‘It Was Challenging’: Bucks Return, Balancing Basketball and Activism

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It is bound to be forgotten with time that the Milwaukee Bucks, determined as they were in their pursuit of social justice, merely wanted to forfeit a basketball game Wednesday. The Bucks initially believed that they could stage a one-game, spur-of-the-moment walkout, even during the N.B.A. playoffs, without far-reaching consequences.

No chance.

What is sure to be remembered as one of the most tumultuous weeks this league has ever seen all started with the 2019-20 Bucks refusing to emerge from their locker room to face the Orlando Magic. They are destined to be memorialized as the fed-up group that responded to a police shooting in their home state with a protest conceived minutes before a playoff game was set to tip-off. In that moment, Milwaukee unexpectedly brought the N.B.A.’s maiden summer postseason to a sudden halt — and ultimately forced players leaguewide to decide if they wanted to keep playing or burst the league’s so-called bubble altogether.

Convinced that they should not play after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot several times by the police in Kenosha, Wis., these Bucks likewise inspired a momentous wave of protests against racism and police brutality throughout North American sports. The resulting fallout prompted N.B.A. team owners to pledge that arenas all over the league would be used as voting sites in November.

“I think it’s great we all came to the bubble, and it’s great when we kneel together for the national anthem,” said Michael Carter-Williams of the Magic. “It’s great that we took a stand, but where’s the real action?”

Carter-Williams added admiringly: “Milwaukee pushed that needle and made it uncomfortable again. They made us realize, ‘OK, we need to do more.’”

Yet the Bucks were greeted by new demands on Saturday afternoon — and they presumably felt the degree of difficulty more acutely than any of the teams still alive at Walt Disney World given the scrutiny they have invited. After all the activism, Milwaukee had to return to the basketball grind and play out the Game 5 that was ultimately postponed Wednesday.

A ragged 118-104 victory over the short-handed Magic to finally finish this first-round series, with Orlando slicing a 17-point halftime deficit down to 3 points in the fourth quarter, made for a somewhat unconvincing send-off to the three upcoming best-of-seven rounds that await Bucks in their pursuit of a championship.

“This group wants to do both,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said, “and fight for both.” He was referring to his team’s twin aims of using the high-profile platform provided by the N.B.A. restart to continue combating systemic racism while staying on a path that could lead to the Bucks’ first title since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in 1971.

Of course, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo — who amassed 28 points and 17 rebounds in Saturday’s clincher — that won’t be easy.

“It was challenging,” Antetokounmpo said, referring far more to the strain of the occasion than his second-half foul trouble that helped fuel Orlando’s rally.

“I would say it was very difficult today,” said Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who contributed 21 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists.

Budenholzer admitted that he “actually wondered which locker room” the Bucks would be assigned. It was indeed the same converted storage room at the AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, with a maximum occupancy of 49 people, where the Bucks made the collective call Wednesday to stay inside.

“You felt something going back in there,” Budenholzer said.

All around the N.B.A.’s campus, after an emotional 48 hours in the wake of the Bucks’ walkout, there appeared to be a renewed belief among players this weekend that they could continue campaigning effectively against systemic racism and voter suppression from within the bubble. Frustration on those fronts had been mounting even before the Blake shooting and the subsequent uproar; numerous players had complained that league-approved social justice messaging on jerseys and “Black Lives Matter” lettering on the floor were no longer resonating.

The uncomfortable basketball truth for the Bucks, though, is that they had left the impression they were having an unhappy time at Disney World long before the chaos of recent days. Antetokounmpo and Co. held the league’s best record (53-12) on March 11, when the N.B.A. season was suspended indefinitely in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but they have scarcely looked like that team during their eight-week stay in Florida.

While Toronto, Boston and Miami were completing impressive first-round sweeps in the East, Milwaukee stumbled to a Game 1 loss to the injury-riddled Magic, who played the entire series without Aaron Gordon (hamstring), Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Carter-Williams (foot), each having sustained their injuries in the bubble. Antetokounmpo already looked to have lost his patience more than once during the Bucks’ eight seeding games — scuffling with the Nets’ Donta Hall and earning a one-game suspension for head-butting Washington’s Moritz Wagner — and must now contend with a Heat team that is not only well-rested but appears to have adapted to the restrictive rigors of bubble life better than most.

The Magic, who were the first of 22 teams to arrive at Disney World on July 7, have spent this whole trip less than 25 miles from their Amway Center home and were able to begin leaving the bubble immediately on Saturday night because of that proximity. The Bucks avoided embarrassment in this restart-within-a-restart thanks to two key 3-pointers in the fourth quarter from the substitute Marvin Williams, restoring a cushion despite the absence of a foul-plagued Antetokounmpo, but questions persist about their championship viability — especially with the Raptors, Celtics and Heat all suddenly conspiring to make the oft-lampooned East feel deeper than usual.

How much such questions even matter now, mind you, is debatable. These Bucks, no matter what happens on the court from here, have made an indelible mark on an N.B.A. season like no other. That may not inspire much calm for the fans back in Milwaukee, who have been tracking Antetokounmpo’s future for months — amid the fervent hope in many other cities that the Greek supernova will spurn a long-term contract extension if the Bucks fail to win it all. Yet this is hardly the time to contemplate such matters.

Wesley Matthews, one of Antetokounmpo’s teammates, made that clear when he spoke at length about a conversation that the Bucks had with Blake’s family as the whirlwind of Wednesday’s walkout was taking hold.

”We didn’t need any other validation after talking to them about what we did,” Matthews said.

Antetokounmpo added: “That’s bigger than basketball to me. We’re going to remember the way we felt for the rest of our lives.”

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