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NBA Players Grapple with Painful Injustice of Breonna Taylor Decision

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James stands on the court during the second half an NBA conference final playoff basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Her name and face have appeared on NBA players’ T-shirts and in league-sponsored social justice PSAs during game broadcasts. Players have refused to answer basketball-related questions on media Zoom calls in order to spend that time bringing attention to her case. Last month, Milwaukee Bucks players decided to strike after a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot Jacob Blake in the back multiple times.

Again and again in Orlando, Florida, this summer, they have said her name.

Breonna Taylor.

Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police officers shot and killed while entering her home in Louisville, Kentucky, in March, became one of the faces—along with Blake, George Floyd and many others—of the nationwide uprising in protest against police brutality toward Black Americans.

The NBA certainly succeeded in bringing more awareness to an already politically explosive case, both directly and indirectly. When the players agreed to restart the season, they asked that “the fight for racial equality and social justice be a central part,” per ESPN. 

So when Wednesday’s grand-jury decision came down—that one of the police officers involved in Taylor’s killing would be charged with three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for firing shots into another unit of her apartment complex, but that none of the three officers would face any charges related to her death—players felt the pain all over again.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “… It’s hard to gather the words, but I wasn’t surprised. I think that this society, the way it was built, the way intentions was to never protect and serve people of color initially.Videos you might like

“So when they were gearing up for what was about to happen, I knew that the wrong decision was probably being made. It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me at all. Until we dismantle, recreate or change this system that we have, it’s going to continue to have victims like Breonna Taylor and others that fall victim to oppression. It was tough getting emotionally ready for the game.”

The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics played Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday evening. Miami won to take a 3-1 lead in the series, but the game felt trivial.

As difficult as it was to treat a basketball game like it was the most important thing in the world on this day, there was never a sense from those in the bubble that the players were thinking of striking again, as they did on Aug. 26 following the Blake video. That demonstration shook the sports world and resulted in more of the league’s 30 teams committing their arenas to be used as voting facilities in the upcoming election.

The Bucks, who spearheaded that effort in response to the police shooting of Blake in their home state, are long gone from Orlando. In the middle of the conference finals, with less than a month until the season’s finish line, sitting out again never seemed like a consideration.

So they played.

Heat rookie Tyler Herro had the biggest night of his career Wednesday, a 37-point scoring explosion that earned him the coveted walk-off interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. But Taylor’s name was on his mind, too.

“Money doesn’t equal justice,” Herro said at his postgame press conference, referring to the $12 million settlement Taylor’s family received from the city of Louisville last week.

One of the league’s initiatives for spreading the social justice message in the bubble has been giving players a list of slogans they could place on their jerseys in addition to their names. Herro was one of a handful of white players who chose to wear “Black Lives Matter,” a number small enough to stand out on the court.

“I chose ‘Black Lives Matter’ because Black lives matter,” Herro said Wednesday night. “My teammates are predominantly Black. The league is predominantly Black. There’s obviously a problem going on in the world. I felt like this stage, this platform, putting that on my jersey, everybody sees my last name, but they also see ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back. And I think that’s important. We have to keep trying to do better in society and push forward. Black lives do matter.”

Herro will never be able to fully relate to his Black teammates. He’ll never see one of these videos and think, “That could have been me.” But his outspokenness about the Taylor decision shows his understanding of a crucial point: It’s not Black people’s job to solve racism. They didn’t ask to be part of a system that regularly devalues their humanity in ways big and small.

“It’s always much bigger than a sport. It’s always bigger than basketball because that could be anybody,” said Jimmy Butler, who unsuccessfully lobbied at the beginning of the bubble for the league to let him wear a jersey with a completely blank nameplate to make the point that without the fame that comes with being an NBA star, he’s just another anonymous person of color whom law enforcement could target.

“That could be me. That could be any African American. So when you look at it like that, for me, it’s always on my heart because I just think it’s some bullcrap. Going into the game, you do gotta compete, but at the end of the day, we’re people first, not just athletes.”

Players went into the bubble with the goal of using their platforms to help bring about the change that is needed. These playoff games won’t solve these issues, no matter what slogans are written on the backs of the players’ jerseys. All they can do is keep speaking out while they have the world’s attention.

The news out of Louisville was yet another dispiriting reminder that those goals aren’t much closer, if at all, to becoming reality.

“I kind of just tried to channel my anger towards the game,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “It’s crazy that somebody kills somebody and he gets the same charge as somebody that uses an unauthorized credit card. I don’t think people really understand: She’s dead. Somebody killed her. At the end of the day, you need justice for that. All the other stuff, you need justice for her.

But Adebayo isn’t giving up. The show goes on, Breonna Taylor’s name unforgotten.

“… We’re going to keep fighting for justice for her. It’s bigger than just basketball. Getting to share and getting to talk about it in the media, on TV, I feel like that brings awareness to everybody’s world. Everybody wants to watch the Eastern Finals, the Western Finals, so just keep being on TV and keep bringing awareness. We’re going to keep trying to make a difference.”

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.

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