• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 26 - Bigger Than Basketball: The Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA Social Justice Walkout

Updated: Feb 28


With Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry and CBS Sports Senior Editor Andrew Julian


With a shot at an NBA title on the line, an entire basketball team refuses to take the court. They won’t even come out of the locker room.

It’s a sports marketing nightmare. And just last year, it came true for the management of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.


Alex Lasry is the Senior Vice President of the Bucks. And even though he was shocked just like the rest of us when the 2020 walk-out happened, he supported the team’s decision whole-heartedly.


Because there was an entire summer of reasons why the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the court on August 26, 2020. But they crystalized around the police shooting of a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the violence and even deaths that followed.


In this episode, Alex explains what went through his mind as a sports marketing professional during the historic events of last summer, and explains how the Bucks' new ownership group has strived to push back against decades of institutional racism in Milwaukee.


Plus, CBS Sports Senior Editor Andrew Julian joins us to put the Bucks' wildcat walk-out in the proper historic context.


Sign up for the Podcamp Media e-newsletter for updates on our new Milwaukee headquarters Grand Opening in the spring.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

With a shot at the NBA title on the line, a chance to advance in the playoffs by winning one game, an entire basketball team refuses to take the courts. They won't even come out of the locker room. It's a sports marketing nightmare. And just last year, it came true for the management of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.


Alex Lasry:

I turned on the TV and the team wasn't on the court. My buddy was coming over to watch the game with me and the team had then decided like, "No, we're not doing this."


Dusty Weis:

Alex Lasry is the Senior Vice President of the Bucks. And it's worth noting right off the top here that even though he was shocked just like the rest of us when it happened, he supported the team's decision wholeheartedly. Because the reason the Milwaukee Bucks didn't take the court on August 26th, 2020. Well, there was an entire summer of reasons, but they crystallized around the police shooting of a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the violence and even deaths that followed. And CBS sports Senior Editor, Andrew Julian will tell us that the Bucks were just ahead of the curve on this one.


Andrew Julian:

As an African-American male, who could have been any of these people just walking down the street or minding my own business or sitting in the car. I think it was an extremely powerful statement for the Bucks to say, "Not today."


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR marketing and branding nightmares, and the well-meaning communications professionals who live them. Thanks for tuning in, make sure you follow Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app to stay up to date with our latest episodes. I know a social justice is a topic that makes some people uncomfortable, specially in a business setting. I hope you'll stick with us on this episode because this is a topic that is not going away anytime soon. Part of the reason for that is that no one wants to talk about it ever. And it is everywhere in America. Learning how to navigate it in a business setting as a business. Well, it's not just good for business. It's just good. And I think we can all learn a lot about how the sports world handled this story last summer. It's also a story that struck really close to home. We're based in Milwaukee here at Podcamp Media, and we don't get a chance to tell a lot of stories about our hometown. But we got real rowdy when the Bucks won the NBA title back in July. And the Bucks Senior Vice President, Alex Lasry, son of the team's new owner, a leading candidate for Wisconsin's US Senate seat.


Dusty Weis:

Well, Alex played a big role in what happened last year to cap off the summer of Black Lives Matter. So I invited him out for one of the first face-to-face sit downs that I have gotten to have in a long time. So Alex, congratulations on the NBA title, everything else that you've got right now. And thank you for joining us here at Podcamp Media world headquarters in beautiful downtown Milwaukee on the Lead Balloon Podcast.


Alex Lasry:

It's an honor to be here. Thanks so much for having me. And I'm really honored to be the first guest in the beautiful world headquarters.


Dusty Weis:

Alex we've certainly had cause for celebration in Milwaukee this last year, but I don't think any of us has yet forgotten a little more than a year ago when your Milwaukee Bucks team led the entire sports world in a wildcat walk-off in support of racial and social justice issues. Those issues included the police shooting last year of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, right down the road from us here. But your role in all of this started seven years ago when your family bought the Bucks team. So what was it that drew the Lasry's to Milwaukee? And what was it that made you personally want to get involved in the management of that team and that organization?


