Never forget that NBA players tried to compromise. A number of them didn't want to finish the 2019-20 season in the first place following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They reluctantly agreed to do so hoping that their platform could amplify the message of equality spreading during protests they could no longer attend. They even allowed the NBA to sanitize that message in the process. Jimmy Butler was not allowed to wear a blank jersey. LeBron James decided against wearing any social justice terminology on his jersey at all because he wasn't satisfied with the options the league approved.
Putting "Black Lives Matter" on the court and phrases like "Justice" and "Equality" on the backs of jerseys attempted to strike that balance, to placate without alienating. To raise awareness of an issue that should already be seared into the skulls of every American. It was an honest attempt at affecting change by players navigating a system only willing to grant so many concessions, and it didn't work.
Police brutality against a Black man sparked these concerns. It hasn't gone away since the players entered the bubble. Last Sunday, another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So the Milwaukee Bucks, representing Blake's home state of Wisconsin, took decisive action and decided not to play their scheduled playoff game on Wednesday. The five other teams set to take the court soon followed suit, and there is no telling when, or if, the playoffs will resume. Milwaukee's players directly called for governmental action in their statement following the decision.
"We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable," Bucks veteran George Hill said following the team's decision not to take the court for Game 5. "For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform."
Those words are only as powerful as the resolve of the men behind them. They would have rung hollow after a game because context would have signaled that players were asking for progress rather than demanding it. The status quo is only changed when challenged. It is a lesson the NBA's first group of legends taught us over five decades ago.
As difficult as the conditions of the bubble have proven for modern players, they are nothing compared to what NBA stars of the past had to endure. Professional basketball in the 1960s meant commercial travel. Players were so poorly compensated that most needed second jobs over the summer just to make ends meet. The reserve clause bound players to their original team for their entire careers. Benefits were scarce. Pensions didn't exist. The NBA Players Association was founded in 1954, but the league refused to meet with it to collectively bargain for a decade. Owners wouldn't budge on these concerns even as the league's fortunes improved.
In 1964, the NBA All-Star Game was set to be televised for the first time. At that point, the league had no national television deal, but a year later, the network that aired that All-Star Game (ABC) ultimately gave it one. The game was the league's first true showcase event, and the players being showcased knew that well. They seized the moment. Hours before the game, NBPA president Tommy Heinsohn told the owners that the All-Stars would not play unless the league recognized their union and made enormous financial concessions.
The owners were, predictably, furious. "I was young and just trying to feel my way along and build a career for myself," Jerry West told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "[Lakers owner Bob Short] said to us very threateningly, 'If you don't play in this game, you're probably never going to play again.' I then said, 'I'm never going to play a game.' I am pretty defiant."
But the owners had as much to lose as the players. An embarrassing strike on perhaps the most important day in the young league's history might have kept the NBA off national airwaves forever. It could have derailed the league's financial future. The players were aware. For years, the league faced no consequences for its refusal to treat players properly. The All-Star Game created consequences. Players attacked the only thing owners cared to defend: their wallets.
The league recognized the union and the game was played. Major concessions were made across the board. The first-ever pension plan for NBA players was created. Every team was required to hire an athletic trainer. Sunday afternoon games could no longer be scheduled directly after Saturday night matchups. The NBA eventually grew into the behemoth it is today. Both the players and owners benefited greatly. It could be argued that athletes in every sport have those All-Stars to thank. The NBPA was the first union to be recognized in major American sports. Baseball (1966) and football (1968) soon followed suit.
And it wouldn't have happened if players hadn't been willing to risk their own livelihoods for change that they believe in. It is a message that modern players seem to have internalized, even under different circumstances.
NBA owners and stakeholders are not the direct opposition to what players are fighting for. But the players know they have the influence to steer the leaders that allow others to do so in the right direction, and should those leaders refuse, they have the wealth to bankroll electoral challenges that pledge to do better.
That truth undermines words on courts and jerseys. Players are tired of couching progress in terms acceptable to the powerful people that impede it. They've recognized that raising awareness is no longer enough. NBA history is proof that only the exertion of financial leverage will force the powerful to cede any power. By sitting out, players threaten that power.
Owners don't want to lose money. The entire infrastructure of professional basketball is built on profiting off Black labor, and if they'd like to continue to do so, all players ask in return is that they prove that Black lives matter to them with more than token gestures. Players tried asking for that the easy way. Now, just as their predecessors once did, they're demanding it the hard way. The time for compromise has passed. Wednesday's protests proved that now is the time for action.