Las Vegas is calling it a sure bet: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Milwaukee Bucks for next month’s NBA championship.
Oddsmakers say the Clippers still could cross things up for the cross-town Lakers. The smart money, however, remains on a final that pits NBA headliner LeBron James against Giannis Antetokounmpo, the worst nightmare for any headline writer.
But that was before the Greek Freak & Friends announced that the Bucks stop here.
Last Sunday’s racially charged, police shooting in Kenosha, Wisc., prompted Milwaukee to boycott Wednesday’s playoff game against Orlando. It became the first act of a Shakespearean drama that played out with a league-wide walkout inside the NBA’s Floridian bubble.
All bets are off now that there’s double trouble for those who toil in the bubble.
Basketball isn’t just a game of speed, strength and skill. It also gets pumped up by emotion. And there was enough of it last week to bring the bubble close to bursting.
James, who’s been reaching for his fourth NBA ring this year, was about to thumb his nose at the rest of the season on Wednesday. He reportedly walked out of a players meeting that night when the Bucks, who had blindsided the other teams with their impromptu boycott, wanted to return to the court without any plan of action.
The Laker star was in no mood for a reverse pivot after watching a video of Jacob Blake getting shot in the back seven times.
“We are scared as black people in America,” he said. “Black men, black women, black kids, we are terrified.”
Basketball Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes, a former Santa Barbara High star, experienced it first-hand soon after the
completion of his own NBA career. The Los Angeles Police Department pulled him over in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles and handcuffed him just three months before the March 3, 1991 beating of Rodney King.
“Standing there handcuffed, I felt like a common thug,” Wilkes said. “What hurt me the most was that I was on their side. I’ve always been a supporter of law enforcement. But their treatment of me was arrogant and distasteful. It was disturbing.
“I work as hard and honestly as any American. I try to do everything by the rules. I cooperated with the officers. They acted like I was dangerous.”
He was told that he’d been stopped for having expired registration tags.
“That wasn’t the case,” Wilkes said. “The way they handled things, it could have gotten ugly. If I got angry and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ it might have started something.
“I realized how easily police brutality could happen. It made me more sympathetic toward the common guy who isn’t famous and gets in a situation like that.”
He declined to follow up on his complaint despite getting “deluged” by the media.
“I felt I’d made my point,” he explained. “I wanted to get back to business. By then the Rodney King affair was well along.”
Wilkes did take part recently in a Black Lives Matter video with the UCSB basketball team. It has been airing all month as a public service advertisement on KEYT NewsChannel 3, KCOY NewsChannel 12 and KKFX Fox 11.
Both the Lakers — Wilkes’ former team — and Clippers took informal votes on Wednesday night to pull out of the NBA playoffs. That would have turned the Bucks, ironically enough, into a sure thing for the ring.
But Oklahoma City guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association, brought the players back together the next day. All they needed, he said, was enough time to process the situation and consider the best way to advocate social justice reform.
“The shootings that continue to happen, it creates a lot of unrest… a whole lot of unrest,” Paul said. “For us, to have a predominantly African American league, to see our black brothers being shot and killed on a daily basis, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.
“Everyone expects us to go out and play. I get it. But we needed some time. All of us.”
James used the time to seek the advice of No. 44 — Barack Obama, that is, and not Jerry West. The former president said the players should detail their demands to the NBA before resuming play.
They voted to return to the court on Saturday after the NBA agreed to several conditions, including the formation of a social action committee.
Team owners also agreed to convert the arenas in their home markets into voting facilities for the November election, while also creating advertisements that encourage voter turnout.
And therein lies perhaps the biggest irony in all this craziness: The arenas that were closed to the players by the COVID-19 pandemic will be reopened for a quite different form of competition.
But at least it’s a sure bet who’ll be matched up in that final.
Mark Patton is a News-Press senior writer. His sports column appears Sundays in the News-Press, and his stories on local athletes and sports are published throughout the week in this newspaper.