THE NBA PLAYERS were led by the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks’ slogan, part catchy, part Midwest feelgood, is “Fear the Deer.” (Deer are a dangerous hazard, anywhere in the country, on a deserted road late at night, but hardly a fearsome creature.) On August 26, however, they acted not because they wanted their NBA (immediate) opponents, the Orlando Magic, to “fear” the Milwaukee “Deer.” Rather, the Bucks acted in such a way as to make evident—audible, if you wish—the deep existential fear that all black Americans experience as a daily occurrence, as a matter of routine. It does not matter whether a black person is on the street, as in the case of George Floyd in Minneapolis (May 2020) or Daunte Wright (Brooklyn Center, April 2021), or is, as the vernacular expression goes (an idiomatic expression possessed of its own hard truth), driving while black—DWB. For a black person to be stopped by a white cop is both routine and never a routine matter for black people in this country. It is routine in that it happens all-too frequently. In truth, to DWB we should add ambulatory while black. For a black person, just making a quick grocery store stop, as happened to the Milwaukee Bucks’ Sterling Brown, can lead to you being stun-gunned even as your actions present no threat to the police.1 Being alive while black. There are moments when such a declaration seems anything but hyperbole.
The upshot of all this is to instill dread in all black people. It is, as many black parents would readily testify, the fear that keeps them awake at night and haunts their every waking hour.
I know that you share this fear Ezra because I felt you tense up during the police scenes when we watched The Hate U Give at our local cineplex.
Worrying about what the outcome of a routine traffic stop might be. And black Americans are concerned not only for their teenage son or daughter or son. They are equally worried about what might happen when the police stop their aging father or their middle-aged, law-abiding sister.
On Wednesday, August 26th, 2020, the Bucks were scheduled to play the Magic at 4 p.m. in the NBA bubble, an athletic campus at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports arena in Orlando, Florida. (Chosen, as we know, so as to protect the players, coaches, and their support staff, as well as the various workers whose responsibility it was to house and feed the players, while also keeping the facility sanitized—that is, free of the virus.) All the NBA playoff teams were accommodated in, and restricted to, the bubble to ensure that they could play safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bursting the “Bubble”
The Bucks were scheduled to play the hometown team, the Orlando Magic—not that “hometown” had any meaning since all the games were played in arenas emptied of everyone except those personnel essential to the bubble. (Only in the later rounds did some families join the players in the bubble.) Following the usual pregame routine, the Magic were out on court, going through their regulation warmups. If any of the Magic players did glance over to the other side of the court, none of them registered any surprise. Why they did not is itself surprising. Because, lo and behold, the other side of the court was empty. Initially, some—by which I mean TV commentators, post ipso facto, as well as a range other talking heads from the world of sport—thought that there were Bucks players who had succumbed to the Covid-19 virus. A reasonable conclusion, considering that the pandemic had cut a swathe through America, averaging one thousand deaths a day during the summer of 2020.
Whatever the speculation, there were no “Deer” to “Fear.” The “Deer,” it turned out, were engaged in the work of addressing black fear in their home state, Wisconsin. Turns out that it all began with a single “Deer.”
Meet George Hill
The Bucks were led by George Hill.2 An African American backup guard, Hill is a thirteen-year veteran of the NBA. His time in the NBA includes stints with the San Antonio Spurs (who drafted him with their first-round pick in 2008) and the Indiana Pacers (he was traded to his hometown Pacers in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, one of my favorite players). Thereafter, Hill briefly donned the uniforms of the Utah Jazz, the Sacramento Kings and the Cleveland Cavaliers (where he played with LeBron James) before arriving in Milwaukee.3 Hill had decided, before entering the locker room on August 26, that he was not going to play. He had not told his teammates about his decision prior to entering the locker room. Hill had only informed the Bucks’ coach, Mike Budenholzer.4
Hill withheld his decision from his teammates in part because he did not want them to be burdened with the effects of his decision. After all, the Bucks were in the middle of a playoff series. Hill’s mind, however, was made up. He would not dress. George Hill, as I said, is a backup guard. He is not the Bucks’ star player. At a towering 6’11, that honor belongs to the Buck’s MVP (and 2020 Defensive Player of the Year), Giannis Antetokounmpo. Popularly referred to as the “Greek Freak” for his otherworldly athleticism, Antetokounmpo, the Greek-born son of Nigerian parents, has such remarkable ball-handling skills for a big man that it is often he—rather than the guard, as is customary—who brings the ball up the floor for the Bucks. Of course, with his imposing size, Antetokounmpo is, it goes without saying, also a formidable presence around the rim, at both ends of the court. Hence that Defensive Player of the Year award and his two MVPs (Most Valuable Player awards—2018/19 and 2019/20).
