Stuck inside the NBA’s bubble for nearly two months, the video of 29-year-old Jacob Blake getting shot seven times in the back marked a boiling point for the NBA and its players this past week.
For three tumultuous days, where mental stress had already manifested and postponed games seized the outside world’s attention, players considered leaving Orlando.
“We expected the worst,” said Monte Morris, who served as Denver’s player representative, alongside stars like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala. “Going through the meetings, it was always the elephant in the room, where, ‘Man, this thing could be over.’”
When the Bucks unilaterally decided to sit out Wednesday’s Game 5 against Orlando, it spurred a string of unprecedented activism that ultimately led to tangible, actionable results. After a Thursday meeting with owners and other player representatives, Morris said the league committed to two primary initiatives: increasing access to voting by converting team-owned arenas into polling places and lobbying for the end of qualified immunity.
It was only after these commitments were secured that NBA players felt comfortable about pledging to finish the season. Players were adamant that their months-long sacrifices, away from their families and outside their communities, wouldn’t be in vain.
There were still playoff games to be played, and in the case of the Nuggets, an elimination game on Sunday. How any player could focus their emotions into a meaningful playoff game, only days after pouring energy into causes as seismic as systemic racism, was anyone’s guess.
“Emotions were flying (on Friday),” Morris said.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone called Friday’s practice the worst he’s been a part of in his five years with the organization.
“And I wasn’t surprised, and I understood it, and I sympathized for our players because so much is being asked of them on the court, so much of them is being asked for them off the court, and they’re doing their best,” Malone said.
For what it’s worth, Malone said the mood and energy were far better during Saturday’s practice, a day ahead of Game 6 against Utah. The Nuggets trail the first-round playoff series, 3-2, and need a win to avoid elimination.
It’s a delicate balance for a coach to find, pushing his players to focus when their heads are elsewhere. It’s even harder for Malone who’s made a dedicated effort for months to be the face of a franchise demanding change.
“You know that right now, there’s a lot of players on our team and throughout the bubble … listen, all the players, all the teams voted to stay,” Malone said. “But let me remind everybody, just because all the teams voted to stay, I have a feeling that when teams took an internal vote, that the vote to stay was probably 8-7, 9-6, 10-5. It wasn’t unanimous. It wasn’t a landslide that we have 13 playoff teams that are all thrilled about being here still.
“That makes it really hard,” he continued. “We’re going into a game where we can’t be one foot in, one foot out. I put myself in our players’ shoes. It’s hard, man. It’s such a delicate balance. I want to do what’s right for society, I want to do what’s right for my people, and I also have a game to play.”
Consider Jamal Murray’s mental state. He began his news conference Saturday by placing his shoes, one with an image of George Floyd and another with an image of Breonna Taylor, on the stool in front of the Zoom camera for reporters to see.
“How long was that? Two minutes?” Murray said. “One person on that shoe had a knee on their neck for eight (minutes). … It doesn’t take me, a 23-year-old, to recognize that’s not right and that should be in everybody’s mind. If you don’t see it that way, then there’s a problem with you.”
Or hear the anguish in Morris’ voice when he talked about watching the Blake video, considering he’s from a predominantly Black area in Flint, Mich.
“Seeing stuff like that happen, it could be any one of us,” Morris said, citing his mom and his niece. “I hate when guys or people try not to pay attention to it because it’s not them, or their family members that have been involved with this situation. So I try to take it as if Jacob Blake was part of me. That’s where my emotions have been. I gotta try to put it behind and get ready for a playoff game.”
Celtics star Jaylen Brown said during his news conference that he walked into an elevator only to see Nuggets center Mason Plumlee “giving himself words of affirmation,” Brown said, before re-enacting the scene. “’I want to go to practice. I love basketball. I’m happy to be here.’ Everybody’s kind of going through that same thing.”
An interesting Mason Plumlee anecdote. I think a lot more NBA players than we’ll ever realize were questioning what the right decision was. https://t.co/XRUHSfvDKV
— Mike Singer (@msinger) August 29, 2020
That’s why the three-day pause was necessary. Players needed to collect their thoughts after seeing the video, organizing an impromptu walk-out, identifying goals and implementing short-term change and preparing for a postseason game that some didn’t necessarily want to stay for.
“Until we see change, it is tough to go out there and keep a good headspace knowing that stuff in the world is still happening,” Murray said.
As Morris said, it’s deeply personal for players. It’s also unfair to heave the burden of responsibility on dozens of NBA players, even if they are some of the most prominent Black men in the country.
“Our players are not activists, they’re not politicians, they need people to help guide them, and they’ve been getting that,” Malone said, adding that everyone from coaches to owners feels an investment. “I just want to remind people that when we decided to come here to Orlando to resume the season, no one thought that this was just going to be, we’re in the Magic Kingdom and magically things are going to get better because we’ve decided to play.
“This is going to require a sustained fight.”