There was a whirlwind of reporting on social media in the hours following the Milwaukee Bucks deciding to sit out of their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, a decision that shut down the entire NBA playoffs for (at least) two days. Many of those rumors’ focused on how Lakers star LeBron James was reacting to the events.
First, word leaked that James voted to not continue the season because he didn’t think NBA ownership groups were doing enough to help Black people, and that his choice had led the entire Lakers team to vote against continuing the playoffs. The next day, it came out that James had undergone a change of heart, and that he was now “on board” with continuing the postseason, and even delivered a “strong, thoughtful” address to the NBA Board of Governors on a call to finalize the players’ decision to keep playing.
Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — who is as plugged in to James’ camp as any NBA insider — dropped a report on the last 48 hours late on Thursday night, and within it, he cleared up some of the confusion, including revealing the specific reason why James was irritated with the Bucks for their unplanned wildcat strike:
LeBron James was one of the many players miffed with the Bucks’ handling of the situation as well, sources said. To him and so many others, it put them in a no-win situation.
His frustration with Hill and the Bucks was because the players didn’t have a plan of action that would warrant players returning to play, sources said. James’ mindset, sources said, was if they’re refusing to play, then what’s the end game and what demands must be met to continue?
On one hand, sometimes the strongest protests are the ones that aren’t planned, or don’t go through an army of lawyers like the union employs. The Bucks’ actions resonated because no one expected it, not because it was some pre-approved token gesture of dissent.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see where James is coming from. The players are all part of a union, and any action they were going to take theoretically should have been done as a unit. The rest of the teams obviously joined in solidarity with the Bucks, but James also clearly felt they didn’t have much of a choice, and were forced into a standoff they didn’t agree to without a plan for what they were trying to accomplish.
And given that things were already starting in such an emotional place — and that James and the rest of the players in the bubble were all still clearly hurting do to everything going on outside of it — perhaps it’s not surprising what happened next (via Haynes):
With emotions all over the place, Haslem pressed James and asked the star what he planned to do, reminding him that he’s the face of the league and it goes as he goes, sources said.
James then said, “We’re out,” and walked out with almost all of his teammates following behind, sources said, with Dwight Howard being the only Laker who remained.
The Clippers walked out as well, joining the Lakers as the only two of the 13 teams still in the bubble to vote against completing the rest of the playoffs.
Howard being the only Laker who stayed to continue discussing the possibility of resuming the playoffs is an interesting role reversal for him and James, as before the bubble started, it was Howard who expressed reservations while James said he wanted to play.
In the end, though, James came around after having a night to sleep on it, and after it became clear that NBA ownership would make further concessions to players to ensure the playoffs were going to continue (including formulating plans to start and fund “a new program to work on player-created initiatives on daily basis,” according to Shams Charania of The Athletic). The L.A. Times later provided more details on what swayed James and the Lakers’ decisions to continue:
“LeBron’s emotions got the best of him yesterday and today he calmed down,” a person familiar with the meetings said. “He talked to a lot of different people. Yeah, he changed his mind about playing, but he was always for what everyone else wanted to do, whatever the majority was. It wasn’t until what Milwaukee had going on that kind of sent him over.”
So with James back in the fold, and a bit of tangible change already accomplished — in addition to capturing the news cycle and forcing the national conversation back to the ongoing issues of systemic racism and police brutality — this movement did make an impact, in the end, and everyone is returning to play. It may not have all gone exactly the way James planned for, but it seems likely that given his actions over the course of Thursday, it is at least an outcome he’s happy with.