began to emerge about a playoff “bubble” that would keep people as safe as possible during the height of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis threw kerosene on the perpetually blazing fire that was 2020.
“It was a challenge,” said Feaster, the Celtics’ vice president of player development and organizational growth. “The COVID pandemic, all the emotions, the anxiety, the uncertainty that went into stopping the season. Then, while all that was going on, you had another ‘pandemic,’ so to speak.”
Some players, like former Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, wanted no part of entertaining people on a basketball court under those circumstances. Others sought to use the reimagined playoffs to call attention to the pressing societal issues at hand as best they could.
In the end, the NBA chose to play out the string and complete its season in Orlando rather than call the season lost. But the league only made that happen for two reasons.
First, it had to live up to its name and keep COVID-19 out of the bubble, or else.
That meant a complex daily ritual for players, team staff, league personnel and media alike consisting of daily COVID tests, having temperatures and oxygen levels measured each day and reporting all those testing numbers so they could have access to NBA facilities and do their jobs.
But the other stipulation had little to do with anything happening on the floor.
NBA players of all statuses demanded the ability to speak their minds and raise awareness about racial injustice and police violence against Black Americans after the extrajudicial deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
From the “Black Lives Matter” logos painted on the NBA’s courts and on players’ jerseys to players opting to talk about race and social justice instead of basketball at press conferences, the players refused to let the events of the world outside go undiscussed.
“The conversation outside the bubble, we made that front-and-center,” Feaster said. “It wasn’t like this was going to be basketball as usual. We knew that there were reminders all around us of what our overall purpose was.”
“Pain all over again”
The shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer during a domestic dispute took place on Sunday, August 23, 2020.
But the news of the violent encounter and the outcry it sparked wouldn’t interrupt the hustle and bustle of the bubble for another day yet.
“We were all kind of in our own cocoon,” Washburn explained. “You’re worried about covering the games, the daily grind. You’re working every day. If you’re not aware of the news, you might have missed it.”
When video of Blake’s shooting finally went viral among the players, Washburn said, the reaction escalated quickly.
Then-Bucks guard George Hill notably questioned why the NBA was still playing games after news of the shooting went viral at the complex, saying, “We shouldn’t even have came to this damn place” following Milwaukee’s win over the Orlando Magic that Monday night.
On Tuesday, then-Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers implored the country to “do better” by Black Americans: “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
That same morning, Toronto guard Fred Van Vleet, whose Raptors squad was preparing to play the Celtics two days later, told Washburn on a Zoom call he “didn’t care” about the series.
“’We don’t even know if we want to play,’” Washburn recalled Van Vleet saying. ‘”We’re going to talk to the Celtics tonight.’”
When those conversations about the possibility of not playing their conference semifinal opener took place, Feaster was right in the thick of it, speaking with Brad Stevens and team management while also trying to get a pulse on the players’ feelings.
Feaster came to the Celtics in September 2019 after playing 16 pro seasons of pro ball herself – including 10 in the WNBA – before coming to Boston in September of 2019. She describes her job as “helping the players be the best they can be off the court.”
As the players came to Orlando still shouldering the burdens of the heavy issues outside, she served as a daily resource on the ground to help them cope and hone how best to channel their unrest into action.
Celtics players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum had already been making a point to use their press conferences in the bubble to talk about racial justice as much, if not more, than basketball – to use the platform of the NBA playoffs, which was one of the only sporting events happening at the time, to raise awareness for the issues facing Black Americans at that moment.
That’s why Blake’s shooting felt like yet another punch in the heart.
“Are we not human beings?” Brown posed rhetorically when speaking to reporters on August 25. “Is Jacob Blake not a human being…His kids will never unsee that. His family will never unsee that. And frankly, I will never unsee it.”
“Because I’m so close to the guys and you invest so much into them, when they hurt, you hurt,” Feaster said. “It wasn’t about anything other than those guys because they were ultimately the ones who had to take the court.”
Especially after the compounded toll of the pandemic, the postponement of the NBA season and the additional “pandemic” of violence and trauma against Black Americans before the players came to the bubble, Feaster said the Blake shooting felt like “pain all over again.”
“At the same time,” she added, “I was really proud that they were all able to come together and decide to take a pause and re-center the conversation around why we were there and that ultimately the violence against people of color and the brutality just had to stop.”
“Something’s about to go down”
Washburn wasn’t even planning to attend the Bucks-Magic game on Wednesday, August 26 in the first place.
