With or without basketball, the Raptors have earned our support

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The Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics are finding themselves more teammates than opponents, at the moment. Game one of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between Toronto and Boston is supposed to start tomorrow. Right now it’s questionable whether that game, or even the entire series, takes place.

There’s really a lot of things that are way bigger than basketball going on,” said Pascal Siakam. “You wanna be able to play, you wanna be able to, because at the end of the day, we know that basketball brings something to people, but at the same time, just seeing that happening every day, man, like, it’s tough. It’s tough. It hurts.”

He was asked later how he would prepare for games, and Siakam said that it wasn’t even on his mind. If games happen or if they don’t it’s our responsibility as consumers of black culture and as fans of black players to appreciate those same humans outside of the delineated lines of the basketball court.

When the idea of the NBA Bubble came to life, and players faced the question, they were initially torn about the idea. Kyrie Irving, Wilson Chandler, and other players questioned the value of leaving their communities during such a turbulent time in history. Many players, like Kyle Lowry and Jaylen Brown, had attended or even led protests. It was not a sure thing that the collection of NBA players would assent to the bubble idea.

Of course, most eventually came to Orlando, after some intense media pressure that included one of the leading voices of ESPN labeling Irving a dissenter as he engaged with rank-and-file membership and asked legitimate questions about the value of the bubble. Dissent seemed to vanish as basketball began.

Then another police shooting of Jacob Blake, another stomach-churning video, more protests. The next day, a terrorist murdered two protesters and tried to surrender to police, who didn’t immediately arrest him. Kyle Rittenhouse, who is White, has since been arrested. But the optics that Blake, a Black man, was shot repeatedly in the back after he broke up a fight while Rittenhouse walked free after shooting three protesters cannot be avoided. NBA players can’t avoid the incongruity from police officers, and the inability or aversion from politicians to hold officers accountable for heinous actions. And NBA players have been asked, repeatedly, for their thoughts.

Many of those thoughts are regret that they ever came to the bubble. The same questions Irving asked before the bubble opened have been re-asked in recent days.

I mean, I don’t really regret a lot of things in my life, to be honest,” said Siakam. “I think there’s always things happen for a reason. But definitely things like that happening makes me question it. It makes me question my decision. It makes me question if this was the right decision, or are we really making a change, are we really doing something meaningful? Like, all those questions [are going] through my head.”

Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell spoke yesterday, asserting that they are focusing on things beyond basketball, at the moment. At varying times in personal, honest, and inspiring availabilities from both men, they showed hurt, guilt, anger, frustration, confusion, and awareness. The human gamut of emotions, really. They are not basketball players, at this moment. They are humans, and Black men, and beyond that, social leaders, whether they want to be or not. They did not choose to be leaders, and it’s a heavy, unfair, absurd burden for them to carry. But at this moment, it’s exactly what these young men are.

During media today, Nick Nurse had another long availability minutes answering questions about the team and the current moment in history. He emphasized that he thinks players can play basketball and be social justice leaders, but if players want to boycott, he will support them. Siakam went next, and his hurt was palpable, leaking into every answer. Serge Ibaka was scheduled to speak next, but he declined. Players can only answer the same questions so many times.

We’re left, ultimately, facing the same questions we were on May 25, when George Floyd died, on August 24, 2019, on July 13, 2015. Every day, really, in my life and for hundreds of years before that. Those questions ring beyond the borders of the United States, with an SIU report here in Toronto today absolving police of any guilt for the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet.

NBA players are not supposed to be thought leaders or justice scholars. Those questions are not supposed to be left for professional athletes to answer. But here in this bizarre junction of our world, these mostly-20s-year-olds have microphones thrust in their faces multiple times a day, and they can only hide their true feelings for so long.

“We’re the ones always with the microphones in our face, we’re the ones always who have to make a stand,” said VanVleet on August 25.

At a certain point, players’ vulnerability in the world because of their skin colour, their absurd existence in a bubble, separate from pandemic and community and the injustices of the world, start to force the asking of those same questions. It was only a matter of time before players, with an immense platform and access to the ears of the world, started offering their answers. It’s painful that NBA players are faced with such a burden on their shoulders. It’s not fair. But it’s a credit to the entirety of the NBA, and especially those players on the Raptors and Celtics who have been leading the charge, that they’ve taken on the challenge.

At this point, the Raptors and Celtics may boycott, and they may not. Players have declined to say yet, as they haven’t decided. Players on the Raptors and Celtics met last night, and they are planning to meet again tonight. They’ve realized that awareness and continuing the conversation can only accomplish so much. To think you’re doing something so as to impact real change, and then to realize the world hasn’t changed in any way is destabilizing. Players are coming to terms with that reality. A boycott could go some way towards putting economic pressure on real power-brokers — like the NBA Board of Governors and team owners — to fight for change. To join the fight that NBA players are leading. NBA players have power like they never have before. Coming to Orlando was supposed to be one way to use that power. But the move hasn’t done enough, not even close, and now players are mulling other, more radical options. The Raptors represent Toronto, and Toronto should be proud of the behavior of those players on and off the court. We should be proud that they’re trying to do more, always fighting to improve the world that they’ve inherited.

We should support them however and whenever we can.

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