Alex Lasry:

When we first looked at buying the team, I think one of the things that we wanted to make sure was that we were buying a team that had the potential, and I think that really drew us what is the potential for more than just basketball. And when you looked at the potential for not just a new arena, but an entire district and development site where it could be something that was bigger than basketball. That was something that really we thought was interesting and something that really drew us. And I think after that was, "Oh, how can we really transform 30 acres of a major downtown of a city?" There aren't a lot of cities where there's just 30 acres of land that have been undeveloped. And you kind of talk about the story of a highway that was there physically segregating the city of Milwaukee.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but for our out-of-town listeners, some quick background on Milwaukee's highway situation. During the massive interstate building boom of the 50s, 60s and 70s, Milwaukee, like a lot of cities in the era, struggled with these social in city planning ramifications of this massive infrastructure buildup. Like so many great advancements in human history, the interstate system presented tremendous opportunity for society and also a tremendous opportunity to discriminate against minority populations. You see when President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, it put $100 B billion out there to assist states in the construction of freeways. The federal government would pay 90% of the construction costs and states rightly assumed that the freeway system would spur commerce and development. It was a mid century gold rush. And in places like Milwaukee, they went a little bit freeway, crazy. Transportation planners of the era envisioned a network of freeways wringing the city, so that you were never more than five minutes from an on-ramp by car.


Dusty Weis:

Nevermind that freeways are noisy disruptive. And while they're great for business, they destroy the connective tissue of urban neighborhoods. They also facilitated white flight. Affluent white people moving far out into the suburbs since by freeway, you could still get to work downtown in a relatively short auto commute, but you didn't have to live next door to any people of color. So the rich white folks left town and took their money with them, leaving urban neighborhoods to fend for themselves without that stabilizing base of wealth. Oh, and of course those freeways had to be built somewhere, and using the power of eminent domain the state routed them right through African American neighborhoods. Like an area called the Bronzeville in Milwaukee's case, which was often cited as one of the most vibrant black business districts in the Midwest until it was cut through by not one but two freeways. One of these was a particularly ill-advised piece of urban planning called the Park East Freeway. Part of which was completed in 1969 and cut a gash between the north end of Milwaukee's downtown and to the city's lower east side.


Dusty Weis:

Simply put the Park East Freeway was a terrible idea. It did no good for anyone. And it actively choked out development because who wants to live next to a stinking freeway? This ugly eyesore stayed standing until 2002 when it was torn out and replaced with nothing. In fact, when I moved to Milwaukee 10 years after that, it was still mostly nothing. Just an ugly 24 acre gravel pit through the heart of downtown Milwaukee, like an ugly knife scar. So when Alex Lasry and his family took an interest in acquiring the Milwaukee Bucks a couple of years later, a big part of their proposal was to transform that land, with its charged racial history and decade of plight to build a new arena and a surrounding business district. That Deer District is how they branded it.


Alex Lasry:

Now, being able to build something like Fiserv Forum that brings people of all ages, races, sexual orientation, you name it coming to one area. And we just saw it in the Deer District with a hundred thousand people. That was probably one of the most unified moments that Wisconsin's had probably in the last 20, 30 years. And that was something that was really special and beyond our wildest dreams of what we were hoping to accomplish, but was the exact reason that we love the potential of what we saw with the Bucks was that there was a potential to do something bigger than just basketball. And we're seeing that right now. The championship run was incredible, but also look at the other things that Fiserv Forum in the Deer District's been able to do. You look at a lot of the development that has kind of come right after we kind of announced our entire Deer District. You see everything going on, Wisconsin Avenue, all of this development now happening west of the river. Not to mention getting the DNC Convention and all the concerts that are now coming.


