Some NBA players remain dubious of owners’ commitment to social justice initiatives

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Throughout the entire period of NBA seeding games that also included a play-in matchup, there were a total of 89 contests played in a little over two weeks.

During that juncture, every ball boy and ball girl wore black “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. They are visible contributors on the court, assisting players in shagging rebounds and passing to them during their pregame workouts, and wiping up wet spots on the court in games, among other duties.

But a few players began noticing that when the playoffs started, those ball boys and ball girls suddenly began wearing blue NBA logo T-shirts. Those shirts were even worn Wednesday, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court against the Orlando Magic for Game 5 of their first-round series to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police.

A three-day pause ensued. After players deliberated on the pros and cons of resuming play, followed by a meeting with owners to demand that social initiatives be met and the owners agreeing to those terms, the postseason was back Saturday.

And guess what else was back? Those “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts.

Some owners never wanted “Black Lives Matter” painted on the court or on T-shirts worn by league employees in arenas, sources said. Transitioning to the NBA shirts was described by one young player as trying to “lull you to sleep and pulling the rug from under you without you waking up.”

It’s one small example of why some players are dubious about team owners keeping their word regarding the agreed-upon social justice initiatives.

“I can only speak for myself, and I am not sure. I’m not as confident as I would like to be, I would say that,” said Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown about the commitment of owners. “I think that promises are made year after year. We've heard a lot of these terms and these words before … and we're still hearing them now. A lot of them are just reshaping the same ideas and nothing is actually taking place. Long-term goals are one thing, but I think there's stuff in our wheelhouse as athletes and our resources and the people that we're connected to that short-term effect is possible as well. Everybody keeps saying that 'change is going to take this, change is going to take that’ and that's the incrementalism idea that keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something's going to happen, something's going and nothing’s happening.”

Prior to joining the restart amid the coronavirus pandemic, the concern among players was once there was continual basketball on the airwaves, the issues plaguing the Black community would go unnoticed yet again. And considering how members of the Black community — some for the first time — began to witness law enforcement officials being held accountable for violent acts toward people of color, they didn’t want basketball to distract from the positive movement of seeking justice for those who have been victims of systemic racism.

The three items agreed upon by players and the owners: establishing a social-justice coalition, working with city officials to convert all arenas into voting sites and including advertising spots in each playoff game that will raise awareness for voter access and opportunity.

Players are being vocal about what could happen if promises aren’t kept.

“There's a lot of guys that came down here for reasons other than basketball and to use our platforms,” Brown said. “Milwaukee did exactly that, and if necessary it could be done again. Hopefully that won't be the case, but using our platform is why a lot of guys came down here.”

Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis echoed those sentiments.

“We do have the leverage,” Davis said. “After the meeting [with owners], we were very confident that they will [stick by their word]. The conversation went well. And If they don’t, then we won’t play again. It’s simple as that.”

In the meantime, players will wait and see. Some teams have already stepped up and made their facilities available as voting sites, and on Saturday, messages urging fans to vote were on the large arena video screens. The verbal agreement is in place; now the next step is for the owners to put ink to paper to keep the players on board.

“For me personally, having a plan is one and having action and going through with that,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “To be able to sit on a call with our owners and for them to hear how important some of these initiatives are, they took it very seriously. They were very candid and we were very candid on what we believe continues to move the needle in our respective cities and in our communities and how important this moment is. So, all you can do is give me and give us your word, and I’m going to hold that with the utmost respect. But if that word you’re giving me is not fulfilled, we’ll tackle that moment.”

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