The 2020 NBA finals are in the rearview mirror, but it’s worth remembering that the finals nearly didn’t happen. The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play after the shooting of Jacob Blake. In fact, all of America’s sports saw star athletes prepare to walk away in protest. It took promises for pointed action to keep the NBA season afloat. This included a meeting with Pope Francis.
Rage against racial injustice hit the brakes on the NBA
On August 23, 2020, Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times. For a populace harried by COVID-19 and the shootings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it was too much to bear. The Milwaukee Bucks, so near to this latest tragedy, took decisive action. They refused to play Game 5 of the first-round playoff series, the Chicago Tribune reports.
The weight of walking away from a playoff game wasn’t missed. Athletes around the sports world announced they’d boycott their respective games until a path to positive change emerged. The Bucks continued to lead the way, details The Ringer. Milwaukee issued a series of demands from the NBA before continuing play.
The NBA players’ demands led to a meeting with Pope Francis
That moment set off a chain of events where, for several days, the near future of sports itself was in question. Even the start of the NFL season, weeks away, was not assured. Many prominent NFL players expressed solidarity with the boycott, and some took to protesting outside their training camps.
The Bucks resumed play days after their boycott. Among the reasons for their resumption was a promise for players to meet with prominent, influential figures around the world to discuss social justice. A highly demanded figure was Pope Francis, according to CNN, and the players got their wish.
After deliberations between players, they chose Anthony Tolliver, Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, Jonathan Isaac, and Marco Belinelli to meet the pope. The 30-minute meeting was split between all present, who had prepared statements and were accompanied by NBPA executive Michele Roberts. Then, they spoke freely to close out the unprecedented meeting.
What the meeting with Pope Francis meant to NBA players
Pope Francis’s support of athletes using their platforms deeply impressed Korver. “He said sport is such an opportunity to unify, and he compared it to a team, where you have a common goal, and you’re working together, but you all use your own personalities,” Korver told the New York Times.
Tolliver explained that, though the meeting was serious in nature, the pope joked with the players and was “super chill.” The Grizzlies forward told the New York Times, “He was actually way more relaxed than I’d ever imagine a pope being.” Perhaps this took the edge off of the meeting and made everyone feel more comfortable.
Isaac, who happens to be an ordained minister, is not a Catholic. But he was motivated to attend the meeting due to the shared basics of Christian faith between himself and the pope. As Insider reports, the Orlando Magic star explained his perspective on the grim events of Blake’s shooting and how he personally processed them:
“We all fall short of God’s glory, and at the end of the day, whoever will humble themselves and seek God and repent their sins, that we could see it in a different light. See our mistakes and people’s mistakes through a different light. See people’s evil in a different light,”
The NBPA and Pope Francis made plans for further action and collaboration. The details aren’t disclosed yet. Regardless of what level of material support that ends up being, the meeting is a landmark moment for NBA players. Their social justice movement has reached the international stage and continues to be relevant months after the Bucks’ initial boycott.