Anybody who’s spewing cynicism about NBA players and their efforts to promote racial justice should watch Jamal Murray’s post-game interview from Sunday night. Just minutes after another historic playoff performance, the streaking point guard delivered a poignant message about finding purpose. Highlighting his custom-made Adidas sneakers outfitted with portraits of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Murray spoke about the global phenomenon of state-sanctioned violence against Black people, and how he’s determined to use his platform to stop it.
All the while, he will be preparing to lead the Nuggets into their Game 7 matchup Tuesday against the Jazz. The two monumental challenges symbolize the burden NBA players are shouldering as they pursue a championship in the midst of a pandemic.
Murray scored 50 points for the second time in three games in Denver’s 119-107 Game 6 victory over the Jazz in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. He is just the third NBA player to drop 50 points in an elimination game, and is in the midst of a historic duel with Utah’s All-Star point guard Donovan Mitchell, who netted 44 points in the clash. Murray and Mitchell have each scored 50 points at least twice in the series, joining Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan as the only players in history with multiple 50-point efforts in a single series.
But Murray’s strongest statement Sunday didn’t come during regulation. Instead, it came afterwards, when he placed his Adidas sneakers in front of the camera, and spoke with TNT’s Jared Greenberg.
Instead of reflecting on his all-time great performance, Murray reflected on the deaths of Taylor and Floyd. “These shoes mean a lot,” he said. “In life, you find things that hold value to you. You find things to fight for. We found something we’re fighting for as the NBA, as a collective unit. I use these shoes as a symbol to me to keep fighting all around the world.”
It’s an unprecedented time in athlete activism, with NBA and WNBA players leading the way. Both leagues are overtly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and providing their players ample opportunity to speak out. But following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, some players started talking about striking. On Wednesday, every playoff game in both leagues was postponed. The movement crossed a historic threshold.
NBA players eventually voted to resume the season, with outspoken leaders such as Doc Rivers pushing for them to keep using the platform they’ve been provided. With millions of eyeballs tuned into the league each night, players are receiving the benefit of a captive audience. Obviously, slogans and soliloquies alone will not result in change. But amplifying the message, and continuing to push the league to follow through on its public support, can have a dramatic impact. In fact, it already has.
After the NBA player walkout, the league and NBPA agreed to convert arenas into polling places for the general election. It is a move that promises to dramatically increase polling access for communities vulnerable to Covid-19, meshing with LeBron James’ efforts to combat voter suppression.
Murray is far from the only NBA star to dedicate his post-game comments to demanding justice for Black victims of police violence. Last week, James spoke poignantly about Blake, and Chris Paul did as well. Rivers delivered an impassioned message that denounced the fear-mongering featured on primetime every night during the Republican National Convention.
The emotion Murray exuded Sunday shows the toll that’s being taken on these young men. The 2016 first-round pick and Canadian native is just 23 years old, and in addition to quarantining inside of a bubble away from his family and friends, he’s grappling with the epidemic of racial violence while trying to lead the Nuggets to a playoff series win.
It is the kind of experience that will mature somebody well beyond his years. Murray’s playoff performance will always be in the record books, but his remarks are just as indelible, as they continue to lead to action.