Neither is Hill the second-best player on the Bucks. That honor belongs to the Khris Middleton, who plays a hybrid guard-forward position and is an efficient shooter. It is Middleton who is responsible for directing the Bucks plays when Antetokounmpo—often simply referred to as “Giannis”—is not heading the charge. The political role that Hill came to assume on the Bucks is incommensurate with—disproportionate to—his status on the Bucks roster. George Hill is no Muhammad Ali circa 1967, the dominant athlete in his profession taking a radical political stand against induction into the U.S. Army. George Hill is not John Carlos or Tommie Smith, raising a gloved fist on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. George Hill is not Serena Williams, a champion many times over and a tennis star not afraid of castigating racists. George Hill is not Naomi Osaka, the Haitian-Japanese (American-raised, trained and based) tennis player who used her triumphant run at the 2020 US Open to draw attention to victims of police brutality.
On the road to winning her second U.S. Open title, from inside the professional tennis bubble, Osaka commemorated victims such as Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and Tamir Rice, among others, by imprinting their names on her face mask.5 Pandemic publicity at work, for all the world to see. Or, the kind of publicity only a pandemic can buy. George Hill is not LeBron James, who is not only among the best basketball players in the history of the game but the star to whom all others in the NBA, and in worlds well beyond it, look to for leadership in moments of crisis.
It is George Hill, however, for whom the realities of the moment—outside the bubble—were too pressing to be left unaddressed. To rephrase Rudiger Safranski’s quasi-Newtonian terms, “Something was pressing in, so something had to press out.”6 Or, more to the point, something was pressing to get out because it no longer wished to be contained within. With good reason.
On Sunday, August 23, 2020, a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey, shot a black man, Jacob Blake, at least 7 times, in the back, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.7 Kenosha is a mere forty miles southeast of Milwaukee. Jacob Blake survived, but his family has told the world that he will be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Sheskey’s bullets shattered Blake’s spinal cord and his splintered his vertebrae, to say nothing of the damage done to his internal organs—surgeons had to remove almost his entire colon and his small intestine.
Hill brought the outside, the police brutality from which he, Hill, was protected, inside, an outside from which all the other players too were protected. He brought it right into the locker room, making police brutality immanent, intimate, and in so doing Hill compelled a geopolitical triangulation among Orlando, Milwaukee, and Kenosha. By making police brutality a bubble issue, Hill transformed the bubble into an instrument that could be mobilized against police brutality. (How effective an instrument was a matter of concern for the players, already in a moral quandary about their decision to play after George Floyd’s murder.) If it is police brutality that was “breaking in,” then it was black athletic resistance, metonymized as/in Hill, that was “breaking out.” In “breaking out” black athletes were reaching out to black America, writ large, making manifest their support for the cause: ending police brutality and securing social justice for all marginalized and oppressed Americans.
George Hill turned the bubble inside out. He made the bubble face outward, he made the bubble stand before the world. Or, from a different vantage point, he inserted—with the force that is personal conviction—the world into the bubble. Either way, what Hill succeeded in doing was to, if the pun might be permitted, burst the bubble. It does not take a reigning MVP (Giannis) or an NBA legend (LeBron) to burst the bubble. It only requires, it turns out, your average NBA guard to make (circumscribed) utopia of a piece with the dystopia raging at its doorstep; almost literally, in the case of Kenosha’s proximity to Milwaukee, if not Orlando. To burst the bubble, a thirteen-year NBA veteran with a strong commitment to social justice will do as well as his Defensive Player of the Year teammate.
