How NBA and WNBA gamers grew to become leaders of the BLM motion

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Led by guest editor Carmelo Anthony, the new special edition of SLAM (below) focuses on social justice and activism from a basketball perspective. One hundred percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Social Change Fund. Get your copy here.

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On Thursday evening, June 4th, thousands gather at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon's southeastern neighborhood, to march against the police brutality and the recent murders of Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, whose killing is on Video captured by Minnesota police caused worldwide outrage. As the protest goes two miles southwest across Morrison Bridge, a black grandmother who has been here marches with her granddaughter, who is likely new to the fight. A multiracial group of students record videos on social media while a middle-aged same-sex couple walks together holding a large sign that says “Black Lives Matter”. The names of Floyd and Taylor fuel emotionally charged chants that are only muted by moments of silence in which they and other victims are honored. The protesters refer to Portland as a city that seeks unity and change. And at the forefront of the movement that keeps people in step is Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.

The Black Lives Matter movement has achieved unprecedented support since Floyd's death on May 25, 2020, with organized protests in all 50 states and over 60 countries. Frankly, police brutality isn't new. It is also not recorded on video. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, everything that is deemed non-essential has been disrupted. People have had more opportunities than ever to watch Floyd die and internalize what is really going on. With protests across the country, NBA players have joined their presence and platforms. Minnesota Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie have joined former NBA player Stephen Jackson to protest in Minneapolis for Floyd, who was a close friend of Jackson. Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to organize a protest in his hometown of Atlanta. And reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo got several of his Bucks teammates to join a protest in Milwaukee while shouting over a megaphone for change and justice.

All of their efforts are significant, but aside from Jackson, whose proximity to Floyd rightly centers his voice, Lillard, who leads Portland in a protest, hits other hits given the city's tense racial history. Portland is a complicated microcosm of America. An advanced environment on the surface, a city built on prejudice and unfair racial differences if you pull back a few layers. The Oregon Foundation has an awkward and often boisterous historical timeline of aggressive and black laws, events, and organizations. Laws dating back to the 1850s made it illegal for blacks to live or own property in the state. State officials deliberately decided not to ratify the 14th and 15th amendments until 1973; and Portland was not a known epicenter for hate groups until the mid-2000s.

Lillard has been with the Blazers since 2012, and his outward affinity for the city of Portland is growing stronger every year. He is known as Dame D.O.L.L.A. at several shows with local artists. Other members of his family work with the town's youth, and it is by no means uncommon to see him at a local business that supports small businesses. He's been open about how much he wants to go down as the best trail blazer ever, and given his investment in the community, he's making an appearance in the NBA finals, far from being the GOAT of the Rose City.

But the same city Lillard loves doesn't always make the six percent of people who look like him feel just as welcome. Portland is often viewed as a place where creative possibilities seem endless, which for some residents might actually be true. But for many black people in Portland, it is part of everyday life to avoid stressful, harmful micro-aggressions and banal stereotypes in common rooms and work environments. Even the African American and POC who fuel the city's creative industries grapple with racism and marginalization and just feel grateful to be there. Employees mine them for their “cultural insights” in systems that rarely promote colored people, but without them could not exist. And if you're a black guy outside of Portland's cool kid industries, you can find yourself largely invisible.

Like his NBA brothers in other cities, it is so important that Lillard join the conversation because he connects entire communities. Portland is just as great a player as him. He adopted lady because he's the type of leader who is willing to work when no one looks like a crazy outcast for the city and fight when it matters. And that's the kind of commitment Portland and every other city across America needs to end racial inequalities and create change. Let's hope the energy is returned.

The list of NBA and WNBA players who have appeared for protests against Black Lives Matter is extensive. SoCal natives DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook spoke out against police brutality at a rally in Compton. DeRozan announced that he recently killed a friend from the police force. Juan Toscano-Anderson, Swingman for the Golden State Warriors, led teammates Damion Lee, Kevon Looney, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in a protest in Oakland. Current and former Kings Harrison Barnes and Matt Barnes had appeared for a demonstration in Sacramento. Pelican striker Jaxson Hayes took part in a protest in NOLA, and jazz guardian Jordan Clarkson took part in a march in Los Angeles. Pacers Guard Malcolm Brogdon gave a powerful speech in Atlanta and Sixers striker Tobias Harris joined the movement in Philadelphia. Enes Kanter drove from Chicago to Boston to protest with Celtics teammate Marcus Smart.

Karima Christmas-Kelly of Minnesota Lynx attended a vigil in Minneapolis that saw Floyd murdered. Renee Montgomery distributed bottled water to protesters in Atlanta. Seattle Storm teammates Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart both spoke to the crowd at a local protest. Several players out of the fever marched into Indiana for equality. Aces star Liz Cambage performed passionate chants for justice on the streets of Melbourne, Australia. Members of the Wizards and Mystics protested peacefully together in DC.

The fight for justice continues. And basketball players stay on the front lines.

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One hundred percent of the proceeds from the new edition of SLAM will be donated to the Social Change Fund. Get your copy here.

Terrence Watson contributes to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @LowerEastScribe.

Photos by Bruce Ely and via Getty.

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