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When NBA teams, led by the Milwaukee Bucks, walked out of their first round playoff games in August, it was an unprecedented move. Their wildcat strike was in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, but once they had stopped that day’s NBA games, that left them with some big questions: What next? With the eyes of the nation on them, how can they change things for the better?
LeBron James and other NBA leaders turned to former president Barack Obama, who was a recent guest on James’ HBO show “The Shop.” The two discussed the walkout and how, on a midnight call, America’s first Black president gave the NBA’s leaders advice on how they could use their collective power to accomplish their goals.
Midnight call with Obama
Emotions were running high the night after the walkout. Players in the bubble had banded together to make a statement about the police shooting of Jacob Blake, but that’s where the plan ended. The walkout was spontaneous and they didn’t really know what they should do next. On “The Shop,” James detailed the uncertainty they were facing, and how they reached out to Obama to help them find their way.
“When Milwaukee did what they did, and rightfully so, we understood that there was no way none of us could go on the floor. We stand as a brotherhood, we are a brotherhood in our league, and we stood with the Milwaukee Bucks and what they wanted to do – but there was a time where we were ready to leave too. The Lakers, myself included, we were ready to leave. And we were trying to figure out, if we leave or if we stay, what is our plan? What is our call for action?
And I’m lucky enough to have a friend, you know, the 44th president, that allowed me and allowed [Chris Paul] and allowed us to get on the phone with him and get guidance.”
LeBron was lucky to have Obama as a friend, but he was also lucky that Obama was awake at midnight to take a call from the world’s best basketball players.
"I think it was close to midnight when Chris, CP, calls with LeBron, Carmelo [Anthony], I think Russ Westbrook was on the phone, and the conversation we had was along the lines LeBron spoke about," Obama said of a call that sources said also included Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala, via ESPN. "Protest is useful in terms of raising awareness, but given the power that the NBA players had, my suggestion was that we use that platform to see if you can start asking for some specifics. This isn't something that's just a one-off. That's sadly what we've seen, as it happens again and again.
"So, one of the suggestions I had for the players was: Is it possible for you guys to set up an office that allows you, on an ongoing basis, to take best practices that are going to start making incidents like [Blake] less likely?"
Continuing the work
James said that he was grateful that Obama took the time to guide them toward a concrete plan.
“When there's things going on -- when it's chaos -- when people don't know which move to make or how to handle a situation, the best thing you can do is have someone that you can talk to and give you guidance and have that type of leadership. And I'm lucky enough to have a friend that gave us those words of leadership and those words of saying, 'OK, this can be a plan of action; this can be something you guys can ask for. And if we can get that, then we can continue to push the needle and you guys can also continue the season, as well.’”
And it helped. The NBA and NBPA announced just a few days later the establishment of a social justice coalition. Players, coaches, and NBA team owners would work jointly toward increasing access to voting, Since then, James has been working with More Than a Vote to accomplish some of those goals, and Obama is pleased that he’s taking the spirit of the NBA walkout beyond the playoffs.
"As I told them though, it's not going to be solved overnight. This is something that we got to stay on. We got to keep on moving," Obama said on HBO. "So the fact that LeBron then has also been working with More Than a Vote, working with my outstanding partner and the most popular Obama, Michelle Obama, in getting people registered, getting them educated, understanding the connection between voting and reform so that you combine protest and going to the polls, I think that's the best outcome possible."
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