The image on Jayson Tatum’s t-shirt as he made his way to the post-game interview room following Boston’s 112-94 Game 1 win over Toronto was that of George Floyd, who was killed after a now-ex police officer planted his knee in the back of Floyd’s neck for 546 seconds.
The message delivered by Tatum, one delivered in his words, his actions and his attire, was clear.
Success in the Bubble for him and most players has to be a two-fold proposition, one whose ending leaves an indelible imprint of success both on and off the court.
Consider that daily mission accomplished in Game 1 as Tatum led the way for Boston with a near double-double of 21 points and nine rebounds.
I asked Tatum after the game his thoughts on that balancing act he and so many players are trying to execute; focusing on winning games while furthering the conversation about systemic change as it relates to Black people.
“What we’ve been doing off the court is a big reason why we came down here,” Tatum said. “The world is seeing how powerful we are as a collective; together, the things we can accomplish when we come together as one.”
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After the Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott their Game 5 matchup with Orlando on Thursday, other teams followed suit with all of the games scheduled on Thursday and Friday being postponed until Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
In between, players had long, deep conversations into the night among themselves about a host of issues. Others had additional conversations with players association leaders and NBA owners.
A small contingent of players led by LeBron James spoke with former President Barack Obama.
The end result was a joint statement between the league and the players association outlining a renewed effort on the part of NBA owners to become more engaged in helping increase voter turnout – something the players have urged them to be more involved with – which included but not limited to, opening up arenas as polling sites in buildings that were owned by NBA teams.
It sounds good and for the most part feels good, too.
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But there are some players like Celtics wing Jaylen Brown who are understandably skeptical about the talk of increased NBA owners engaging fully in the various efforts to thwart racism.
“Promises are made year after year,” Brown said prior to Boston’s Game 1 win over Toronto. “We’ve heard a lot of these terms and words before. We heard them in 2014 — reform. We’re still hearing them now. A lot of them are just reshaping the same ideas and nothing is actually taking place. Long-term goals are one thing, but there’s stuff in our wheelhouse as athletes with our resources and the people that we’re connected to that short-term effect is possible as well.
Brown added, “Everybody keeps saying, ‘Change is going to take this, change is going to take that.’ That’s the incrementalism idea that keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something’s going to happen, something’s going 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 ain’t nothing being reformed. I’m not as confident as I would like to be.”
Injecting a healthy dose of skepticism into the conversation about social justice reform and combating racism is an important part of the overall narrative of why players decided to enter the Bubble.
The platform they now have to speak about those issues while also doing what they love – play basketball – gives them an unique opportunity to elevate the conversations that so many in this country want to have but are not afforded an opportunity to speak about to such a captive audience akin to what NBA players in the Bubble have available to them.
Tatum is aware of this, which is why Sunday afternoon was in many ways a two-fold win for him and the Celtics.
The victory on the court moved them one step closer towards their goal of winning an NBA title. And the conversations that continue to take place, enhanced by subtle acts such as wearing a shirt with George Floyd’s image on it … yes, that too is a victory worth cheering about.
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