“It wasn’t a high-profile game,” he recalled. “People weren’t really there.”
Milwaukee, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed in the 2020 playoffs, was up 3-1 in its series with eighth-seeded Orlando and seemed quite likely to end their overmatched adversaries’ stay in the bubble in short order.
With the Celtics not playing the Raptors until Thursday night, Washburn was in his hotel room waiting to catch a bus to watch the Houston Rockets play the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Then, he heard the news: the Bucks and Magic weren’t on the floor to tip off their game.
“We were like, ‘Oh sh—,’” he said. “The game was supposed to start at 4:30 p.m. and it was like a 4:40 bus. So I remember getting on the bus, and there were a bunch of people on that bus thinking the same thing. ‘Let’s get down to the arena. It looks like something’s about to go down.’”
Milwaukee and Orlando sat out the game in protest, with Hill and Sterling Brown, who sued Milwaukee’s police department for excessive force after being tased and stepped on during an altercation in 2018, leading the team in an impassioned statement against the shooting outside the basketball court.
The rest of Wednesday night’s games were postponed along with the next day’s, including Boston’s tilt with Toronto. With players already weary from being in the isolated bubble for three months, the protests led to a perilous moment in which some of the league’s most prominent players, like LeBron James, and teams suggested they were prepared to leave the bubble altogether.
James and Chris Paul even sought an audience with former President Barack Obama, who counseled them to continue speaking out from their platform while they had everyone’s attention.
“I don’t think all the players were on board with [staying],” Washburn said. “But I think most of the players were like, ‘We’ve got to think what our right mind here.’ There were players like [Celtics forward] Jaylen Brown that said, ‘Okay, if we do this, you’re not going to Cancun after this. You all need go back to your communities and put in that work and protest and march… it’s not going to be vacation time after this.’”
The conversation continues.
The games did eventually resume, and the playoffs ended with James’s Lakers winning the NBA championship.
But Brown’s call to action still became reality, which is why the story of the NBA’s playoff-wide protest didn’t end when the protest did.
For one thing, multiple teams and players in the MLB and NHL postponed their games as well, with select players choosing to kneel or protest in other ways even when they took the field.
Feaster’s old colleagues in the WNBA, arguably the most progressive North American sports league, also took center stage with protests of their own and broadened conversations around racial justice into political and voting rights activism.
The Atlanta Dream even famously forced a change in their ownership, calling on former owner Kelly Loeffler to resign after criticism of the WNBA’s recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement. The team is now co-owned by Renee Montgomery, who once played for the Dream, and Newton, Mass. real estate developers Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair.
The NBA wasn’t idle, either, with players demanding more from their organizations in exchange for continuing the season, pushing for aid in registering people of color and those in marginalized communities to vote and for more concrete social justice initiatives.
“That was the constructive thing about it,” Washburn said. “I think it did do good. If you walk away…how does that help our community, our elections? How does that help get Black people registered to vote? It probably doesn’t.
“In [the players’] minds, having the owners say, ‘You guys can put whatever you want on the back of your jersey,’ putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the floor of every game…is that enough to make our community better? In the case of the Jacob Blake shooting, [the players] were like, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Feaster further points to the creation of the NBA Foundation and social justice coalition and the league’s increased amplification of athlete activism as signs of progress. She also credits the Celtics organization, from Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca and team ownership to Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, for investing money and time in its players’ visions.
“They were really amazing in the way they just listened and were great allies and had our players’ backs,” she said. “They were beyond eager…to educate themselves, to work in collaboration with the players, to do something our entire organization and the city would be proud of.”
That buy-in from the organization led to the creation of initiatives like Boston Celtics United for Social Justice and the team’s partnerships with Vistaprint and the NAACP to create the Power Forward Small Business Grant, which dished out $1 million to small businesses (including several that are Black-owned).
The key, Feaster said, is to keep that momentum from the protests moving.
“There’s still a ways to go,” she added. “I hope we don’t fall into a lull and settle back into our old ways. So hopefully we stay in tune and keep pushing to do what’s right.”
For Washburn, the most significant development from the protests that nearly brought the bubble to its knees is how players, especially those who have typically shied away from social issues, now view their own power to affect change.
“I think there was a level of ‘We did our jobs. We made an impact,’” he said of NBA players’ movements to register more Black Americans — a key demographic in current President Joe Biden’s victory — to vote.
“The players saw the purpose of their actions. We’ll see if they take it to another level and some of them take the mantle and become leaders.”
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