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With the NBA bubble burst, players turn frustration into action

What’s next not only for the NBA, but the other pro leagues, too?

This was inevitable.

NBA players went along with the program for as long as they could. While protests swirled outside, players performed inside a bubble designed to shield them from the coronavirus. They knelt and gestured, wore printed slogans on the back of their jerseys.

Players were moved into a bubble to protect them from this deadly virus. Turns out that it will not be the coronavirus that possibly burst the NBA bubble, but the virulent, persistent virus of racism.

On Aug. 23, yet another Black man was shot by a police officer. Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin – seven bullets in the back as three of his six children watched. The players had had enough.

A day after the NFL’s Detroit Lions canceled practice in protest of the shooting, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their game against the Orlando Magic. Then the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder said they would also boycott their games.

Finally, the NBA took the dramatic step Wednesday of postponing the remaining playoff games scheduled for the day. This triggered a reaction that went beyond the NBA. The WNBA and some Major League Baseball teams followed suit.

NBA players were planning to meet Wednesday night to decide their next steps. Their next steps should be out of the NBA bubble and back into their respective communities to protest what is clearly and unmistakably an assault on Black lives. They have done the kneeling, the scribbling, even as law enforcement officers continue to do the shooting.

But players cannot fight this battle by themselves. If players are to turn their rage and frustration into action, they will need the muscle of the multibillionaires who own NBA teams and run the league. This is the only way.

In the immediate past, NBA owners have issued statements of support to various causes near and dear to players. But this state of affairs, with police gunning down anyone they please and vigilantes feeling emboldened to take lives, requires political and economic action. State lawmakers might ignore athletes when they call for meetings. They are less likely to ignore the economic engines who own teams. Players have influence, but the owners have political power.

Shortly after they announced the boycott, the Bucks put out a statement explaining the players’ actions.

Among other things, the statement said:

“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.”

The statement added: “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”

Wednesday’s postponements shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise.

Emotions began to boil over as soon as video of the Blake shooting emerged. The Bucks’ George Hill said he was sorry that he ever came to the bubble. Asked how he felt, Hill told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears: “I mean, just sickening. It’s heartless.”

On Monday, following Milwaukee’s Game 4 victory, Hill told reporters, “You’re supposed to look at the police to protect and serve, and now it’s looked at harass and shoot. To almost take a guy’s life — thank God he’s still alive. I know the cops are probably upset that he’s alive because I know they surely tried to kill him — but to almost take a man’s life, especially in front of his kids, that wasn’t resisting and his back at point-blank range, is a heartless and gutless situation, and we need some justice for that.”

Hill’s teammate, Khris Middleton, said: “This is why we have so many people outraged over the country. The man was shot seven times at point-blank range in the back. It doesn’t get any sicker than that.”

Players were moved into a bubble to protect them from the deadly virus. Turns out that it will not be the coronavirus that possibly burst the NBA bubble, but the virulent persistent virus of racism.

The NBA protests spread to Major League Baseball where multiple teams chose not to play Wednesday. Major League Soccer also postponed games and tennis star Naomi Osaka joined the protest by declaring she would not play in the Western & Southern Open semifinal on Thursday.

But the larger question remains: How can this indignation compel law enforcement to end its attack on African Americans?

Some will ask: Who will this boycott hurt? Does it really matter? This boycott reflects pain and frustration.

In an interview with Sirius XM NBA Radio on Wednesday, Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame player and coach, expressed support for NBA players. Wilkens, 82, was part of a player movement in 1964 when NBA player threatened to boycott the NBA All-Star Game if owners did not recognize the players union.

“They’re showing you that they have feelings. They’re human beings. They read the papers. They see what’s going on,” he said. “Eventually, it adds up and it takes its toll.”

Over the decades, heinous acts of state-sponsored violence against Black people have inspired movements and elegant words.

Billie Holiday painfully sang “Strange Fruit” in reaction to seeing the horrid aftermath of lynchings. There has been Don’t Shoot, I Can’t Breathe, Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter. Now there are angry sounds coming out of the protective bubble.

What do you say when words are not enough, when gestures are no longer sufficient? What happens when your actions are no longer seen, your words fall on deaf ears and all that is left is unsatisfied justice?

Don’t play.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.