Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry was noshing on pistachio nuts, hummus and pita bread at his Westport, Connecticut, home last Wednesday in preparation for a spirited game of doubles tennis with his pal, former Duke star and ESPN personality Jay Williams, when he received a text from Bucks general manager Jon Horst.
"Jon said, 'I wanted to give you a heads-up we might not be playing today,'" Lasry recalled. "I asked him, 'Why not?' He told me the players were upset with what had happened in Wisconsin, and I said, 'OK. Tell the team we are fully behind them and will help them in any way.'"
The Bucks refused to take the floor in a first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was, the Bucks co-owner acknowledged, yet another red flag for his players that the struggle for racial justice was simply not resonating the way they had hoped, even as the court they competed on was emblazoned with the words "Black Lives Matter."
Some NBA players had wondered aloud whether their message of reform would be lost amid scoring duels and last-minute game winners. Milwaukee veteran George Hill was one, and, when asked by reporters in the immediate aftermath of the Blake shooting what the players can do, he answered wearily, "We can't do anything. First of all, we never should have come to this damn place [the NBA bubble], to be honest."
"I saw that," Lasry told ESPN. "I've known George for a while. It's hard for him. I know it is. He's an extremely sensitive person, and he's got a strong sense of right and wrong. George, in my opinion, is always trying to do the right thing."
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lasry said, was a strong voice in the players' meetings that followed, reminding his NBA brethren that it was just two short years ago when teammate Sterling Brown was thrown to the ground, tasered, handcuffed and wrongfully arrested by Milwaukee police officers for illegally parking his car. While other high-profile stars were lauded as voices of reason during the emotional discussions, Antetokounmpo's contributions were glossed over. That's because, according to Lasry, recognition is not what drives him.
"One of the things that makes Giannis special is if his teammates need him, he'll do anything to be there," Lasry said. "When George spoke up, and then Sterling Brown spoke up, Giannis very quickly understood that not playing was the right decision. He is a leader, and he represented our team in that manner."
Lasry acted quickly once the players decided not to play. His son, Alex, was able to reach both Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and patch them into the Bucks locker room -- where the players remained sequestered -- for a conference call. The players pushed for action from the Wisconsin legislature on police reform, which prompted Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to call for a special session. The Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly convened on Monday. But after 30 seconds, in a mostly empty chamber, the session was adjourned with a notification that no new bills would be taken up.
"It's disappointing, but it's what we've come to expect," Lasry said. "It's where we are with regards to politics in Wisconsin. It's wrong. They should have gotten on the phone. We need communication. Obviously, we will continue to push for that."
George Hill: Bucks' protest came 'from the heart'
George Hill elaborates on how the Bucks' protest came to be and shares his reaction to other teams in the sports world following their lead.
Lasry, the co-founder and CEO of the investment firm Avenue Capital Group, bought the Bucks along with Wes Edens in 2014. He agreed to watch Wednesday evening's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bucks and the Miami Heat with this ESPN reporter.
"I was mad," Lasry said. "Mad that we lost. I thought the Heat played very well and we didn't play as well as we could. It's not that complicated. If we play our game, we win.
"I think it has become very physical and Giannis is getting hammered all the time. He gets hit way too much. But it is what it is. Playoff basketball. I'm sure the Heat feel the same way."
Both Marc and Alex Lasry flew to Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday morning to watch Game 2 from tier 2 of the bubble, which prohibits access to the court or interaction with the players and coaches. Alex will start his quarantine on Saturday, and once cleared, will join the Bucks inside their pristine environment. His dad watched the action from behind thick plexiglass on Wednesday, and will again when he returns on Sunday.
"It's not what my dad would prefer," Alex Lasry said, "but of course he understands the protocol. The players know when he's there, even if he can't talk with him. I think they appreciate his presence."
Marc Lasry was dismayed along with most Bucks fans as Milwaukee fell behind by double digits in the opening quarter. "Giannis needs to be more involved,'' he noted, "but Bled (Eric Bledsoe) is playing great.'' Indeed, Bledsoe, who missed Game 1 with a bad hamstring, checked out at the half with 14 points, while the Bucks hit the locker room down 66-60.
"Happy we are only down six with Kris [Middleton] and Giannis in foul trouble,'' Lasry texted. "Wes [Matthews] is doing a great job on Jimmy Butler.''
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said in the wake of the canceled games that he's still not "confident as I'd like to be" that NBA owners will effect change. He said he's heard such assurances before, with few results.
Lasry countered that owners are sincere in their desire to make a difference. Milwaukee is one of many teams that has made its arena available as a voting site. Lasry said the Bucks are working with ride-sharing company Lyft, along with public transit officials, to provide free transportation for those who want to vote but have no way to get there. Long before Blake was shot, the team had initiated registration drives in the city and urged their own players to make sure they, too, were registered. Last February, Lasry walked the streets of Milwaukee alongside Antetokounmpo and other Bucks players to demand social justice.
"My whole family flew out there to be with players and march with them," Lasry said. "I knew it was important to our team, and I wanted to support them, so instead of just saying that, the only thing to do was fly to Milwaukee and actually do it."
He is heartened by the dialogue that was sparked following his team's boycott, and he heralded Charlotte Hornets owner and basketball legend Michael Jordan as an effective liaison between the players and owners.
"I have a ton of respect for Michael Jordan," Lasry said. "He was my idol. I wanted to be like Mike. Other than a complete lack of talent, I couldn't be. I think there's a huge amount of respect within the ownership group -- and I assume with the players -- for him.
"When Michael talked, the owners listened, because we all understand what he's meant to the game. He's lived it. I can only imagine what kind of [strife] he's lived through, and how he handled it as a player. His voice carries for all of us."
Jordan was a six-time champion and six-time Finals MVP. But even his Airness was not given his due until winning it all in the postseason. Giannis and the Bucks know the same standards will be held for them.
And, after Wednesday's wild finish to Game 2, in which Middleton drained three free throws to tie the game on a controversial foul by Goran Dragic with 4.3 seconds left, then Butler sinking two free throws with no time left on the clock after a controversial foul on Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, the best team in basketball before the pandemic hit, is now down 2-0 in the second round.
"To lose a game like that," Lasry texted in the immediate aftermath of the crushing 116-114 defeat. "It's just wrong."
There will undoubtedly be plenty of scrutiny over how the game ended, but the score won't change. Nor will the sudden feeling that Marc Lasry's Bucks are in trouble.
MORE: MacMullan watching playoff basketball from afar:
Nuggets-Jazz Game 1 with John Collins
Lakers-Blazers Game 4 with Trevor Ariza
Raptors-Celtics Game 5 with Danny Ainge
Lakers-Nuggets Game 3 with Serbian Barkley