Marques Johnson, Zora Stephenson and Jim Paschke were in a strange new routine on Aug. 26, putting on a pregame telecast from Milwaukee ahead of the Bucks’ afternoon playoff game in the NBA’s “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
The team hadn’t yet taken the court for warmups, and as the clock clicked down to game time it became apparent they would not. Three days earlier, Jacob Blake had been shot in the back by a Kenosha police officer, and word leaked out of the locker room that the Bucks were refusing to play in a remarkable stand against racial injustice and police brutality.
Caught off guard, what could have been an awkward and disjointed moment for the broadcast team turned into an emotional, intensely personal and, at times, difficult conversation about social justice and policing. “I was on an incredible high during that 90 minutes of what people will say was fill time,” says Johnson. “I felt like we were doing something really important and really special.”
The wildcat strike was hardly the Bucks’ first foray into social issues. Among the major professional sports leagues, the NBA has been the least willing to stick to sports, and the Bucks are among the franchises setting the tone within the league.
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Despite all that, Aug. 26 felt like a watershed moment for the franchise. The players’ willingness to risk a forfeit of a first-round playoff game – and the owners’ support of their action – shocked many in and out of the sports world.
“The [Los Angeles] Lakers might have won the championship, but I think we were the most impactful team in the bubble based on what we did for human beings, not just for the NBA,” says Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham, who witnessed firsthand the emotions that players dealt with that day.
The Bucks entered the months-delayed playoffs seeking the team’s first championship since the 1970-71 season, the lone title in the franchise’s history. But as tensions rose over the course of a troubling summer, sparked at first by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, the season became a struggle for some players.
While in Milwaukee over the summer, several Bucks players, including two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, took to the streets to join protesters who had been marching daily calling for an end to social and racial injustice and police brutality.
By the time the Bucks arrived at the bubble, basketball and everything the team had worked for didn’t seem as important. The tipping point came with the Blake shooting, 45 miles from the city the Bucks call home.
Taking cues from players such as George Hill and Sterling Brown, who had his own confrontation with Milwaukee police, the team agreed it needed to take a stand.
“George Floyd hit us all bad, but then you see what happened to Jacob Blake in front of his children as he’s walking away,” Ham says.
Like the players, the broadcast team was struggling to come to grips with the situation. Johnson, 64, got emotional on the air when he spoke about how, as a teenager living in Los Angeles, police pulled him from his car and put a gun to his head while uttering racial slurs.
Stephenson, the 27-year-old Bucks sideline reporter, said she and her broadcast colleagues didn’t want to become the story but felt the need to provide context to the issue. “I think what people saw and heard were humans, not television personalities,” Stephenson says. “In the moment, we were just using our hearts and our minds. There was no plan or script. We were just giving people context so that they understood the importance of the moment.”
The situation left a lasting impression on Stephenson. “Being a member of the organization and as a Black woman, I was so proud,” she explains. “I had that in my mind when we were broadcasting: Should I say I’m proud? I don’t care if that’s controversial. Nowadays, there’s so much anger and hate, and there’s a lack of ability just to hear people out and understand where they are coming from. If you understood where those men and the organization were coming from, to me it was hard not to be proud.”
Looking for New Leaders
WITH THE OFFSEASON trades of Sterling Brown to Houston and George Hill to Oklahoma City, the Bucks have lost two of their leaders on the social justice front.
Bucks VP of corporate social responsibility Arvind Gopalratnam expects others to continue to make their voices heard, including assistant coach Darvin Ham, newly acquired Jrue Holiday and veteran Khris Middleton.
“Khris is one of the biggest advocates for mentoring and supporting young Black voices in our community,” he says.
Two years ago, the Bucks and the Sacramento Kings formed Team up for Change to address issues of injustice in their respective cities. In Milwaukee, police used a stun gun on Brown during an arrest over a parking violation in January 2018. In Sacramento, the Kings franchise and the community struggled to come to grips with the shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man, by police two months after the Brown incident.
“Both of our communities, not just our organizations, faced very public instances of police brutality. That unified our two organizations, our two leadership teams, to a point to say, ‘What can we do better?’” says Mequon native Arvind Gopalratnam, vice president of corporate social responsibility for the Bucks, who has been with the organization since 2016. “Our organizations felt a need to use our platform to start to do a better job of addressing some of these racial issues that exist in our communities.”
The partnership has been expanded to include additional NBA and WNBA franchises in Minnesota, Indiana, Dallas and Cleveland.
“It is incumbent upon us all to take a stand for justice, equity and equality, and further commit to investing in transformative and sustainable change for our Black communities,” Kings owner and chairman Vivek Ranadivé said at the time.
Following the Brown case, the Bucks committed to working with local leaders and organizations to foster safer neighborhoods and better the community, including promoting an effort that pairs up adults with youth that have been incarcerated or involved in the legal system.
It didn’t end there.
The NBA Board of Governors announced in August that it would contribute $300 million in initial funding to create a foundation “dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community,” with all 30 NBA team owners collectively contributing $30 million annually for the next 10 years.
In November, the NBA and the NBA Players Association formed the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition to lead a collective effort to advance equality and social justice, including voting access and criminal justice reform. The coalition is led by a group of five team governors, five players and two coaches. Among them are Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and Brown.
“You don’t get to be as successful as Marc Lasry if you are just focusing on a problem,” Ham says. “He’s a solutions-based individual.
So is Sterling. And Sterling having gone through it directly has a unique perspective that needs to be heard, not just when it comes to policing but when it comes to jobs and the hiring processes and the disparity in the quality of education.”
And the Bucks, Milwaukee Brewers, Green Bay Packers and Microsoft announced in December the formation of the Equity League, an investment division of venture capital fund TitletownTech, focused on “impact-driven” technology startups and creating more opportunities for Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.
The Bucks know not all of these efforts are popular with everyone. But the franchise shrugs off concerns about alienating fans who would prefer the Bucks “shut up and dribble.”
“What I think it comes down to fundamentally is the beliefs that we have as an organization, which involve racial equality and social justice for people of all backgrounds,” Gopalratnam says.
“We’d never be willing to compromise. Unquestionably, the work we do can be polarizing, but our goal in everything we do is to provide education, a platform and inspire each other.”