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In a year of calamity and outrage, protest and plague, the NBA will be defined by the games it didn't play

National Post Thursday, 27 August 2020
They stand as signal moments in a year of protest and plague. Two games, never played. Two empty courts. Two hinges between what was and what will be.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to come out of the locker room to play their first-round game against the Orlando Magic in the NBA playoffs. It was a surreal situation as it unfolded. Nobody was quite sure what was happening, but everyone knew why.

For days in the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World, in Florida, anguish and tension had reigned over the shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday, not far from the Bucks home arena. His death sparked a torrent of protest, anguish and rage in Kenosha and around the United States.

In the bubble, players and coaches spoke with naked emotion about the shooting this week. “I was pretty excited, but then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot,” the Toronto Raptors Fred VanVleet said when asked about his team’s upcoming series against the Boston Celtics.

“These situations that we’re watching do not have to be happening. Point blank, period,” he added. “There’s no reason for it other than hatred and systemic racism that is ingrained in our culture and our people every day.”

By Wednesday morning, reports had emerged that the Raptors and Celtics had talked about refusing to play the first game of their series Thursday in a kind of wildcat, protest strike against racism and police brutality. But on Wednesday afternoon, most of the the Bucks arrived at the arena ready to play, according to reports by ESPN. It was only once they reached the locker room, once they were together as a group that something changed.

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Reporters inside the bubble could tell that something was off before the official news trickled out.

“The Orlando Magic have been warming up by themselves for about 10 minutes,” the Washington Post ’s Ben Golliver wrote on Twitter. “No sign yet of the Milwaukee Bucks just minutes before scheduled 4 p.m. tip.”

Eventually, the Magic players left the court and returned to their locker room. Backstage, behind the makeshift stands, NBA officials put the game balls away.

“The Milwaukee Bucks have decided to boycott Game 5,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted at 4:13. By 5 p.m. the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers had agreed not to play either. Minutes later the league postponed the day’s entire slate of games.

For the second time in less than six months, an NBA season had ground to a halt.

Wednesday’s events played out like an eerie mirror of the last time the NBA cancelled a game. On March 11, the last normal day in North America before the COVID-19 pandemic became real, the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City.

Fans were in their seats. Players were warming up. And then, at the last minute, a Jazz official came sprinting on to the court. Rudy Gobert, the team’s starting centre, had tested positive for COVID-19. The game had to be stopped. Within hours, the entire league was shut down. Soon most of the continent would be too.

It felt like time changed that night. Everything was normal, then incredibly fast. Then nothing was ever the same. Wednesday had a similar feel. It felt for a few hours like anything could happen. It felt, for the umpteenth time this year, like history was sprinting faster than it could be tracked.

Other players, in other leagues, joined the boycott. On TV, NBA analyst and former player Kenny Smith walked off the set. In the sports world, only the NHL carried on like nothing had changed.

By Thursday afternoon, though, entropy had set in, somewhat. Wojnarowski reported that the players would likely go back to work. The playoffs should resume by Saturday.

But that doesn’t mitigate the gravity of what happened Wednesday. At a moment of great upheaval and history, of protest and anger and dismay, an empty basketball court was, again, at the centre of it all.

There is a difference, though, between that day and this one. In March, what happened was an accident. A pandemic hit the league and the league shut down. What happened Wednesday was a choice. It was deliberate. NBA players stood up and said, ‘This can’t go on. We won’t go on.’ No one will forget that for many years to come.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: richardwarnica
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Video Credit: Reuters - Politics - Published
News video: NBA postpones Wednesday games after boycott

NBA postpones Wednesday games after boycott 02:48

[NFA] The U.S. National Basketball Association has postponed three playoff games scheduled for Wednesday after the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted Game 5 of their playoff series against Orlando Magic in protest over racial injustice. Freddie Joyner has more.

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