If LeBron James would have halted the season, he would have cemented his legacy and truly become “more than just an athlete.”
It was the day the NBA stood still.
On Wednesday, August 26, 2020, the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trailblazers, and Los Angeles Lakers boycotted their playoff games following the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks, who refused to take the court against the Magic in protest of yet another police-involved shooting of a Black man. In the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, just 40 miles from the home of the Bucks, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father of six, was shot seven times in the back by police as he tried to enter his vehicle. The incident, which was captured in a now-viral video, occurred in front of three of Blake’s sons. NBA players who were already feeling the stress of being inside the coronavirus-induced bubble felt their emotions take on a new high as they lamented the shooting of another Black person by law enforcement.
The Milwaukee Bucks have boycotted Game 5 of their First Round series vs. the Orlando Magic this afternoon.
The team provided the following statement: pic.twitter.com/ul5rMlitlS
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) August 26, 2020
That Wednesday evening, Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul got everyone together for a players meeting to discuss the next course of action. Some players felt staying in the bubble and continuing to play offered them a bigger platform to have their messages heard; some wanted to leave the bubble to be with their families; others wanted to join the frontlines in support of fighting for change in the Black community. Among those reportedly wanting to leave was Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. The NBA superstar was initially one of the loudest voices to resume play ever since the league suspended games on March 11 due to the coronavirus. James advocated for the league to restart, granted that proper health and safety protocols were implemented. However, during the meeting, he reportedly had a different tone. According to reports, James suggested the players end the season, stating “We’re out” before abruptly leaving the meeting with all his teammates in tow, except for Dwight Howard who remained. The Los Angeles Clippers followed suit, walking out of the meeting as well.
LeBron James is seen as the face of the NBA, and his refusal to play would no doubt have had huge ramifications for the league. He could possibly have shut down the entire postseason, halting a major industry and, perhaps, had become the catalyst needed for change. This was his moment — and then it wasn’t.
With the list of Black people killed or injured by police growing by the day, as well as the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a worldwide movement of protests and calls for change has been incited. The NBA, headed by commissioner Adam Silver, has proven to be progressive and supportive of the players’ calls to action, dating back to the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in support of Eric Garner to the recent displays of support in the bubble. Players are wearing “Black Lives Matter” warm-up shirts prior to every game, as well as wearing agreed-upon words or phrases to promote positive change in society. The words “Black Lives Matter” are painted on all three courts used at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that’s used to play the games. Coaches, players, and referees have knelt together in solidarity during the national anthems following the lead of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, and both players and coaches have spoken out to the media about issues affecting the community. The measures, though appreciated, were not enough as the players expressed frustration and fatigue from the trauma of watching yet another killing on video. Many expressed a feeling of helplessness and captivity inside the bubble, boiling over to the Bucks’ abrupt refusal to play, and ultimately deciding at the last minute not to leave the locker room as players from the Magic were on the court warming up. Though the Bucks did not consult with the other teams, the rest of the players followed suit, halting the NBA playoffs in an unprecedented and groundbreaking move which also led to the postponement of games in the WNBA, MLB, MLS, and tennis.
On Thursday the players met again; the Lakers were the last to arrive, showing up 45 minutes late. Prior to the meeting, members of the executive committee reached out to both James and Clippers guard Lou Williams to see where each of the teams stood on resuming play, to which both informed the committee that their teams were in, according to Yahoo Sports. After receiving the official go ahead from all 13 teams, Paul and Miami Heat’s Andre Iguodala — the President and VP of the players, union, respectively — announced that the players would continue the playoffs. As word spread through social media, fans in support of the BLM movement expressed their disappointment and disapproval with the players’ reversal, with most of their focus being on LeBron James.
The Lakers star has often been outspoken about issues within the community and has also used his platform and wealth to improve it. He opened his I Promise school in hometown Akron, Ohio, in 2018; has built transitional housing for at risk students; launched a website to help end Black voter suppression, and so much more. Though his efforts have not gone unnoticed, many felt this was his major, defining moment to really affect change. Had James refused to play, it could have forced the NBA owners to use both their wealth and power to persuade government officials to meet the demands of the public: arresting the officers who shot Blake, Taylor, and others; enforcing police reform and accountability; enacting laws that better protect people of color; and more. Instead, James chose to resume play. He cited that he felt comfortable returning to the court after receiving promises from owners that they would work on real actionable items benefiting the Black community. That actionable item ended up being a “social justice coalition,” with the most tangible step being NBA owners converting facilities in all NBA cities into voting locations for the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
Full release from the NBA and NBPA: Social justice coalition being formed; team governors working to convert all arenas into location for 2020 general election; advertisement spots to promote civic engagement and awareness. pic.twitter.com/piU3gmOxgh
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) August 28, 2020
Such promises have been made before and in response the NBA owners — in a partnership with the NBPA — launched the NBA Foundation, where all 30 owners are set to contribute $30 million annually for 10 years to support racial equality and social justice. But, what’s next? Millions of dollars have been pledged to the Black Lives Matter movement but nothing has changed. LeBron James could have had his Kaepernick moment and transcended beyond the basketball GOAT discussions in a way that his predecessors haven’t. Had he decided to forego the season, James stood to lose a reported $8 million, a drop in the bucket of his over $450 million net worth. It also would have affected the upcoming collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations, and possibly led to a lockout of the NBA’s next season. While this would upset many, others felt it was a sacrifice James should have made. Although James cannot put an instant halt to the injustices of society, halting the season could have cemented his legacy and truly propelled him to being “more than just an athlete.”
Shaina Auxilly is a freelance sports and entertainment journalist from New York City. After receiving a broadcast journalism degree from Brooklyn College, Shaina has spent almost 10 years in the industry writing, interviewing, and producing stories covering sports, music, movies, and more.