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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The past 48 hours have been a whirlwind for NBA players in the bubble.
Walkouts, conflict, frustration and, ultimately, resolutions characterized this unprecedented time in sports history. And that’s all after the players have been sequestered in the Disney bubble, following strict health guidelines and focusing on competition for more than seven weeks.
This is how the NBA nearly lost its postseason but managed to find some common ground, come together and move on in a matter of two days.
Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul, who is the president of the players’ union, had the tedious and thankless job of uniting the players.
Many were frustrated and emotionally drained after being caught off-guard by the Bucks’ refusal to take the court Wednesday for Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic without informing anyone outside the team of their plans.
Players who were scheduled to compete in the ensuing games felt an obligation to sit out because the Bucks’ decision wasn’t part of an organized plan of action, sources said.
The Bucks, who are up 3-1 in the series, intended to force a forfeit and were willing to take the loss and forgo the opportunity to close out the series, but the organization did not anticipate being the catalyst for temporarily shutting down the league, sources said.
The protest was in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back multiple times on Sunday by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as he tried to get into his vehicle. The incident was captured on video. His three sons — ages 3, 5, and 8 — were in the vehicle during the incident, his family’s attorney said. Blake remains hospitalized.
A players meeting was arranged for 8 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the next move. Some wanted to leave the bubble to be with family, others wanted to leave to get on the frontlines and support change in the Black community, and others felt there’s no bigger platform than the one afforded in the bubble to get their messages across, sources said.
Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem, whose veteran stature gives him cachet among his peers, was one of the more vocal voices in the meeting, sources said.
Some players took issue with Bucks guard George Hill, who was a central figure in persuading the Bucks not to play and who said on Monday that “we shouldn’t have even came to this damn place” while lamenting the Blake shooting.
Haslem — in a clear message to Hill — stated that it was irresponsible and selfish for an established veteran to suggest that everyone should go home because younger players haven’t accumulated the wealth for such a drastic action, sources said.
LeBron James was one of the many players miffed with the Bucks’ handling of the situation as well, sources said. To him and so many others, it put them in a no-win situation.
His frustration with Hill and the Bucks was because the players didn’t have a plan of action that would warrant players returning to play, sources said. James’ mindset, sources said, was if they’re refusing to play, then what’s the end game and what demands must be met to continue?
Ever since the league suspended play on March 11 due to the coronavirus, James had been an advocate for resuming play if proper health and safety protocols allowed for it.
But in Wednesday’s meeting, players began seeing a shift in his position when he agreed to go with whatever the majority decided, sources said.
With emotions all over the place, Haslem pressed James and asked the star what he planned to do, reminding him that he’s the face of the league and it goes as he goes, sources said.
James then said, “We’re out,” and walked out with almost all of his teammates following behind, sources said, with Dwight Howard being the only Laker who remained.
The Clippers walked out as well, joining the Lakers as the only two of the 13 teams still in the bubble to vote against completing the rest of the playoffs.
But that wasn’t the only scene that got testy.
Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union, asked to have the floor to speak about the financial ramifications of leaving Orlando.
While she was going over the numbers, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley abruptly interrupted her, saying he disagreed with her logic, sources said. Roberts kindly reiterated that these were potential losses the players would suffer, and Beverley interrupted again.
Roberts asked politely if she could continue with her point, and Beverley responded, “No, I pay your salary,” sources said.
This caused an uproar with Paul, Haslem and others, who intervened and told Beverley that disrespect would not be tolerated, sources said.
After nearly three hours and with emotions running high, players agreed to meet again on 11 a.m. ET Thursday to make a final decision on the season.
A significant source of frustration in Wednesday’s meeting stemmed from players not being on the same page and letting emotions get the best of some. The hope from the collective was after a good night’s sleep, players would be in a better space to make a sound decision.
When it was time to gather on Thursday, the meeting couldn’t get underway, sources said, because there was one team missing: the Lakers.
They arrived at the meeting 45 minutes late, sources said. Prior to the Lakers and Clippers entering the meeting area, members of the executive committee reached out to James and Clippers guard Lou Williams to see where their teams stood on resuming play, sources said.
James and Williams informed the committee that their teams were in. Now with the go-ahead from all 13 teams, Paul and Andre Iguodala — the first VP of the players’ union — announced to the players that they would continue with the playoffs.
Yet still, a few players objected, asking who voted on their behalf, sources said. Paul and Iguodala took on the leadership role and said they were intent on playing, and promised they wouldn’t be moving forward without their best interests in mind.
Later that afternoon, there was a Zoom call between team owners and players.
On the call, James was stern in calling on owners to do more in aiding the Black community and to play more of a role in using their resources to combat systemic racism, sources said.
James had already told players he was in, but depending on how the meeting went with owners, he would have reversed course if things went sideways, sources said.
After the meeting, James felt comfortable with returning to the court, sources said. Owners promised that they would get to work on real action items that would benefit the Black community, sources said.
James always supported the Bucks; he just wanted unity and a specific call to action if they wanted to take a stand, sources said.
Even though James is just one player, it would have been impossible for the league to continue if he didn’t change his position.
Thursday morning’s players-only meeting lasted only 15 minutes, sources said. The walkout didn’t occur organically. But Paul, Iguodala, James, Jared Dudley and other veterans worked around the clock over the past two days to find a resolution.
That’s how the NBA came back.
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