Cometh the hour, cometh the black athlete. Cometh the black athlete who is not a household name. “What’s my name?” “George Hill.”
In truth, Hill’s teammates should not have been surprised that it was he who broke ranks, if only momentarily. While the injured Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets) made clear his opinion that the NBA should not resume because of the racist conditions extant in American life,8 the WNBA’s Natasha Cloud (Washington Mystics) is the only player from either league who chose not to go into the (WNBA’s) bubble at the IMG Academy in Brandenton, Florida, in order to concentrate on her social justice activism.9 Hill, on the other hand, elected to go to Orlando.
It did not, however, take him long to voice his ambivalence. Responding to the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, Hill could barely contain his anger. Some of it, no doubt, can only be described as public self-recrimination:
First of all, we shouldn’t have come to this damn place to be honest.
Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. But we’re here. It is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here. But definitely when it’s all settled, some things need to be done.10
After the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department, many NBA and WNBA players—Cloud and Beal among them—had marched against police brutality. What Hill’s reflection suggest, more than anything, is a sense of location-imposed helplessness—“we’re here,” and from “right here” “We can’t do anything.” As NBA players, they have made themselves captive. More than that, they have made themselves helpless. From “right here” the NBA players understand themselves to be of no use to their community. How could they stop police brutality from “right here?”
Hill’s helplessness also echoes in a different register. It voices the unspeakable truth that the seven bullets that paralyzed Jacob Blake came too soon, much too soon, after George Floyd’s death. As such, it might also simply be a sign of ontological exhaustion. As in: this has happened again. As in: this has happened again as it has before. It is out of this anger and helplessness, one suspects, that some NBA players in the bubble chose to have “Enough” inscribed on the back of their jerseys, where their names would ordinarily have appeared.
It is with this understanding, the regularity of black death by white police officers, that Hill’s self-recrimination becomes audible. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.” By having decided to play basketball, the players may have rendered themselves politically helpless and ineffective. By playing in the bubble they allowed for the “focal point” to be lost in the routine, albeit a utopian one, of the NBA playoffs. That is, it is the game itself that came to take precedence. Once more, as it always is, the focus is on the game.
In truth, however, Hill was caught in an odd conundrum. And it is not an entirely self-negating conundrum. While he could not leave the bubble without absenting himself from his team (he would have to quarantine himself after he returned, by which time the Bucks might very well have lost; at the very least they would have had to make do without a player), it is precisely his ability to articulate the restrictions of his voluntary encampment that allows him the platform from which to vent his frustrations. It is also the threat of bursting the bubble that made his action so salient. That made of George Hill George Hill. The threat of bursting the bubble made the (outside) world look to the bubble for political direction. For guidance.
In his ambivalence, Hill gave life to political possibilities that would not, under normal circumstances, have had such resonance. The intensity of that resonance—everyone ventured an opinion on what the Hill-led Bucks did, from Trump to the opinion-makers on cable TV—is precisely how Hill and his colleagues were able to escape the captivity of the bubble. It was their very “captivity” that provided a platform and, as such, amplified the antiracist and antipolice brutality message. Critical to the resonance was the reality of shared encampment. All the players were gathered together in one place. Whether or not they understood it as such, theirs was heard as a single, unified voice. No matter, as we will see, the inaccuracy of that perception. Through encampment, the “focal point” was sharpened.
Nineteenth century American utopianists, one and all, subscribed to the logic of exemplarity. Fourierists, Owenites, and the Perfectionists believed—and believed deeply—that if they could model the ideal community, their neighbors, no matter how skeptical, disapproving, or antagonistic they might initially be, would see, through utopian example, what a desirable mode of being utopianism offered.
The as-yet unconverted would follow suit. It was a matter of time.
Life in the Shaker village, the Fourierist phalanx, Brook Farm, or New Harmony, would show itself to be a preferable mode of existence.
The Oneida Mansion House as but the first instantiation of Mansion Houses that spring up across the county, the state, the entirety of the United States. A new way to live.
