As the seconds ticked down Wednesday afternoon to the scheduled tip-off time for Game 5 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, and both teams remained in their locker rooms, NBA-TV’s on-air crew was forced to stall. Usually, watching people vamp on live TV can make you want to turn the channel. But what unfolded in the hours that followed was insistent, heart-rending, unpredictable and necessary television.
As rumours swirled that the Bucks were mulling a boycott of their game to protest against the country’s foot-dragging on racial justice, a cause that had gained new urgency in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Sam Mitchell spoke plainly to host Chris Miles about his own galling experiences as a Black man living in America.
“Chris, understand something,” said Mitchell, a former coach of the year for his time with the Toronto Raptors. “When I say this, as a Black man at 56 years old, everyone I know, every Black person knows someone who’s been shot and killed by police. Now think about that. You know how many people I know, Chris?”
“A guy I played against in high-school basketball was killed by the police, and it was deemed an accident. They had him on the ground, wrongfully accused, with a gun pressed to his head, with handcuffs on.
“How does a gun go off? Why would you point a gun at someone’s head when he’s on the ground with handcuffs? But back then, there was no video. All we had was the word of a police officer. I mean, Black and brown people have been murdered by the police, and we’re just now realizing how many, by these videos in the last four or five years.”
For the next several hours, sports television, which excels in the delivery of raw emotion and roller-coaster thrills and gut punches, channelled that impulse into sombre, maddening civil-rights TV.
Isiah Thomas called in to the program to discuss systemic racism and voter suppression, saying the United States operated with a “colour-coded caste system.” Former player Jim Jackson, who had been slated to call the game as part of the on-air crew, pivoted to share some of the hard lessons he had been forced to impart to his now-27-year-old son, Traevon, to keep him safe.
“When he was young, I had to walk him through the dos and don’ts of what you do when you’re out: When you get approached by a cop, how you conduct yourself in different neighbourhoods – all of these different things,” Jackson said. “And that’s the challenge – why should I have to even put my son in that situation where he’s fearful?”
Mitchell had just finished explaining to Miles – although, really, he was talking to viewers, because Miles is a Black man and doesn’t have to be told these things – some of the steps he took to keep himself from getting shot by police.
Whenever he gets into his car, he said, he takes out his wallet and lays it in the centre of the dashboard. “Why? Just in case I’m stopped, I don’t have to do any unnecessary movement, to cause the police to act weird, to shoot me because I’m reaching for my ID.” He added: “What the players are talking about, they’re serious about this, man, because at the end of the day they know people. They have friends and family members who have been stopped and mistreated by the police or even killed. So this is serious to the Black community. I know for a lot of people, Chris, they don’t understand it. They think we’re overreacting.”
He urged Americans to vote.
As news broke that the Bucks-Magic game would be postponed – and that the other two NBA games scheduled for Wednesday would be put off, too – cameras captured courtside workers dismantling the setup, rolling racks of balls back into storage. Jackson explained to Miles that the players, who had come to the bubble in Orlando in hopes of using their platform to shed light on the issue of racial injustice, may have felt their message had not been getting through.
“The unsettling truth about this is, you know, we talk about different laws being changed and how you prosecute police officers when they do something that’s out of line during their duty. But also, we’ve had many laws – the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendment, 19th Amendment, the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Bill, we had all of these things to change and say, ’Discrimination is illegal.’ But what hasn’t changed a lot of times is the mindset of the people.”
At 6:30 p.m., instead of the pregame show originally scheduled before the now-cancelled Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets match, TNT began airing a special edition of Inside the NBA hosted by Ernie Johnson, with Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. Carried in Canada on TSN, the show had only just got under way when one of the panelists enacted his own stunning boycott.
As Smith began speaking, he seemed antsy and anxious, as though he were trying to beat back his own thoughts, live on air.
“Right now, my head is ready to explode, in the thoughts of what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t even know if I’m appropriate enough to say it, what the players are feeling and how they’re feeling. I haven’t talked to any of the players. Even, like, driving here, getting into the studio, hearing calls and people talking, and for me, I think the biggest thing now is to kind of – as a Black man, as a former player – I think it’s best for me to support the players and to just not be here tonight and figure out what happens after that.”
He unplugged his lapel microphone and laid it down. The sound clattered through the emptiness of the massive studio.