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Monday, April 15, 2024

The NBA Bubble Was a Success Because It Failed

Just past 5 pm on August 23, Jacob Blake was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A video of the incident went viral, and overnight the city transformed into yet another nerve center for the Black Lives Matter movement. Three days later and 1,200 miles south, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the players of the NBA launched a work stoppage in response. Black players account for 75 percent of the league, and reeling from another devastating realization that the color of their skin makes them easy target practice in America, they decided enough was enough.

Blake’s shooting was the final turning point, but the action wasn’t just about him. The decision to strike was also the result of everything that came before it: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ferguson in 2014, and a lifetime’s worth of dead Black people killed as a consequence of how racism works in this upside-down country of ours. Fed up and with few options, players did what was in their immediate power: They chose not to step onto the court.


“We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable,” George Hill said in an interview. Hill is a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that initiated the walkout. One by one, the 13 remaining NBA teams vying for the championship followed suit. It was unclear, in the ensuing hours, how long the strike would last or if the playoffs would even continue. What was clear was the exceedingly brave stand players had taken—another progressive, historic, precedent-setting move in one of the sports world’s most progressive leagues.

For DeMar DeRozan, the San Antonio Spurs small forward, the root of the strike was about a cause “bigger than basketball” “Whoever don’t understand that is part of the problem,” he said in a tweet as news spread across social media. The sentiment wasn’t just one held among players. “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said when asked about Blake’s shooting in a postgame interview the night before the strike.

By Thursday of that week, as the league and players finalized details to resume play, the strike had snowballed into other sports leagues, which were joining in—Major League Baseball, the Women’s National Basketball Association, even tennis star Naomi Osaka, who would go on to win this year’s US Open. But in the whiplash 24 hours that followed the strike, the most outspoken response came from the inside. “FUCK THIS MAN!!!!,” tweeted LeBron James, the league’s blockbuster athlete and, within the universe of the NBA, a constellation unto himself. “WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”

Watching the collective action unfold felt like the first true human response to come out of the NBA machine in some time. The league shut down in March as cases of Covid-19 spiked stateside, making it unclear when, how, or even if teams would be able to complete the season. This summer, executives found a way to make it work: a playoff series inside a sealed-off community of sorts near Orlando. And so the “bubble” was christened. Games resumed in July, complete with plenty of pageantry and no small amount of performative allyship. The NBA was back—but at what cost?

Everything, it turned out, was different. Games were split between four arenas on the Walt Disney World campus. Fans were not allowed to attend (and, for the time being, neither were family members). Players got tested for coronavirus daily, and only select media members were allowed in. For its part, the NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” in large bold lettering on center court, pledged to invest in Black lives, and players opted to wear jerseys with social justice messages—“Respect Us,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “How Many More?”—printed on the back. In a capitalist system like the US, and especially within the ecosystem of the NBA, the pursuit of justice is its own kind of performance.

The bubble was the first of its kind in the NBA, and the sports world at large—a biodome experiment so grand and astronomically audacious, no one thought the league could actually pull off. But it turned out to be a coup of logistical brilliance: Players have remained healthy throughout, overall there has been little evidence of drama outside the strike, and nightly games—from Dame Lilliard in game 1 against the Lakers to Jamal Murray going supernova in just about every matchup—again became watercooler conversation on social media.

Those feats were not enough to keep the outside world at bay. The bubble was meant to be impervious. It failed. But its failure is also proof of all that it accomplished. The magic of what makes this experiment a bona fide triumph is how vulnerable, how open, its players have been during their time there. The bubble succeeded not because of what it kept out but because of what it let in—the real-life concerns of its players. The year has been relentless in its rush to shock, to throw each of us off balance, and the players' strike will endure long past 2020 as a testament to the kind of unity, courage, and virtue these dizzy, fiery times call for.

The finals are now underway; the Lakers play the Miami Heat in Game 2 tonight, which means the NBA’s great experiment is coming to an end. LeBron James is again at the throne of history. This will be his ninth finals appearance in 10 years, and he’s doing it with his third NBA team. He’s never had a bigger stage than this. Inside the bubble, he’s become a lodestar of transcendence; more than a metaphor, he’s the real thing. The change James and NBA players seek doesn’t end with the season. In fact, this feels like the beginning of an entirely new league. One where players have more collective power.

The chemistry of sport is crude and fuzzy and not as measured as we think, even within a seemingly controlled environment like the bubble. When it comes down to it, so much of basketball is scale. Sacred in its volume and stirring grace. A last-minute dagger shot to win a game. The pulse of feet, bodies, and pure energy up and down the court. The adulation of fans—real and virtual. Scale is about reaching as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. Scale is why we watch.

Today, with so much money and social capital on the line, speaking up for Black lives hinders that reach—even if it is the right thing to do. This is why players like LeBron are central to how the movement lives on, in how it keeps its momentum and charge. Now is not the time to shut up and dribble. Speak your piece. Pop the bubble for good. Let all the world in.

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