In truth, only a few newcomers—or outsiders—swelled the utopian ranks, but not in any great number.
No matter. The belief persisted that the truth emanating from a New Harmony was an example to and for all of humanity. Owen, Noyes, and their like had simply gotten there earlier.
Out of their Disney-cum-utopian location, the NBA players fashioned, out of racial affinity, a profound sense of injustice and a deep sense of sociopolitical accountability, themselves as an exemplary community for a white majority country at war with its black and brown populations.
An echo of “Follow the Deer” reverberates.
The truth emanating from the bubble was that what-was would no longer be tolerated. The bubble, if only in reformist terms, agitated for what-should-be. Jayson Tatum’s nostalgia as the utopian inscription of the bubble. The bubble, Tatum’s short-lived experience showed him, was not only its own kind of possibility. It was, for him (and possibly not only as a professional athlete), a way to live.11
In the World Interior of Capital is Peter Sloterdijk’s call for the revitalization of grand narratives, notwithstanding—as Sloterdijk recognizes—the failure of such narratives. However, read within our context, it is difficult not to ignore the undercurrents of a utopian inclination. Sloterdijk’s argument is for a return to philosophy itself as the creation of a grand narrative. “Has thinking,” Sloterdijk wonders, “not always meant taking on the challenge that the excessive would appear concretely before us?”12 To “think” for what-must-be, no matter the enormity of the “challenge” that confronts. “Thinking” for what-must-be is for Sloterdijk necessarily a communal project, a “dwelling” (a concept he borrows from Heidegger) in which shared experience, shared protection, and shared responsibility for the maintenance of the dwelling is the order of the day. “Dwelling,” Sloterdijk writes, “creates an immune system of repeatable gestures; through successful habitualization, it combines being-relieved with being-burdened by clear tasks.”13 In the bubble NBA players were “relieved” of certain mundane “tasks”: only, that is, to find themselves tasked—“being-burdened”—with a set of responsibilities that proved themselves to be far more onerous, many times more demanding. Such is the work of “successful habitualization.” To learn to live, differently. That is what Jayson Tatum learned. Learned, and, because he became habituated to it, yearned-for on finding himself cast back into the world beyond the confines of the bubble.
What NBA players approached, in Silver’s recollection, with uncertainty and no small amount of foreboding, revealed itself as preferable to what-was. After the bubble, would normal NBA life ever be enough? If the NBA players were exemplary in their truth, their critique of U.S. racism, were they not also the first practitioners of a utopian life for professional athletes? Professional athletes working—that is, going about their job, playing basketball—in conjunction with a socioeconomic structure, if not of their making, then certainly partly born out of their professional necessity?
Because of how publicly Hill chafed at the (social, political) isolation that the bubble imposed on the players, because he was so forthright about his ambivalence, because his self-recrimination (which was individual but contained a collective sting, have no doubt of that) was so palpable, his decision not to play should not have come as a surprise. And yet it did.
And because it surprised everybody, maybe even Budenholzer when Hill communicated his decision privately, Hill’s decision had the effect of reverberating so that it discombobulated public discourse about police brutality entirely. Threw everything into question. In fact, by “unsettling” things, by making everything more turbulent rather than waiting until things “settled down,” Hill had already begun to “get things done.” Hill’s inner—and visible, articulated—turmoil had the effect of shaking things up. Hill made, if only for a moment, the nation grapple with the ugly racism of police brutality. He gave the brutal fact of white police violence against black bodies a new discursive intensity. He maybe even gave it an ethical life. This is what happens when a black athlete speaks up, as it were, by sitting out.
Because of what followed in the wake of his decision, the force of Hill’s determined withdrawal may have surprised everyone. George Hill not least of all.
Strange things happen in the bubble.
In the bubble, because of the bubble, the NBA—in concert with the WNBA—shows itself to be the most progressive force in American political life.
The bubble, an artificial space, a space for artifice. Without artifice there can be no utopia.
Once more, a black athlete takes up the work of making America account for itself, even when powerful constituencies refuse to confront the truth of American racism.