LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—The sound of squeaking sneakers cut through the mural painted walls, the first sign of normalcy returning to the NBA bubble. One by one, players shuffled down hallways and stepped off buses on Friday, ducking through powder blue doors that led to practice floors, ready to go back to work. At 12:39 pm, the NBA and NBPA released a joint statement announcing new league commitments to social justice. The league, officially, was back.
It has been a harrowing 48 hours for the NBA, for the players, a tense stretch that began with the Milwaukee Bucks decision not to play in Game 5 of its first round series against Orlando—a choice made to bring attention to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year old Black man in Kenosha, Wisc.—and continued with a volatile meeting among players on Wednesday night. By Thursday, temperatures had cooled and after a video conference call between players and team owners, an agreement was reached to resume the season.
“Adam [Silver] and the owners were on board,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Even the things they didn’t agree on, they discussed.”
Said Danny Green, “They gave us their word that they have our back.”
The process was messy, players and coaches admitted on Friday. The first meeting, in a ballroom inside the Coronado Springs, was contentious. “I don’t even know if that meeting went well,” Rivers said. Said Chris Paul, “15 years in this league, I’ve never seen anything like it. The voices that were heard, I’ll never forget it.” Players left wondering if the season was going to continue. “50-50,” Green said. Added Rivers, “I think it was close. I don’t think it was a layup either way.”
Still, players stressed: The decision to play wasn’t made after one meeting. The Lakers were among the first teams to leave the ballroom. “It was a long meeting, [it] got heated,” Green said. “Took a food break. It wasn’t as crazy as everyone made it seem.” The Clippers left soon after. But Rivers didn’t want the discussion to end there. On the eighth floor of the team hotel, Rivers pulled players into the hallway. He encouraged them to keep talking. To air everything out. Kawhi Leonard spoke. Then Lou Williams. Marcus Morris weighed in. Said Rivers, “There was a lot of emotion.”
On Thursday, more meetings. Teams met individually. Then in groups. Michael Jordan joined the discussions, not as an owner but an advisor, helping players narrow their focus. “He was huge in making sure that whatever we want to do together, we get it done,” said Russell Westbrook. A day after a historic work stoppage, players decided they wanted the season to continue. “[A] lot of our top guys, most teams, wanted to be here, wanted to play,” Green said. “But if we don’t stand for [anything] we won’t get anything done. So we were willing to walk away.” Added Paul, “We understood the platform that we have, and we wanted to keep our foot to the pedal.”
Players needed something. Owners were in a position to give it to them. The asks were reasonable. They wanted a bigger voice internally. The NBA agreed to establish a social justice coalition, one represented by players, coaches and owners, that will tackle a broad range of issues, from civic engagement to advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.
They wanted help with messaging. In recent weeks, players have noted a change. Players have continued to kneel for the national anthem. Television networks, though, have stopped showing it, diminishing the power of the demonstration. The NBA agreed to work with players and broadcast partners to create advertising spots during each game “dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”
Inside the bubble, voting is a significant issues. They want to create engagement. “Black men have to vote,” Rivers said. “Have to vote. Suppression right now has never been higher.” They want greater access. Recently, several NBA teams have announced plans to turn arenas into polling stations. Players asked for all NBA teams to do it. The NBA agreed. In fact, Silver told the players, plans were in the works for this anyway. In cities where teams control the arena, owners will work to convert them this fall. Soon after the agreement was public, the Knicks and Clippers announced that Madison Square Garden and The Forum would become voting centers. Paul says that J.R. Smith told him officials in his city—it wasn’t immediately clear which—told him that they planned to do something similar.
“Voting,” said Paul, “is something everyone in the room [was] very passionate about.”
There will be skepticism about what NBA players accomplished. If they did enough to make a three-day work stoppage worth it. In a league nearly 80% Black, these issues are deeply personal. Growing up in Hawthorne, Calif., Westbrook saw “police brutality in everyday life.” In 2018, Bucks guard Sterling Brown was tasered by Milwaukee police … for parking illegally. Choking back tears, Paul recounted a conversation he had with Jacob Blake’s father, Jacob Sr. Dad graduated from Winston-Salem State University—in the city Paul was born in. He thought of his 11-year-old son, Christopher, watching the video of Blake’s shooting while his father was thousands of miles away.
“Guys are tired,” Paul said. “We’re all hurt. We’re tired of seeing the same thing over and over again and everybody expecting us to be OK, just because we get paid great money. We’re human. We have real feelings. And I’m glad that we got the chance to get in a room and talk with one another.”
To players and coaches, the stoppage was worth it. It gave them time to process. “We all needed to take a breath,” Rivers said. And it made the world take notice. The WNBA stopped. The NHL, too. Baseball games were postponed. NFL players are discussing options for the fall. “Once the NBA stopped, everything else stopped,” Westbrook said. “Our voices were heard.”
Games will resume on Saturday. No one knows what to expect. “We have a PhD in handling adversity,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, but it will be challenging to instantly move past this much emotion. In the bubble, there is a new normal. After Boston’s practice, Brad Stevens slipped into the Celtics meal room. A few minutes later, a booming voice could be heard. On a laptop, Stevens had cued up a speech delivered by Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist. Film work could wait until later.