The Exhilarating Jolt of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Wildcat Strike

The spectacle of the empty court on Wednesday night, a would-be stage for the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, was a rejection of normalcy.

The spectacle of the empty court on Wednesday night, a would-be stage for the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, was a rejection of normalcy.

On Tuesday evening, the Milwaukee Bucks’ star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was named the N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the Year. Antetokounmpo is six feet eleven and looks like an elongated version of Michelangelo’s David; he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award last year, and is considered a favorite to win it again. When he’s not spiking home yet another of his assaultive dunks, he’s leaping gracefully to pin somebody’s shot to the backboard and start a fast break, or stepping up and unfurling his eagle’s wingspan to check a point guard on the perimeter. His latest accolade was something to celebrate—a sign that the N.B.A. had got back to its normal business of showcasing the rare marvels of its players.

But the scene at the press conference organized in Antetokounmpo’s honor was something less than ecstatic. He smiled shyly as his teammate Brook Lopez handed him the trophy, and batted back tears as he thanked his fellow-Bucks. Behind him, his teammates wore dark shirts. One of the shirts bore a slogan, “Silence Is Violence.” Another bore the names of recently slain Black people—“Trayvon Martin,” in squiggly print, floated just above Antetokounmpo’s left shoulder. On another was a drawing of George Floyd’s smiling face. Two days earlier, in Kenosha, Wisconsin—just forty miles from Milwaukee, where the Bucks usually play their home games—a Black man named Jacob Blake had been shot seven times, in the back, in full view of his children, by a police officer. Rumors were spreading that players on various teams might not want to keep playing. Toward the end of the ceremony, the broadcaster Ernie Johnson asked the Bucks head coach, Mike Budenholzer, whether any such plans were being discussed among his players. “Well, we’ve had good conversation,” Budenholzer said, “and I think, you know, to keep that within our family—within our group—I think, at this point, is the wisest thing.”

On Wednesday evening, the Bucks were set to play Game Five of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic—they were expected to win, finishing off the series, and to turn their attention to their next, more formidable opponent. But, as the time for tipoff approached, something strange happened, or, more precisely, didn’t happen. The Bucks were nowhere to be seen. The Magic were on court in their warmup gear, shooting jumpers and layups—then, summoned by some signal to which we television viewers weren’t privy, they all cleared out, too. The result was undoubtedly the most memorable image from an already bizarre N.B.A. season: a totally empty court. The Bucks—led, it was later reported, by the veteran guard George Hill—had decided to strike.

Bright lights gleamed on the court, uninterrupted by bodies. The seats on the benches—duly “distanced” because of covid-19—were empty. The only available words, besides the shocked and slightly panicked vamping of the broadcast team, were the name of the team that had so swiftly disrupted the evening—“Milwaukee Bucks” scrawled hugely on a digital screen—and “Black Lives Matter,” in big block letters, straddling the half-court line. Soon, staff members appeared and started to roll racks of balls and piles of towels away from the court. “Party done,” they seemed to say.

Before long, others were following the Bucks’ lead. The whole slate of games for the night—the Houston Rockets against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers against the Portland Trail Blazers—was called off. The W.N.B.A., whose players have again and again shown a readiness to involve themselves in the issues of the day, cancelled its Wednesday-night games. In major-league baseball, which nobody thinks of as a hotbed for activism, the Milwaukee Brewers decided not to play their evening game, and other teams subsequently joined them in sitting out. Major League Soccer, which had been the first American men’s sports league to make its return, also stood down. Kenny Smith, the retired point guard and celebrated broadcaster, walked off the set of “Inside the NBA,” on TNT, in solidarity with the players. The retired player turned color commentator Chris Webber gave an emotional address on the air. “I’m very proud of the players,” he said. “I don’t know the next steps. I don’t really care what the next steps are, because the first steps are to garner attention. And they have everybody’s attention.” Whatever normalcy sports had achieved would, for a night, be put on pause.

