The defending-champion Toronto Raptors have been in Naples, Florida for the last week, for Phase 2 of the NBA's return-to-play program. As the only team outside of its home market, their players are getting an early taste of what they've signed up for, away from their families and isolated in Florida. In a conference call on Monday, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said he is excited to continue the season but was conflicted about getting back on the court when people are protesting anti-Black racism and police brutality.
"Yeah it sucks," VanVleet said. "It sucks, man. And it's terrible timing, but that's been 2020 for us. So I think, I mean, look, obviously we all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We're all young Black guys, and none of us want to give any money back and I don't think that we should and I think that that money can be used in many different ways.
"This is not going to end this summer, regardless, or in these next couple months. This issue -- racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality -- all these things are not ending anytime soon. And so our fight is long-term. So that was part of my decision. But if the league or if more of my guys would have come together and said we didn't want to play, I would've sat out as well and fought it. But I think most of us decided to play, and it's something that we'll have to live with. But I trust that my heart is in the right place and I'm doing enough to really make change."
A couple of weeks ago, there was some momentum for players to sit out in the name of fighting systemic racism, led by Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets and Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers. Bradley is one of the few players who has opted not to go, citing the health of his family and his desire to "help strengthen my communities."
VanVleet said that he and his fellow players are wary of taking attention away from the issues at hand. "We know basketball is a distraction," he said, so the question is how they can make sure they're "still being responsible" while they're competing at Disney World.
Unlike Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz, who said Monday that he has been thinking of adorning the back of his jersey with the name of a friend who was killed, VanVleet said he hasn't decided what he'll do with the space above his uniform number -- he still wants to confer with some people, including his high school coach, Bryan Ott, who teaches African-American studies at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois, and has a master's degree in the subject.
Players have been discussing how they can use their platforms and channel their resources to effect change. "It's on our mind every day," VanVleet said, "and we're really doing work behind the scenes." While he declined to share specifics, he said he has participated in meetings about what they will do in Orlando.
"The only way this is being consumed is on TV, pretty much," VanVleet said. "So I think that is going to go a long way, and it's something that will last for years to come. People will always look back on these games and the first thing they'll see is, whether it's a fist on the court or people's names, they'll have to look and say, 'What is that? Who is Breonna Taylor? Who is George Floyd?'"
Teams will begin traveling to Orlando on July 7, and Toronto will arrive on July 9 as part of the final group. Already, VanVleet misses his family; the plan is for his partner and children to join him on "campus" at the end of August, when the league will allow guests. He will reevaluate that plan, though, after he gets a sense of how risky it is inside the pseudo-bubble. COVID-19 cases are surging in Florida, and in the last few days Orange County has reported a test-positive rate ranging from 13.3 to 17.6 percent.
"I'm pretty concerned," VanVleet said. "It sounded good a month or two ago. Not so much right before we got ready to leave. But, I mean, I think for the most part I just put my trust in the organization and understand I don't think that they would put us in extreme risk. I trust the NBA. So that's where my trust lies right now. Hopefully they prove me right and not wrong."