Alex Lasry:

We're starting to see tourism and excitement in downtown Milwaukee, unlike ever before. And I think we've shown a model for how public private partnerships can work in terms of creating jobs, and working with companies that otherwise didn't have that opportunity. And that was something that I thought and that I think we always thought was really special and what we were going to do when we first decided to buy the team.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and I think that that model for the way that public private partnerships can be structured and not just succeed, but exceed everybody's wildest expectations for them is something that's worth celebrating here. Because I'll say this, in 2014 when the Lasry's bought the team and first came to Milwaukee, I'm not going to state anything that wasn't all over the news headlines back then. But there was a bit of skepticism, I think, among the community. I think the public certainly takes note of the fact that, "People with a lot of money from New York don't typically take a lot of interest in us here in Milwaukee." But I was working at City Hall at the time. And I can tell you that the guard among the city's elected leaders was certainly up as well. And if you look at other cities at the time where sports franchises were looking for public health to build an arena, there were a lot of cautionary tales there. Yet, here we are seven years later, the Bucks are the world champions, the new arena is the center of a wildly popular entertainment district.


Dusty Weis:

And anybody that went out there during the playoff run this year will tell you how transformative that presence has been downtown. So I think it's safe to say that you have not only silenced the doubters, but this city has embraced you and your family as one of their own. You even got Alderman Bob Bauman to stand up in public and admit that he was wrong about a thing, which I almost passed out. So as a jaded public relations practitioner, I could look at this and say, this is the most successful sports PR campaign in modern history, but even that feels too cynical for me. I tell folks that the best way to earn PR goodwill is to earnestly strive to do good. And your family's track record since arriving in Milwaukee has been a masterclass in that. So tell us about how you've gone about investing in the team, but also in the city.


Alex Lasry:

I think one of the things that we always looked at, after we bought the team and it's how my dad's run his companies, it's how we've grown up. I hope to be able to raise my daughter and my kids. Always give back and you want to be a part of the community. This is a community asset. The Milwaukee Bucks are really owned by the state of Wisconsin, and we are more or less kind of the steward of the team. So we always wanted to make sure that we set an example as a good corporate citizen, and lived up quite frankly to Senator Kohl, one of Wisconsin's greatest philanthropists. There is no Milwaukee Bucks without Herb Kohl. And I think that's why we've looked at the Bucks as not just a team that had championship aspirations on the court, but making sure that we had that off the court as well in doing the development.


Dusty Weis:

You heard the man, right. When they sought to build a new basketball arena in the scar left by the Park East Freeway, a concrete monument to Milwaukee's racial segregation, the Milwaukee Bucks organization took steps to make sure that an unprecedented amount of the construction opportunities went to people who live here. Disadvantaged people and people of color. It just makes so much sense.


Alex Lasry:

Not just 40% of people working on the site who are unemployed or underemployed in the last five years. Making sure that we had over 25% of the professional services contracts to be from minority owned, women owned, disadvantaged businesses. And so we tried to be creative and we went into the communities, where we said, "The general contractor is going to come." So Mortenson came, all of our subcontractors came and we said, "Hey, if you're interested in working on the site, don't just apply, come and meet the people who are going to be hiring you." And that was something that I think was new and unique. And I think it led again to this feeling of community, making sure that we hired union and that we were able to work with all the unions to ensure that we were getting the best people to work on it. And I think that's why it came in on time, on budget, with no real problems.


Dusty Weis:

Not very often you get to hear that in the development world.


Alex Lasry:

It's very rare. But I think, again, this is what happens when you hire the right people, you don't take any shortcuts and you try to do things right. I think what we tried to do was just set an example of how it can be done and how it can be successful. Because I still talk to people. I run into construction workers, people who worked on the site. They walk around by and say like, "I built that."


Dusty Weis:

Well, and I think the brilliant thing about it too is it shifts the conversation from the Lasry's families Milwaukee Bucks to our Milwaukee Bucks. When you've got people who live in Milwaukee, not just the privileged neighborhoods in Milwaukee but from all over the city, who can walk past Fiserv Forum and look at it and say, "Yeah. I built that." I remember a few years ago, I took a tour of the construction site with you. And we met some of the people who were actually hands dirty working on the site that very day. And I talked to a fellow who said, "As soon as this place opens up, I'm bringing my son here. We're going to get a seat and I'm going to walk in, I'm going to say, 'Look what your dad did.'" And the pride that was in his voice when he said that was something that sticks with me to this day.