To love sports is, on some level, to be a partisan of everyday life. To follow a routine like the one that has been a small but constant joy of my adulthood—get home, change clothes, open a beer, plop down, turn on the game—is to assert, consciously or not, that comfort, in itself, is a virtue. How else could we justify so many hours spent chasing diversion? There’s something undoubtedly true and good in this: real leisure can serve as a final bulwark against a culture that would otherwise keep us focussed steadfastly on work, acquisition, and looking at our phones. The games are, of course, commercialized: viewers absorb advertisements, goose network ratings. Still, it’s possible to see the kind of placid off-time it takes to watch sports as a noble goal of politics. The upshot of the signal gains of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century labor movement—the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek—is that free time tends toward freedom.

But the dark side of leisure is mollifying entertainment; the message often slips from “comfort is good” into “everything is fine.” Before the N.B.A. season resumed in July, several players—most prominently, the Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving—shared their reservations about coming back at all. A virus, unabated by an all-but-indifferent government, was killing countless thousands of people—disproportionately poor and nonwhite—and protests against police killings were filling the streets. Why help the most comfortable Americans lull themselves more ardently to sleep? Why act like life was normal when it wasn’t? The argument that won the day, however, was that the league’s bubble in Orlando would serve as a “platform” for social justice. Players would tote the catchphrases of pet causes on their jerseys—“Black Lives Matter,” “Peace,” “Education Reform,” and the more esoteric “Group Economics” were among the slogans agreed upon by the N.B.A., the players’ union, and the league’s jersey sponsor, Nike. “Black Lives Matter” would adorn each court. In pre-game interviews and post-game press conferences, players would have the chance to talk about politics instead of the customary business of recalling plays and sharing platitudes about teamwork.

That plan bore out. LeBron James used much of his time with the media to call for the arrest of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. The players had their stage, and they used it well. But, just as the economic cataclysm and the stay-at-home orders that accompanied the coronavirus helped spark the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere, the experience of being cooped up in the N.B.A.’s bubble—and, therefore, rendered impotent when the news of Blake’s killing started to spread—seemed to be a radicalizing force among the players. They seemed impatient with symbolism and pat messages. “I want to go protest,” the Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown tweeted.

Some observers questioned the efficacy and ultimate direction of a strike, and contrasted it with the players’ use of their bubble-borne platform. But the strike itself was an instant agent of clarity. That it started with a team like the Bucks, one of whose players has filed a federal civil-rights suit against the city of Milwaukee and its police, for their treatment of him after an apparent parking violation, highlighted how widespread and persistent the problem of police violence is. That it threatened the profits of N.B.A. team owners, a few of whom are notable supporters of Donald Trump, underlined the fact that the trajectory of oppression in America is not only racial but economic—that racial differentiation and capitalistic exploitation are fatally synchronized.

Thursday afternoon, according to several reports, the players voted to end the strike and resume the season. Shams Charania, a writer for The Athletic, noted in a tweet that those who voted to play again—James reportedly among them—had invoked the “sense of normalcy returning” with the players’ families soon coming to the bubble. The spectacle of the empty court on Wednesday night, a stage for action rendered radiantly fallow, had been a rejection of normalcy, however brief. During Antetokounmpo’s Defensive Player of the Year ceremony, Kenny Smith had asked him to recall his difficult youth. Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece, to immigrants from Lagos, Nigeria. He spent the early part of his life without citizenship in either place, constantly afraid of being detained by immigration officials. He sold watches and handbags on the street to help his family get by. “All I know,” Antetokounmpo told Smith, “is hard work.” Many other N.B.A. players have similarly tough stories, and similar outlooks on the salvific power of industry. But, on Wednesday, they seemed to recognize that the most powerful thing they could do was not to work—and that the most astounding use of their platform was to step off it. The best use of the normalcy that their great gifts help the rest of us enjoy was, for a moment, to take it away.

Vinson Cunningham