KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Donovan Mitchell wants you to understand that while sports have long been an escape for many from issues of racism and injustice, he isn’t able to escape those things.
“We don’t really care if you don’t like it,” he said on Saturday. “This all could stop and at the end of the day I’m still a Black male. That’s something that people don’t really quite get, no matter the money, the name.”
Mitchell said that he recognizes that his celebrity could afford him privileges that other people don’t enjoy, but the reason that he and other NBA players are using their platforms to speak loud and often is because there are generations of minorities who continue to live in fear, without an escape, constantly reminded of their color.
The Utah Jazz have been inside the NBA bubble for 52 days.
In isolation, away from their families, friends and communities, it’s easy for the walls to start to feel like they’re closing in. As the days passed and protests on the outside continued, so did the basketball season and while players have continued to wear messages of social justice on their jerseys and speak out during their time with reporters on issues that they care about, there was a feeling that basketball was drowning things out and that their efforts weren’t yielding the kind of change they wanted to see.
When the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t go onto the court on Wednesday it led to a league-wide stoppage that allowed the players to physically come together in a way that they never had and turn all of their anger and frustration into meaningful action.
“For the moment, the game is taking a backseat to what’s important in a lot of our lives,” Mike Conley said.
Just as the stakes were being raised on the court with the playoffs, so were the stakes in the real world. But what could the players do? Coming together as a league rather than as individual teams gave them a chance to turn their metaphorical microphones into megaphones and wield their power.
“I think we’re all happy with how things went,” Mitchell said of the meetings and of the owners’ commitment to support the players with league-wide initiatives. “I’m pretty excited about what’s moving forward but there’s also things we can do in our local markets as well. As a team we’ve done a great job and we have an ownership group that’s willing to listen and that’s one of the things I respect about the Miller family.”
The three days of postponed games were emotional, difficult, but also productive and meaningful for the NBA players. It allowed them to enter the weekend feeling accomplished and, in theory, ready to get back to basketball. Of course, after such an emotionally heightened 72-hour stretch, being mentally prepared for playoff basketball is easier said than done.
Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone admitted that the practice his team held on Friday was the worst practice the team has had in his five years as coach.
“And I wasn’t surprised, and I understood it, and I sympathized for our players because so much is being asked of them on the court, so much is being asked of them off the court,” Malone said. “And they’re doing their best.”
Both Malone and Jazz head coach Quin Snyder know that there is a delicate balance that needs to be achieved in order to enter Sunday’s Game 6 between the Jazz and Nuggets with the right mindset.
For Snyder, he rejects the idea that the players have to eliminate thoughts of the last few days or of issues that are plaguing the world in order to perform at a high level. Instead, what the players have been able to accomplish, from forming a coalition for justice, to pushing team owners to open arenas as polling sites, and adding visibility during the playoffs to issues of racial injustice, can serve as motivation during the continued postseason.
“I don’t think you move from that and say ‘Hey, this happened and now we’re going to go back to playing basketball.’ That’s not what’s going on here,” Snyder said. “I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s an awareness that guys are down here playing in order to impact social justice issues.”
In deciding to stay in Florida, inside the NBA bubble, and continue the season, the players have once again vowed to make their voices heard on issues that they care about. They know that there are a lot of people that want them to just get back to basketball. They know that if you want to watch the games that you won’t be able to escape their message and that’s the point.
“It gives us an opportunity to play the game and showcase what we believe in,” Conley said.
Mitchell has a simple message for those who don’t think the NBA is the right place for the kind of activism that the players are taking part in and for those who wish that things would return to normal.
“If you don’t want to hear it, then don’t watch,” he said. “I’m going to keep speaking from the heart and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad.”
The Jazz, who lead the first-round series against the Nuggets, 3-2, will play Game 6 on Sunday at 6:30 p.m MDT.