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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

NBA players wonder what effect their social justice message is having

Thunder guard Chris Paul gestures during the second

Thunder guard Chris Paul gestures during the second half against the Nets at Barclays Center on Jan. 7. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The games came back Saturday. The players were on the court, the strike was over. And for sports, it was back to normal.

The question for the NBA players now after a historic work stoppage was simple: Had they accomplished anything? 

The bubble was created in Orlando for the league to resume play in the middle of a pandemic and it has accomplished that, allowing the league to continue a season, fulfill television contracts and bring a little bit of normalcy to the world. But with three days of canceled playoff games, reality of the world outside the bubble slipped through the cracks of the carefully-crafted atmosphere.

The other part of the creation of the NBA executives and the National Basketball Players Association was a social justice component. While the league was planning a way back, the young players found themselves on the front lines of protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd. To retreat from the protests and play again, the concessions were social justice messages adorning jerseys and the court itself at Disney World. 

But even the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth couldn’t keep out the world. The virus, it managed to keep at bay, but inside the bubble and out, the world saw viral video of Jacob Blake shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week. And that provided the answer to players of whether their return to the bubble was making a difference.

“The key to this, we all needed to take a breath,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We needed a moment to breathe. It's not lost on me that George Floyd didn't get that moment. But we did. And we took it. The players took it and got to refocus on things they wanted to focus on outside of their jobs.”

So the message moved from words to action — or inaction in this case. The Milwaukee Bucks, based just 40 miles away from Kenosha, where riots and protests were in the streets, opted to not take the court Wednesday afternoon. The dominoes followed quickly with the rest of the night’s schedule postponed and a threat that players would abandon the bubble and go home. 

But after three days of meetings they are back and off the court there is an agreement between the league and the NBPA to take action on social justice. Most of the NBA arenas will be converted into voting sites for the upcoming presidential election and the league will team up with players to create public service announcements to air during the playoffs urging people to vote.

When the Bucks didn’t take the court they remained in their locker room and with the help of team ownership, contacted Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. They emerged with a message, distilled to this: “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. 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.”

A special session has been called for the Wisconsin State Legislature, which has not met for four months. Whether they will agree, whether they will vote on the measures proposed by the state’s governor remains to be seen. But at least the Bucks and the NBA put a light on the issue. 

For the players who wanted to see action the agreements reached Friday are a step forward. But it wasn’t just politics that drove them. Stuck inside the bubble away from families, these times have been trying.

“It’s not just about any one of us,” NBPA president Chris Paul said Friday. “We’re human. We don’t always do everything right, but I tell you for me, it’s been really tough. It’s been really tough just for the simple fact when things like this happen I like to talk to my kids about it. I’m a long way from my kids. I can’t explain to them why this video is going all over the internet. I have an 11-year-old black son who is witnessing this thing day in and day out. And we’re just trying — and once again I want to go back and tell our players, great job, we’re going to continue to make change with action.”

Paul will be with his children soon — families are already scheduled to arrive in the bubble and the season is winding down for many teams. A champion will be crowned with the players back on the courts so the initial goal of the league will be accomplished. Now it’s what happens next that matters to the players.

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