Alex Lasry:

We can't just have it be something that's just benefiting downtown. We have to make sure that it benefits the entire city. But I think what we're trying to show is that, "Look, Fiserv Forum was something that was bigger than basketball." It was about the next chapter of sports and entertainment, and creating a new living room where people from all over the state would come live, work and play. And what we've seen is that I think Fiserv Forum is been in the top 10 in ticket sales in its first year, second year was COVID. So in its first year, top 10 in ticket sales that says something, right?


Dusty Weis:

Yeah.


Alex Lasry:

For a small market like Milwaukee to show that, "Hey, we can punch with the big boys." That to me says that Milwaukee can compete with Chicago, New York, LA, Austin, Denver. And we shouldn't be afraid to go head to head against them.


Dusty Weis:

It's fun to see Milwaukee get wins, because in Milwaukee there's this prevailing attitude that, "We don't get to have nice things here. And so why should we even bother asking for them?" And it's true because Milwaukee over the last year has had these wonderful shining moments, but we've also had some really tough moments in the city of Milwaukee. And I don't know about you, but for me when I look at the summer of 2020, I find that I had really just sort of this renewed focus on some of the systemic racism that we live in, in this city. Certainly this goes back to the arena construction project in that wind development happened in Milwaukee, 20 years ago. It was these big firms from the suburbs coming in with mostly white construction crews, in a city that's predominantly minority. And so last year we had these constant reminders again and again of sort of some of the systemic injustices that we face. And it really got pushed to the foreground, I think in a big way with the Jacob Blake shooting.


Dusty Weis:

If you follow the news at all, you're probably familiar with this one. In fact, it's still in the headlines this week but let's recap. Jacob Blake was a 29 year old black man who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23rd, 2020. The police were called to the scene of a disturbance and tried to take Blake into custody. He had a warrant out for his arrest and is accused of some not so great things. He resisted police and after they tasered him, turned his back on them to get into his waiting truck. And of course there's a video of what followed. As Blake opened the door and started to climb in, that's when officer Rusten Sheskey says, "He believed Blake was about to stab him." And so Sheskey shot Blake in the back, seven times at point blank range. Blake survived somehow, but was paralyzed from the waist down and had to have whole lot of internal organs removed. Now under the letter of the law, reasonable people can disagree about whether the shooting was legal.


Dusty Weis:

Both local and federal authorities declined to press charges against the officer and all charges against Blake were dropped as well. But anybody who's watched that video will tell you that it feels excessive. Did it really have to escalate to that point? And if it did, did they really have to shoot him? And if they did, did it really have to be seven times in the back? Oh, and his kids were in backseat of the truck and saw the whole thing too. And then it got worse, as three nights of violent protests followed. And on the night of August 25th, a 17 year old from Illinois drove up to Kenosha as part of a militia groups of vigilante, anti protestor presence. And he wound up shooting three protestors with an assault rifle, two of them died. His name is Kyle Rittenhouse and his trial is going on right now. All this played out on the tail end of what some have called the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020. In a year when another police shooting is the last ire thing that anybody had the capacity to deal with.


Dusty Weis:

Not even Alex Lasry or his Milwaukee Bucks team, who were in Orlando for the NBA playoffs. I remember waking up on the morning of August 26th and reading the news and just feeling absolutely sick about everything that was happening in my home state. How did you start your day?


Alex Lasry:

A lot of that summer kind of blurs into it just kind of feels like, it was all just one day, right? It was that tough and I just remember every day waking up thinking, "How, again?" There's got to be something we can do. And one of the things that I remember, I remember when we decided to boycott the game. The whole point of it was, this [inaudible 00:19:08] is not working. We can't just keep going on as if everything's okay. And what I was so proud of the team for in that moment was, it wasn't a publicity stunt.


Dusty Weis:

And so coming up after the break.


Alex Lasry:

I hadn't even had the game on yet and I'm getting texts from reporters.


Dusty Weis:

Alex Lasry relives the moment when he realized that his team contending for a world title in basketball, wasn't interested in playing basketball anymore. Plus CBS Sports Senior Editor, Andrew Julian adds some much needed context to the story.


