Sideline Cut: Emboldened NBA stars take protest to a new level in seismic week

Players’ burning sense of anger boils over and this time around the show did not go on

When Wilt Chamberlain saw the footage of Martin Luther King lying in a casket in Atlanta, he knew he didn't want to play basketball. The assassination of the civil rights leader, on April 4th, was just a day before Chamberlain's reigning champion Philadelphia 76ers were due to meet Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs.

Even then Russell was a regal presence and for 10 years had been a prominent voice in the emergent civil rights movement. He sat in the front row for King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which would become part of the touchstones of the century.

Chamberlain, his rival, had a more complex identity: a physical wonder, dismissed sometimes a playboy who lived according to his own whims and whose name graces perhaps the most perfectly named sports biography ever: ‘Just Like Any Other Seven Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.’

But Chamberlain was distraught by the killing of Dr King. He spoke with Russell and they conspired to have the first game postponed. The idea was put to the NBA authorities but there was a feeling that broadcasting such an attractive game across America might keep people at home rather than taking to the streets in protest.


Still, the 76ers players were still having an internal debate just 20 minutes before the scheduled tip-off. They cleared their locker room and took a vote: of the 10 cast, Chamberlain was one of two to vote against playing the game. This was 1968. The players were tied to contracts that felt vice-like. When it came down to it, the two biggest stars in the NBA were powerless against the machinations of their sport. Game one went ahead even as American cities gave way to riots.

Those events of half a century ago were mirrored in the strange silent ‘bubble’ where the 2020 NBA playoffs are taking place in Florida. It really doesn’t matter who wins the NBA championship this summer: they already rank as the most unique of all time.

It has felt as though NBA basketball was knocked off its axis by the shocking and tragic death of Kobe Bryant in January. Then came the pandemic and the lockdown. Then came the killing of George Floyd. When the NBA returned to play, its players and coaches used the platform to present a united front for social and racial justice. Slogans have replaced the players' names across the shoulders of their playing uniforms: their own names are printed beneath the message.

LeBron James has used most of his media conferences to call for and double down justice for Breonna Taylor, another black American killed by police authorities. If the NBA collective was under some illusion that its stance was in some way acting as a deterrent to trigger-happy police officials, it was rudely shattered when another black American citizen was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Wisconsin.

Like the killing of Floyd, it was captured on video phone and the images are harrowing and terrible. He is in hospital fighting for his life, paralysed from the waist down yet reportedly confined in an ankle shackle. The reaction of the NBA players was immediate. James, the undisputed player of his generation and hugely influential, immediately flashed out a tweet which radiated a kind of despair.

The decision on Wednesday by the Milwaukee Bucks to boycott their game just minutes before tip-off echoed the conversation had by Chamberlain and his team-mates. Except this time, the players felt sufficiently emboldened not to turn up.

The Bucks are outliers to win this year's championship; a hugely experienced team built around the gargantuan, 6' 11'' explosively athletic Greek player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Earlier on Wednesday, Antetokounmpo was presented with the NBA's defensive player of the year award in a make-shift ceremony.

From a television booth, the former ball-handling prodigy Kenny Smith asked Antetokounmpo about his fabulous journey to the NBA. Both his parents are Nigerian immigrants and he was raised on the margins in Athens, selling watches as a street hawker as a youngster. He only started playing basketball in 2007. His physical attributes, his height and his athletic prowess meant that he was singled out from the millions of young basketball players across the continent and here he is.

It’s striking in that interview just how humble and solemn Antetokounmpo comes across: he is still new enough to the dazzle of the NBA to be thankful for what has happened to him. When you look back at the old videos of Wilt the Stilt, who was in love with the fun of being alive as much as anything, the attitudes of two young men singled out by fate and the game are radically different.

But they were connected by the events of this week.

Overnight on Wednesday, the future of the NBA season was in doubt. All games were postponed. James voted to end it completely: to leave the bubble and forget about basketball during a summer when the cause of civil rights and race relations in America is again molten. He later changed his mind but he was willing to walk away from perhaps his last title. Jalen Brown of the Boston Celtics, another potential champion, put it this way when he spoke about the latest assault on the African-American mindset.

"The question I would like to ask is does America think that black people or people of colour are uncivilised savages or naturally unjust or are we products of the environment we participate in? And American has proven its answer over and over and over again. Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being?"

The NBA is due to resume its strange silent season of playoffs in the coming days. But it’s clear now that the conversations going on in that bubble between team-mates and rivals have very little to do with the game of basketball. They’ve been cut off from family and friends and the outside world in order to keep the lucrative NBA show on the road and on television screens across the world. And the financial benefits are enormous for the players. But their burning sense of anger overwhelmed everything this week. Nerves are frayed. All it will take is one more atrocity and this time, the players will leave. And it will be no great surprise if this year’s NBA finals are never played.