SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday, after a day full of deep discussions and meaningful conversations, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz both returned to the practice court.
Their minds, understandably, may have been somewhere else.
In his five years as Denver's head coach, Mike Malone said he'd never seen a worse practice. That wasn't meant as a critique. It was simply an observation; a way of explaining just how strange and difficult the last few days have been.
“So much is being expected of all of them on and off the court,” Malone said.
The NBA Playoffs resume this weekend — Utah and Denver are now scheduled to meet in Game 6 at 6:30 p.m. MDT Sunday — but the games have taken a backseat to things the players see as much more important: racial inequality, social justice and police accountability. Players stopped the postseason in protest and demanded more proactive measures be taken by the league and the team owners. Just about every American sports league joined them in the protest.
Now after making a stand, they return to the court.
“I think that the challenge from going from that to a practice setting or a game is significant,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And to the extent that it requires some level of compartmentalization. I think that's there. But at the same time, you don't want to diminish anything that's happened previously or is happening with basketball.”
In the bubble, players see competition, camaraderie and a chance to play for a title. Outside of it, they see social justice issues that still need changing. Now more than ever, that’s a strange thing to balance.
When the Milwaukee Bucks stayed in their locker room as their playoff game was set to begin on Wednesday, it created a domino effect and the postseason being paused for three days. During those days, players, coaches, owners, and league officials met to try and put forth a plan of action. It wasn’t just to appease the players and save the season; to them, it was simply doing what needed to be done.
“it's not about taking a political stance, it's more about standing for what is right and what is fair as a human being,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said.
The NBA players have become civil rights leaders of a new generation. And this week they saw how their actions actually could make a difference.
On Friday, the league and players association released a joint statement that detailed three proactive measures: a social justice coalition is being formed, league arenas will be used as voting sites, and advertisement space will be used to promote voting.
It was proof they had power. And now, after trying to stand up for minorities and the unheard, it's time to play again. Something that may be easier said than done.
In Game 6, the Jazz will attempt to slow down Jamal Murray, who has scored 92 points and committed zero turnovers over the last two games, and Utah may also have to deal with the return of Gary Harris, who has been upgraded to questionable for Sunday’s contest.
But, yes, all that does feel a little trivial now.
“For us, it's trying to focus on the game, but at the same time really realizing it's just a game and there's a bigger picture to everything,” Mike Conley said. “And go out there and compete and have fun, do the best you can to try to win a championship, but understand that there's a lot more life out there that needs our help.”
There’s understanding, though, that playing helps bring impact. It was the basketball court that provided a stage for them to push for proactive measures. And it will continue to be just that. But it can be tough to balance.
“When the games start, your focus is on playing the game,” Snyder said. “In many instances, that's difficult. That's a hard thing to do. But I think it's also something that guys are prepared to do. And again I know they love to play. We love this game and all the things that it can bring.”