Andrew Julian:

Basically the entire sports world jumped behind the NBA and said, "You know what? We're also going to take the day off."


Dusty Weis:

That's all coming up in a minute, here on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. In the summer of 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks were a leading contender to win the NBA title. The team had a new ownership group, including Alex Lasry who we talked to in the first part of the episode. And they had invested in some transformative policies, to the benefit of my home city of Milwaukee and it's traditionally discriminated against minority population. And then following the police shooting of a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the blood bath of backlash that followed. The Milwaukee Bucks walked off the court and potentially walked away from their bid at a world title. It's an unprecedented move in the history of the NBA, but you shouldn't take my word for it. I barely know squat about basketball. So I'm bringing in a ringer.


Andrew Julian:

We're here talking about some of the heaviest news from when I've been at CBS. So I'm glad to get into that because it's important stuff to talk about.


Dusty Weis:

Andrew Julian is a senior editor at CBS Sports. He's also an old colleague and friend of mine from the time that I spent working at WIODAM in Miami. And he is the very best at what he does. And so the context that he brings to the story is invaluable, not just as a sports expert, but as a black man who knows what was going through the minds of some of those men out on the basketball court. And he says that context starts with the other unprecedented events of 2020, the summer of Black Lives Matter, yes. But also the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the NBA to go to extreme lengths to finish their season and crown a world champion after games were indefinitely postponed in March.


Andrew Julian:

We were all sort of living in our own bubbles as healthily as we kind of tried to be, but it was this weird thing to be masked every single time you opened the door and then you're watching television and nobody's wearing one. So it's like the normal thing. So it was very jarring in that way. And we had to make a lot of adjustments because things were very different.


Dusty Weis:

You're covering sports that don't necessarily look like sports even while you're working from home. And I don't think that there was anything else quite so strange as the solution that the NBA settled on to finish the NBA season and particularly the playoffs. The bubble down in Orlando, Florida. But can you recap for us,, how did the bubble work and how did they conduct their business during that time?


Andrew Julian:

What the league basically decided was, we have no way to keep COVID out of somewhere unless we isolate everybody. So they got selected team personnel, all of the players, and they only took about two thirds of the league down to Orlando and said, "Okay. We're going to have the last bit of the regular season. And then we're just going to play the playoffs. Once you're out of the playoffs, you gotta go home." And it was incredible because in addition to having the regular league personnel, they also isolated all of the hotel personnel and the cooking personnel and the barbers and all of the kinds of support personnel inside of the bubble. And it was effective in keeping COVID largely out of the bubble. I think there may have been a handful of cases that got in, but there was no outbreak. And they were able to finish the playoffs as safely, I think, as they could have in a pre vaccination time.


Dusty Weis:

But while it enabled the games to go on, life in the bubble was a radical departure from the norm for players in the NBA.


Andrew Julian:

Isolation is sort of the key thing, right? There's no family down there. From a player's perspective, it's you, the team, the coaches and the trainers. I mean, that's who you know that's down there. And it's almost like a summer camp feel. They're sort of each other at the mess halls and their hotels. So you're isolated with people who are going through something very similar to you. And then you go back to earlier in the year with George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. And you're in the middle of this Black Lives Matter summer. So all of this is happening and you have this predominantly black league, and then the shooting happens in Kenosha. And it felt like there was just gasoline poured on a fire, emotionally. As a news professional who had sort of transitioned out of news because I didn't want to cover that kind of thing. It struck me. As a person who was going through this in my isolation bubble during COVID, as these marches and demonstrations have been going on all summer, it affected me like that.


Andrew Julian:

As an African-American male, who could have been any of these people just walking down the street or minding my own business or sitting in the car. That could have... So all of that context builds to this moment. And I think it was an extremely powerful statement for the Bucks to say, "Not today. Just not today."


Sports Announcer:

Welcome to Box Basketball. Jim Passkey, Marcus Johnson, Zuora Stevenson. We have breaking news from Walt Disney World in Lake Bueno Vista, Florida. The Orlando Magic took the court before, what is to be game five this afternoon. The Milwaukee Bucks did not...


