LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors held a team meeting before Tuesday’s practice to discuss how they could respond to the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin — including potentially not playing against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of a second-round playoff series Thursday.
“We knew coming here or not coming here was not going to stop anything, but I think ultimately playing or not playing puts pressure on somebody,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said after Tuesday’s practice. “So, for example, this happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, if I’m correct? Would it be nice if, in a perfect world, we all say we’re not playing, and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks — that’s going to trickle down. If he steps up to the plate and puts pressure on the district attorney’s office, and state’s attorney, and governors, and politicians there to make real change and get some justice.
“I know it’s not that simple. But, at the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. I’m just over the media aspect of it. It’s sensationalized, we talk about it everyday, that’s all we see, but it just feels like a big pacifier to me.”
Blake, a Black man, was shot by police on Sunday as he tried to enter the driver’s side door of his vehicle. Officers were responding to a domestic disturbance. Blake’s father, also named Jacob Blake, told ABC News that he was told his son was shot eight times and is paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors do not know if the paralysis will be permanent.
VanVleet said Tuesday that there are many potential options for how the Raptors could make a statement were discussed by the team, but he declined to go into details about what, exactly, they could be.
“I’ll keep that between our team,” VanVleet said. “We’re dealing with it in real time and I think it affects everybody differently. It’s pretty fresh on my mind and I’m sitting in front of a camera, so I’m just speaking as I’m going. But, yeah, there’s a lot of different things that we’ve discussed.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Boston had a similar team meeting Tuesday. And while Stevens said no one had specifically told him they didn’t want to play, he could plainly see the impact Blake’s shooting had had on his team.
“Obviously our thoughts go to Jacob Blake and his family,” Stevens said. “And, obviously, that video was horrifying. That video was awful. And to think of three kids being in that car is like … that just makes you shaken, right? It’s ridiculous. We haven’t talked about necessarily … we’ve talked about it as a team and just how we feel. We haven’t talked about it enough, but obviously everybody is shook.
“There’s a reason why the guys, coaches, players, everyone here has chosen to really emphasize social justice and racial equality while we’re here. To think that this happens again … I thought LeBron [James’] words were poignant last night. Those are not … I’ve heard those over and over.
“I’ve said this before, I can’t pretend to understand what that’s like because I don’t know what that’s like. But I know I’ve heard it over and over. So there’s obviously a problem. So I completely understand everybody’s emotions here and elsewhere, with regard to that.”
Celtics guard Marcus Smart said that while the team hasn’t specifically talked about boycotting, there clearly is a need for them to go beyond the things they have been doing inside the bubble — from wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts to virtually every NBA player kneeling for the national anthem before every game to the words being painted on each of the courts being used here — to try to enact the change they all want to see take place.
“We tried to be peaceful, kneeling, we tried to protest,” Smart said. “And for us, we tried to come out here and get together and play this game and try to get our voice across. But it’s not working, so obviously something has to be done. Right now, our focus shouldn’t really be on basketball. I understand it’s the playoffs and everything like that, but we still have a bigger underlying issue that’s going on and the things that we’ve tried haven’t been working, so we definitely need to take a different approach and we definitely need to try new things out to get this thing working the way that we know it should and get our voices heard even more.”
Regardless of whether both teams ultimately choose to play or not, the anger and frustration from members of both was palpable Tuesday, as it has been across the NBA over the past two days here inside the bubble, over what took place. All four players who spoke Tuesday — VanVleet and fellow Raptors guard Norman Powell, Smart and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown — have all been outspoken on the subjects of racial inequality and social justice, and all were visibly upset about having to speak about this happening once again.
“At some point, like, we’re the ones always with the microphones in our face,” VanVleet said. “We’re the ones always who have to make a stand. But, like, we’re the oppressed ones, and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed, you know what I’m saying? That’s what it boils down to.
“Like, at what point do we not have to speak about it anymore? Are we gonna hold everybody accountable, or we’re just gonna put the spotlight on Black people, or Black athletes, or entertainers and say, ‘What are you doing? What are you contributing to your community? What are you putting on the line?
“And then us, too, we’ve gotta take responsibility as well. Like, what are we willing to give us? Do we actually give a f— about what’s going on, or is it just cool to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the backdrop, or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything?”
The Raptors have been vocal in their push for racial equality. They arrived at the NBA bubble in buses that had “Black Lives Matter” written in large, white script on the sides.
Over the past week, Raptors players have shown support for Masai Ujiri after a bodycam footage that shows a white San Francisco Bay Area sheriff’s deputy showing the Raptors executive after the Raptors won Game 6 of the 2020 Finals. The Raptors met as a team to watch the video, which was filed by Ujiri as a part of a countersuit.
On Wednesday, VanVleet said that the altercation emphasizes why players have continued to fight for social justice.
“Obviously we’re all privileged, and Masai’s pretty privileged in his world, and you just stop and think about how good we got it,” VanVleet said, “because there’s people who are gonna be in that same situation walking down the street who don’t have money to fight the case, who don’t have 20,000 people in the stands and don’t have the abilities to countersue.
“How many times do cops do things like that without the body cam on, without arena footage? It’s a tough situation.”
Brown, meanwhile, had to take several long pauses throughout his more than 10 minutes speaking to the media Tuesday to compose himself, and said he even had difficulty coming to the team’s practice at all.
“It was hard enough even coming down here to be honest,” Brown said. “But I guess [boycotting is] something you talk about with your team, for sure. We haven’t talked about that as the Celtics. But those emotions are real. That is real. Yes, we’re athletes. Yes, we’re being paid to play a sport that we love. But we are human beings, members of our community. We are fathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, etc. So all those emotions are real and I don’t really have a lot to say.
“I’m just happy by the grace of God that Jacob Blake is still alive, because the police who shot him, that wasn’t their intention. They shot him to kill him, and that’s a problem in this country. There’s a million different ways you could have dissolved that situation and your thought was to kill him. That was the best method. It’s definitely hard to digest or to process how you feel about it. Everything on me was on fire yesterday, waking up to it. To see people changing the framing of what he did in the past, in terms of, ‘Well, he was a convicted felon,’ or, ‘Well, he had a history of resisting arrest or possibly had a weapon.’
“That is not [an] unfamiliar framework in this country. We’ve seen that time and time again. That does not constitute or justify the fact that you are shooting someone seven times in the back or killing them, at all. Anybody who thinks differently is no friend of mine.”