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‘We demand change’: Fear, anguish over Jacob Blake shooting transforms into action as sports stand still in America

Referees huddle on an empty court Wednesday at game time of a scheduled contest game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic for Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  (Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Mark this day.

What the Milwaukee Bucks set into motion Wednesday, and what then spread with astonishing speed through the sports world, was nothing less than revolutionary. It will no doubt be looked back upon as a seminal moment in an already turbulent time, just as the raised fist in the 1968 Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos is, and just like Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem has been.

Here was the No. 1-seeded team in the NBA playoffs choosing not to play a game rather than continue pursuing its goal of winning a championship. Here was a group of predominantly Black athletes reaching its breaking point, a sort of collective catharsis that spoke to the leaguewide anger, reflected by a tweet from the sport’s preeminent figure, LeBron James, in the aftermath of the Bucks’ decision: “… WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”

Before the day was over, much of the sports world had ground to a halt, a united protest the likes of which has never been seen. The Mariners’ game in San Diego? Called off by unanimous vote of Seattle’s players. Other MLB games were called off as well. The WNBA called off its entire slate for the night, and MLS reportedly did the same.

Call it the day sports stood still in America. Or the day players finally said, “Enough is enough.” The power of that silent declaration is profound.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins delivered a powerful statement on her team’s decision to not play Wednesday. “We’re not just basketball players. We’re so much more than that,” she said.

A day earlier, after news of the latest police shooting of a Black man – Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin – began to reverberate, the pain and frustration being felt around the NBA was evident. You could hear it in the anguished words of Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who said, “We keep loving this country, and this country doesn’t love us back.” You could hear it in the words of Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who said, “It’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions. Nothing’s changing.” And you could hear it in James, who said at a news briefing, “We are scared as Black people in America.”

On Wednesday, that fear and anguish transformed into action, when the Bucks refused to play a potential series-clinching game against the Orlando Magic. Eventually, the two other NBA playoff games scheduled for Wednesday were called off by the league after it was apparent they, too, wouldn’t be played.

A couple of hours later, when the Milwaukee Brewers opted not to play their game against the Reds, it was apparent that a major statement was being authored, the most powerful yet and one that will be impossible to ignore. This is clearly another tipping-point moment, the growing empowerment movement in the athletic world writ large. As legal analyst and attorney Michael McCann tweeted:

“This won’t just be about today. It’s now happened – NBA players have boycotted games to take a stand. Now that it’s happened, it could happen again. In the NBA. Other leagues. College. The Olympics. Without uttering one word, athletes are more empowered now than they were before.”

In that way, the implication of the Bucks’ action could be bigger than Kaepernick’s kneeling, though you can certainly trace its roots to Kaepernick – who first protested during the anthem four years ago to the day. The ramifications will be immense. So, of course, will the backlash, which has already begun. The circumstances of the Blake shooting will be hotly debated, and people will question why he resisted the officers who were trying to subdue him, as it appeared in the video.

But in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other incidents, the question is: Why does this keep happening? Surely, there was a way to defuse this episode without firing seven shots in Blake’s back that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“If you’re sitting there telling me there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him before the firing of guns,” James said, “then you’re sitting there and lying to not only me, but every Black person in the community.”

I’m not going to pretend to fully understand the depth of pain felt by the Black community as these incidents mount. All I can do is try. I can only imagine how incredibly hurtful it must be to genuinely believe, with justification, your lives don’t matter to a segment of the population. Basketball, or baseball, or any other sport, would not seem significant.

Everyone thought it would be COVID-19 that might bring the NBA season, and sports in general, into a screeching halt; it turned out to be another police shooting that pierced the relative safety of the bubbles.

So here we are, at another in a series of fraught moments in the sports world, which is merely a reflection of the world at large. Certainly, the shock waves spread to CenturyLink Field on Wednesday, where the Seahawks discussed the Bucks issue – word of which began to filter out just as they were preparing to start play – and other related matters in a team meeting before their mock game.

“I can’t even imagine that this continues to happen,” said coach Pete Carroll, who applauded the Bucks’ action. “The whole Black Lives Matter thing couldn’t be more obvious how true this whole movement is, and how much focus and change needs to come. It’s just so clear.”

In his Zoom video conference with reporters after the mock game, Carroll also said at one point: “This is a protest that doesn’t have an end to it until all the problems go away.”

In other words, mark this day, but get ready for more days like it.