For a while it seemed to work. James was one of many players who spoke to the civil rights press at length, and repeatedly called for justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers at her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Perhaps inevitably, though, the league’s restrictions – the messages on the shirts, for example, had to be chosen from an approved list – sometimes made the whole thing seem sanitized, a simulacrum of real protest. (James, for example, chose not to put a message on his shirt.) And, as the games went on, with their thrilling endings and dazzling performances by young stars, the attention somehow drifted away. by demands for justice and equality. When the video of Blake’s shooting appeared online, the player gestures seemed unnecessary.
Then the Bucks decided not to play at all and that decision was different. It has not been widely coordinated or announced in advance. It was extremely disruptive. Like many fundamental protests, it was based more on belief than strategy: the players had a purpose, not a plan. Supporting each other and signaling to their fury that another black man had been unjustly killed was worth whatever consequences might come. The Bucks didn’t tell their opponents, not the league office, not the union, not LeBron James. Instead, they called the attorney general and the Wisconsin lieutenant and asked what could be done.
James was one of the first players to do this tweet his support for the collective action of the Bucks: “FUCK THIS MAN !!!! WE ASK FOR CHANGE. Fed up with it. “He called a team meeting. The Lakers were taking a nap before the game and the team’s” executive manager of player schedules and logistics, “James’s chief of staff, who has one of the coveted posts. in the bubble, he went from room to room, shaking everyone. James told the others that they shouldn’t play either; soon, all of that night’s games had been postponed. Teams and players from other sports quickly decided that they too would stay There was a sense of history going on outside.
But not smoothly. After the games had been postponed, all the players in the bubble gathered, for the first time, to discuss whether to resume playing. The meeting, according to the official statement of the League, was “passionate”. James, according to some reports, along with a handful of other players, was not happy that he was taken aback by the Bucks’ decision. Furthermore, he was frustrated, he later said, by the absence of a plan behind the impulse strike. “That’s where my mind went,” he later told reporters. “At one point there was no plan to move forward. There was no action plan. I, personally, am not that kind of person. I’m not a guy who doesn’t have a plan and therefore isn’t ready to act on it. “
During the meeting, James reportedly focused on pressure from the owners to do much more than they had. All thirty teams have pledged $ 300 million over the next ten years to a foundation that empowers the black community – little change considering that twenty-two of the league’s owners are billionaires. A million dollars a year is a rounding error for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, one of the richest men in the world. The DeVos family, owners of the Orlando Magic, have spent millions of dollars promoting right-wing causes and candidates; Betsy DeVos is a member of Trump’s cabinet. Quicken Loans, the company run by Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, donated $ 750,000 to the Trump inauguration fund and, shortly thereafter, benefited from a tax break originally intended to help the poor. Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets, is a Trump supporter who fired some forty thousand employees from his casino and restaurant empire during the closure. Tom Gores, who owns the Detroit Pistons, has made billions in private equity and often makes donations to Democratic candidates; His company owns companies that contract with law enforcement and border patrol, including one that makes money by charging jailed people exorbitant rates and phone call rates.
Owners have the means and moral obligation to deal with white supremacy and structural racism; unlike players, they are rarely, if ever, put in place. James, on the other hand, makes the news almost every time he speaks. In the players’ meeting, the Lakers and Clippers would vote to end the season; the other teams voted to continue playing. Then James, followed by his teammates and the Clippers, walked out.
As details of the meeting leaked, it was not clear from the outside what James was doing. Was he taking radical action, declaring that this moment of national crisis was not game time? Was he trying to leverage the owners, jeopardizing the season? Was he simply frustrated? The next day, it emerged that he had gone to his room and, with a small group of playmates, had called Barack Obama. That wasn’t surprising: Obama, in addition to being the forty-fourth president, is a one-time basketball fan and organizer, and one of the few men who can compete with James in public stature. Obama is also a man who seems unlikely to capsize a boat not counting life rafts. He reportedly encouraged James and the others to push for the formation of a social justice council, to create a framework for the strike and to resume playing.
On Thursday morning, as James told Athletic’s Joe Vardon, “I’ve come up with a plan.” The plan was in line with Obama’s suggestions – it included the creation of a social justice council – and also with the efforts of More Than a Vote. Players would insist that the owners who control the stadiums allow those stadiums to become voting centers. “Homecourt !!!” James tweeted after the Lakers announced they would be attending. “Change is not done on the sidelines ????????✊???????? @morethanavote #BlackLivesMatter. “
This commitment could make a difference in some cities, where access to polls, particularly for black voters, is increasingly threatened. But not everyone is happy with this result, and some of the hottest notes of skepticism have been hit by the younger players. “I think the promises are made year after year,” Jaylen Brown, 23, said on Saturday in a Zoom conference call. “We have heard many of these terms and words before. We heard them in 2014: “Reform”. We are still listening to them now. “Brown continued,” Everyone keeps saying, ‘Change will take this, change will take that.’ This is the idea of incrementalism that pulls you forward to make you feel like something is about to happen, something is about to happen. People were dying in 2014, and it’s 2020 and people are still dying the same way. They keep saying: “Reform, reform, reform” and nothing is reformed. I’m not as sure of myself as I would like. “
Perhaps there was a moment there in that ballroom, during the player-level meeting, when the question of who would shape the future of the NBA seemed unstable, when it seemed uncertain whether James’s voice had the same authority. he has for a decade now, or if a new generation of gamers, accustomed to the platform he helped build, could take over. Whatever happened, the moment seems to have smoothed out; the games have been restarted. It’s not personal, as Beverley said, just business. On Friday, the Lakers will face Tilman Fertitta’s Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. In these playoffs, for James, there is a journey to his tenth NBA final and a chance to win his fourth championship. He always understood the currency of winning, and is still, at thirty-five, one of the best players in the world, perhaps, when it matters most, the best. James said he would like to become an NBA owner someday. Impersonation is important and there is no doubt that James would use his power to challenge his cohort. But it seems more remarkable than ever that one of its desired endings is, it seems, some kind of enlightened feudalism. The king’s goal is not to overturn the ownership structure, but to bend it from above.