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 inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
“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 every day, 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, said Tuesday that his son was shot seven times. Blake’s attorney, Ben Crump, said his client is paralyzed and it would “take a miracle” for him to walk again.
Video of the shooting, taken from a window across the street, was distributed on social media and shared by Crump.
VanVleet said Tuesday that many potential options for how the Raptors could make a statement were discussed by the team, but he declined to go into details.
“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 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’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.”
Similarly, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he spoke to his team about Blake at their film session Tuesday, and he stressed how “disheartening and disturbing” the shooting of the 29-year-old on Sunday was “for all of us.”
“It’s difficult to digest and go play a game,” Vogel said. “But it’s OK to align our goals here, with regard to, we’re here to compete for a championship but the further we advance in the playoffs, the further our platform to speak up on this grows. And I think it’s important for our guys to understand that.”
Vogel was asked about some players around the league expressing their discomfort being in the bubble playing games with incidents like Blake’s continuing to occur and said he “would understand it” if any player felt the need not to play but added, “I have not sensed that with our group.”
On Monday night, Lakers star LeBron James said, “We are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.”
“I thought LeBron’s words were poignant last night,” Stevens said Tuesday. “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 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 kneeling for the national anthem — to try to enact change.
“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.”
All four players who spoke Tuesday — VanVleet, fellow Raptors guard Norman Powell, Smart and Celtics forward Jaylen Brown — have all been vocal about 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 team executive Masai Ujiri after bodycam footage was released that shows a white San Francisco Bay Area sheriff’s deputy shoving Ujiri after Toronto won Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. The Raptors met as a team to watch the video, which was filed by Ujiri, who is Black, 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 bodycam on, without arena footage? It’s a tough situation.”
Brown took several long pauses to compose himself Tuesday while speaking to the media. He said he even had difficulty even coming to practice.
“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.”
From ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.