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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

NBA players in the bubble wonder: Are they making an impact on systemic racism? Or being used as entertainment?

Celtics Marcus Smart (left) and Jaylen Brown are among the NBA players who have expressed anger and frustration over the shooting of Black man Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin.
Celtics Marcus Smart (left) and Jaylen Brown are among the NBA players who have expressed anger and frustration over the shooting of Black man Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

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ORLANDO — Over the past 48 hours, several NBA players have watched the shooting of 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and wondered if they are truly doing enough to make change and eradicate racism and police brutality.

Blake was shot multiple times in the back by police officers after he allegedly tried to settle a dispute and officers were called to the scene. Blake survived the shooting but is paralyzed from the waist down, according to his father.

Protests began that night in Kenosha and NBA players, primarily Black, who are sequestered in the bubble as the playoffs continue, expressed anger, helplessness and frustration because they are uncertain whether the messages they have relayed throughout the past six weeks have had any impact.

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Protesters in front of a burning vehicle in Kenosha, Wis., on Monday night during a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Protesters in front of a burning vehicle in Kenosha, Wis., on Monday night during a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake.Carlos Javier Ortiz/NYT

Another Black man was shot by police. So wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, kneeling for the anthem and expressing their desire to end systematic racism and police brutality during media sessions appears to have had no impact.

Toronto guard Fred VanVleet as well as teammate Norman Powell wanted no part of questions about the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics. Neither did Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

They are questioning whether their presence here is making any impact on society or whether they are just being used as entertainment to appease a sports-hungry audience. Their pain is evident. Blake is 29 and regardless of his past, didn’t deserve to be shot multiple times in the back.

Toronto's Fred VanVleet pushes the ball up the floor during a recent game against Brooklyn.
Toronto's Fred VanVleet pushes the ball up the floor during a recent game against Brooklyn.Kim Klement/Associated Press

“Yeah I was pretty excited [about the series],” VanVleet said. “And we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday and that kind of changes the tone of things and puts things in perspective. So that’s really all that’s been on my mind, and coming down here, making a choice to play was supposed to not be in vain but it’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is going through the motions and nothing is changing and here we are again with another unfortunate incident.”

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It was apparent VanVleet and several other players didn’t feel like talking basketball, let alone the prospect of playing in a high-level playoff game when reality for Blacks still involves fear of the police. After the Lakers’ Game 4 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, superstar forward LeBron James said Blacks are “terrified” of police and the possibility of being killed while doing normal life things. You can think of these players as entitled and rich and disjointed from those who live in working-class neighborhoods and trying to maintain even a moderate quality of life in the pandemic, but they don’t see themselves that way. They grew up in these environments and the pain of that struggle and the reality of that existence has never subsided.

“Quite frankly it’s just [bleeped] up in our community,” James said. “People get tired of hearing me say it but we are scared as Black people in America, Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house.

“I had so many emotions today. I see the video for the first time and my emotions are all over the place. I still have a job to do because I’m here and I’m committed but it does not mean that I don’t see what’s going on and I won’t say anything. I can’t even enjoy a playoff win right now, which is the sad part.

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VanVleet said his team talked Tuesday morning and the possibility to making a stronger stance against racism and police brutality, which may even include boycotting a game, was discussed. This is not some type of artificial front to attract attention. Many players were devastated by the video, feeling even worse because they are confined to the bubble until their team is eliminated.

“We’re the oppressed ones and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed,” VanVleet said. “That’s what it boils down to. Are we going to hold everybody accountable or we’re just gonna put the spotlight on Black people or Black athletes or entertainers and say what are you contributing to your community? What are you putting on the line?

“We gotta take responsibility as well. What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a [expletive] about what’s going on? Or is it just cool to wear “Black Lives Matter” on a backdrop or wear a T-shirt. What does that really mean? Is it really doing anything? I don’t have the answers for you today. I’ll speak for myself; I’m in a different place today, emotionally speaking.”

The cynic or the diehard sports fan will wish and yearn for VanVleet and his brethren to temper their emotions, clear their heads and be ready for Game 1 Thursday at 6:30. And while a boycott is highly unlikely, it must be understood that the players are questioning their impact because they are not allowed in their communities right now. That’s a helpless feeling.

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The intersection of sports and social issues has never been more profound, and many of these NBA players have been enlightened or gained more comfort in speaking about issues that not only involve themselves but the communities where they came from. And they are questioning their decisions in their daily lives that would have been no-brainers just a few months ago. This is part of the growing and evolving process, and this reaction from athletes, especially Blacks, is something we’re going to have to eventually respect and embrace.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.