Andrew Julian:

The Magic were, shoot around. They're on the court, getting loose and there's nobody on the other side of the court getting loose. So we found out in real time, like the rest of the world found out. And I sort of remember the shock. "Okay, what do we do now? What's going to happen next?" And from a newsy standpoint, I was working the night that Rudy Gobert for the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID and the NBA stopped. So we had at least that much of a playbook for, "Everything is fine right now." And then, "Oh, wait a second. Everything is not fine. We have to pivot immediately to games stopping." And so from a technical standpoint, we had had that experience over a year. So we knew how to sort of scramble the troops and make sure that we could cover everything. But it was just shocking and stunning.


Dusty Weis:

And Andrew wasn't the only one caught flat footed by the walk-off. Alex Lasry's family had promised Milwaukee a championship when they bought the team five years earlier. Now here they were, with a three to one series lead over Orlando, the chance to advance in the playoffs with a win. And the players were nowhere to be found. What was the first indicator that you had that the team was not going to take the court?


Alex Lasry:

When I turned on the TV and the team wasn't on the court. My buddy was coming over to watch the game with me. I had talked with our GM John Horace, I'd talked with my dad and the team had then decided like, "No, we're not doing this." I hadn't even had the game on yet and I'm getting texts from reporters. And that to me was again, how this wasn't something that was just super planned.


Dusty Weis:

Right. I mean, here, you've just spent years of your life pouring your heart and soul into building this team out. Team has a chance to advance in the playoffs and they won't take the court. Knee-jerk reaction. Isn't that kind of a nightmare scenario right there?


Alex Lasry:

Look I think for us. It wasn't like this was the first incident, right? There was George Floyd. Before that there was Brianna Taylor, there was Sterling Brown getting tasered. One of our players, five years before that. These police shootings had been happening for a while. And I think then it happening in our backyard was kind of the culmination of, something needs to change. The dynamic needs to change. I think our knee jerk reaction was, "Okay. You guys want to do this, like we're behind you."


Dusty Weis:

So the team leadership, some of whom were onsite in Orlando and some of whom were remote, like Alex due to the COVID protocols told the team, "No pressure, guys. We hear you." And the team hunkered down together in the locker room and just talked about what they were feeling. And after a few hours, they called members of the media in and read a statement that they had crafted together.


Bucks Players:

Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we've seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha. And the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action so our focus today can not be on basketball.


Bucks Players:

When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard. And in this moment, we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement.


Dusty Weis:

Put yourself in a team owners, a team managers head for a moment. Isn't there a worst case scenario than having the opportunity to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals and having your team refuse to take the court? In the world of sports, is there just cynically a worst thing that could happen to you as a team owner?


Andrew Julian:

Sure, if something tragic happening, your team's saying, "I'm not going to play" is probably the worst thing.


Dusty Weis:

But Andrew Julian, Senior Editor at CBS Sports notes, "That's not what happened here." You see by the rule book, the Bucks forfeited the game by refusing to take the court. But when they finally found out what was happening, the Orlando Magic refused to accept the forfeit, setting off a historic chain reaction.


Andrew Julian:

Basically the entire sports world jumped behind the NBA and said, "You know what? We're also going to take a day off." The NHL stop playing for a couple of days. Major League Baseball, stopped playing for a couple of days. And it was all on the one hand, take some of the attention away from the games and say, "Okay, why would the players be upset?" And for something hitting as close to home, as the Kenosha shooting for the Milwaukee Bucks, for a team that was making a championship run. I mean, there were outpourings of support from players. And leagues were forced to say something, teams were forced to say something, ownership was forced to say something. And I'm sure some of these organizations were genuinely on the side of the Bucks. And I'm sure that some of them weren't. But to a team to a lead, it was, "All right, let's talk about this. Let's figure this out. Let's go through what these men are feeling and why this hits so close to home. And given the context of this summer, talk about why this is important to stop, and then talk about these systemic issues."


