News of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday didn’t reach reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo until days later, with the Milwaukee Bucks star on a social media blackout for the NBA postseason.
Once he became informed that Blake, who is Black, was shot seven times by police, Antetokounmpo was in full support of his teammates choosing not to play Wednesday in protest of the situation — a game that was postponed to Saturday.
Bucks players Sterling Brown and George Hill were the first to step up, then he followed, as did the rest of organization. From the NBA bubble, the team was able to get in contact with Blake’s family in less than an hour, with Antetokounmpo calling the shooting “unacceptable.”
“One thing that moved me as a human being was that, if you really want to accomplish something and get something done, you can. We were able to get his family’s number within like 30 minutes,” Antetokounmpo recalled. “And, we came together as a team, went in a circle, talked to his dad and his dad was tearing up telling us how powerful what we did on that day was for him and his family, and that’s bigger than basketball to me.
“That’s bigger than basketball,” he added. “Obviously, it’s gonna be games that you come in and score 30, 35, 50 or whatever the case might be, but that you’re going to remember. The way we felt, we’re going to remember the way we felt for the rest of our lives.”
The recent events took the native of Greece back to his rookie season in 2013-14, when veteran teammate Caron Butler taught him a valuable lesson about being Black in America. Although nothing happened to him at the time, he now gets why Butler said what he said.
“I had Caron Butler tell me that when you walk down the street, take off your hoodie,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m like, ‘Why should I take off my hoodie?’ and he’s like, ‘Just take off your hoodie.’ And that was my rookie year. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now.”
Butler was trying to save him from racial profiling. It’s why players throughout the league are so adamant about issues such as voter awareness, social justice, racial equality and police reform to create real change. They’re speaking up even though it might not come as naturally to some as it does to others.
“It’s definitely tough for me. I’ve been known as a quiet guy for most of my career. But at the same time, we have a responsibility. A lot of people listen to us, a lot of people look up to us and a lot of people are watching us,” teammate Khris Middleton said. “I think the phrase when we were all growing up was, ‘Don’t let basketball use you, use basketball.’ I think as you get older you realize that. All these cameras, all these microphones, the social media and whatnot, we realize how big of an impact we have. How many people watch us and how many people want to be in our position at times, so we have a responsibility to fight for people that can’t be heard at times.”
Speaking to the Blake family and witnessing other teams throughout professional sports follow their lead by not playing as a form of protest was “unbelievable” to Antetokounmpo, but it didn’t take his focus off the bigger picture even with Milwaukee closing out its first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against Orlando with a 118-104 victory in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
“Spending seven years here and my brother growing up here, I have conversations with him. I have conversations with my teammates. It’s tough,” Antetokounmpo said. “People are scared to walk in the street because of the color of their skin. You’re scared for your life. I think that has to change. I just became a dad a few months ago and I’ve had a conversation with my girlfriend and it’s scary. It’s scary to raise a son here and have a family. It’s scary. I don’t feel like I should be scared at any moment that my son and my family are walking down the street, I shouldn’t be scared. I just try to educate myself as much as possible.”
The moment with the Blake family is one the Bucks won’t forget as they prepare enter the second round of the playoffs against Miami on Monday. Bucks wing Wesley Matthews said they’re unapologetic for deciding to protest Game 5 initially for a bigger cause, especially after speaking to Blake’s relatives.
“Probably the most impactful thing for us, I’m going to speak personally, was talking to Jake Blake’s family. That was without a doubt, I think that brought tears to everybody’s eyes because you felt that,” Matthews said. “We didn’t need any other validation after talking to them about what we did. To hear that we were able to bring a smile to, not only his face but the face of his parents. Being a parent, I couldn’t imagine.”