LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Emotions were high, and disagreements and fatigue emerged as the NBA’s players deliberated about the state of the season and how the league could use its platform to address systemic racism. Yet, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum stood firm on one thing.
“Was I in favor of leaving? No, I wasn’t,” McCollum said. “I feel like we have a responsibility and obligation to use our platform. Take advantage of our situation as NBA players and continue to try to push the game forward for the next generation, while inspiring kids that come from my neighborhoods.”
McCollum represented a handful of significant NBA players who had to balance sharing their individual views while respecting everyone else’s.
With Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul (president), Miami’s Andre Iguodala (first vice president), Boston’s Jaylen Brown (vice president) and McCollum (vice president) holding leadership positions in the NBA players’ union, they had to navigate a unique role. They served more as referees who aimed to call the game fairly, as opposed to a player lobbying for certain calls.
“Everything that we do is about the brotherhood and everyone as a whole,” Paul said. “It was never about what is this one team or what is this one player going to do. What we did in there was have deep conversations. We all really had an opportunity to address a lot of things.”
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McCollum noted the desire to have such conversations as soon as NBA teams arrived on the Disney campus between July 7-9. That became hard, however, amid demanding practice schedules. When the season restart began (July 30), all NBA teams played every other day through the playoffs, which started Aug. 17. That itinerary changed, though, this week.
Outrage emerged after Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot unarmed Black man Jacob Blake seven times. Blake has survived the shooting, but the incident sparked reminders of other instances of law enforcement shooting unarmed Black people.
During the NBA’s season restart, the league’s players routinely spoke out on the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings, touted various voting reform initiatives and spoke openly about systemic racism.
Amid frustration that their platform was not doing enough, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game Wednesday against the Orlando Magic. The Bucks stayed in their locker room for about three hours, which partly included having conference calls with state officials in hopes to pressure them to enact police reforms.
“In hindsight, we will appreciate what Milwaukee did,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of guys that came down here for reasons other than basketball and to use our platforms. Milwaukee did exactly that.”
The NBA’s players did not all exactly feel that way when they met in a hotel ballroom around 8 p.m. Wednesday, though.
For about three hours, players addressed various topics. Some questioned why the Bucks did not alert them about their plans ahead of time. Some shared their fatigue about staying on the quarantined campus without family for the last 1½ months.
Some debated whether resuming the NBA playoffs would help or hinder their ability to address systemic racism. Some shared their frustrations with law enforcement continuously killing unarmed Black people without significant repercussions.
“We have to have a unified message and still support one another,” Iguodala said. “Whatever the majority decides, we do the best we can to put players in our league in a position to shine brightest on and off the court.”
During that time, the players union invited coaches, including Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Houston Rockets assistant coach John Lucas to speak. Later on, the meeting included just players. As USA TODAY Sports and other outlets reported, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers expressed their disinterest in resuming the season. They then left the meeting early.
At that point, the NBA players union was not taking a formal poll. But NBPA executive director Michele Roberts, Paul, Iguodala, Brown and McCollum all alerted the players about the financial ramifications about halting the rest of the season. Not only would players receive a significant pay cut this season, the decision could put future seasons in jeopardy. NBA players already accepted a pay-cut with the regular season becoming abbreviated due to the coronavirus outbreak. The NBA may also already face financial losses next season amid uncertainty if the league can host games next season with fans.
The players union also asked how players would address systemic racism if they returned home instead of staying in the campus bubble.
“In the event the masses would’ve decided to leave, we would’ve done that. But I wanted to make sure everybody was educated on what exactly we were going to do if we left,” McCollum said. “If we were just going to go home, would we go back to the suburbs and enjoy the life we live? Or would we try to create some real impact by going to the front lines? That was more so my thing. If we do leave, what can we accomplish that we can’t accomplish being here and having these platforms?”
Jaylen Brown and CJ McCollum, among the NBPA leadership team, go against each other during an Aug. 2 game in the bubble. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Pool Photo/USA TODAY Sports)
As the players discussed these issues, the historical magnitude struck Paul. He thought of the “Cleveland Summit” on June 6, 1967 when Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Willie Davis and Basketball Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell supported boxer Muhammad Ali in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. As Paul said, “15 years in this league, and I had never seen anything like it.”
Still, those in NBA players union leadership said they did not feel on the verge of calling a permanent boycott of the season. Nor did they sense that the disagreements would lead to long-term divisions.
“We were always unified. That’s just the tough part about being in the public life and public figures. Small things can get blown out of proportion,” Iguodala said. “The fact we were able to get that many guys in the room and be together as one? I’m sure if you go across any company that has ever existed in this country, you’re going to have disagreements. That’s something I was most proud of, that we were able to understand the tensions and understand the emotions that are going on. Ultimately, we came from a good place. It came from seeing one of our own gunned down once again.”
The players ended their meeting Wednesday without a resolution. They promised to reconvene Thursday at 11 a.m. ET with hope that a good night’s sleep and time could lead to more conversation. McCollum mused, “I’m sure CP hasn’t slept in days,” but the time certainly softened any hard feelings.
While players had a second meeting, the NBA held a Board of Governors meeting around the same time. Later on Thursday afternoon, player, coach and governor representatives from each of the 13 NBA playoff teams convened on a video conference call. The league office and the players union joined them. So did Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who has served as the NBA’s Labor Relations Committee Chairman.
“We decided if we go away from this stage, we don’t have this same platform,” Paul said. “We stood in solidarity and will continue to play. But we also will make sure our voices will be heard. It’s not just about making sure our voices were heard. We’re about action.”
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Paul spoke with Blake’s father about his vow to hold law enforcement accountable for shooting and killing unarmed Black people. The NBA agreed to the same idea. They have formed a social justice coalition that will include team players, coaches and governors to focus on police and criminal justice reform. They expanded their voting outreach so that every NBA team governor will work with local election officials to convert their arena or practice facility into a polling site for the General Election on Nov. 3. If a deadline has passed, the team governors will work with local election officials to use their facilities for something, including a place to host voter registration drives.
The NBA also agreed to work with its players and broadcast partners (ABC/ESPN, Turner) to create ads about voting to run during each playoff game.
“There’s a lot of burdens put on us as athletes to save our communities,” Iguodala said. “Whether it’s government officials or more wealthy individuals in this country that help a lot of politicians, donate to their campaigns to get the decisions done as well, they have just as much responsibility as we do.”
Yet, it took the NBA players union to moderate these discussions in hopes that they could lead to the most impactful outcome.
“It had emphasis on some of the divisiveness with what took place in a lot of those meetings. What was not being talked about was the unification. It was a lot of guys in the room that had a lot of pain,” Brown said. “All of us wanted to get in the same room together. It doesn’t happen very often. It’s centered around the same cause.”
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