Alex Lasry:

And then you saw the NFL starting to put out statements saying, "Let's pass the George Floyd Act." When, two years before that they were blacklisting a player from being able to fly. And I think you just saw how quickly things change, at least in the sports world because of what the Bucks did and showing like, "Hey, there is a right side of history to be on, there's the right thing to do." And while we are a sports team and we are an organization, we also have a responsibility to try to make our state and our world a better place. There's a platform that sports teams have. And I've always tried to say, "Look, sports has always been a place where they've pushed for change."


Dusty Weis:

You touched on this briefly, but I think it's worth hitting again that even five, 10 years ago if something like this had happened, the reaction from the league certainly could have been entirely different. I mean, you tweeted at the time, "Some things are bigger than basketball. I'm really proud of our guys." But can you envision a scenario in which alternate reality this happens to a different team or in a different timeline, where the team leadership came back and said something to the effect of, "We sympathize with the players feelings, but they have a job to do and it's time to get back to work." And didn't afford them the space and the platform that you did. And if so, how do you think that would have gone over? What would the next week have looked like in the NBA, if that had been the reaction?


Alex Lasry:

Look, I'm not going to speak to or hypothesize on what another ownership group may or may not have done or what another team may or may not have done. I can speak to how we felt. Man, throughout the summer before we got into the bubble. There were marches, there were protests. I think we were one of the first ownership groups to march with our players, after George Floyd and Brianna Taylor shootings. So, I think for us, we've always said, "Hey, guys, we support you. We want to make sure that we're able to help in any way we can." Because of the stuff we believe in as well. Right? It's got to be all of us together. And hopefully, what we showed is that even as a business, standing up for what's right, is the right thing to do.


Dusty Weis:

I want to push just a little bit deeper on that though, because I think that you're underselling what a rock in the pond sort of a moment that that was. Where the little waves that Bucks management made in your response, gave way to bigger waves when the Orlando Magic refused to accept the forfeit. And then the entire league stepped out and then Major League Soccer stepped out, and then Major League Baseball teams stepped out. I don't think most people are on the frontlines of a moment in history, the way that you guys were outside that locker room and where you were in that place at time.


Alex Lasry:

Yeah. I mean, look to me, it's about what the players decided to do, right? It's about how they decided to use their voice. It's what the WNBA players were doing, even before we boycotted the game. It's what the activists and people on the ground were doing even before we did that. For us, supporting them was not even a question. This was something that we were behind 110% from the start, because we knew how important this was. And so I think for me, the way I look at it I think the way the Bucks management looked at it is we supported them but the people who did something, are the activists, are the players and that's what we're so proud of. At the end of the day people wanted to see, "Okay, what did George Hill want to say? What did Giannis want to say? What did Chris Middleton?"


Dusty Weis:

So the leagues and the professional sports world were pushed to a reckoning by the Milwaukee Bucks wildcat walkout. But the sports world goes beyond the players and coaches and managers and includes fans. And I've sat in the stands next to some of those sports fans and watch them react to the players pleas for social justice. Enough to know that there's still far too many who don't get it. But did the Milwaukee Bucks walk off help, at all? I put that question to CBS Senior Editor Andrew Julian.


Andrew Julian:

A genius, legendary man, a million times smarter than me once said, "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." So incremental stuff like that will happen person to person over time. Because, I don't want to give people too much credit. But a lot of times empathy has to be learned. And sometimes you don't feel it unless it's your neighbor. If it doesn't affect you, then it doesn't exist. And I think there's an ambivalence that comes with that, as it relates to racism in America and how when issues of race are brought up in the sports realm, they get dismissed and shot down. It's really easy to say, for somebody who chooses not to be empathetic or somebody who chooses to ignore what statement players are trying to make. Why are these pampered millionaires just being babies? These pampered millionaires weren't always pampered millionaires. These pampered millionaires used to be regular people in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So it's a visceral thing to say. But when so many of those NBA players saw what happened, they saw the same thing that I saw.


Andrew Julian:

They didn't say, "Oh, I get to sit up here in my NBA chair, and I work for CBS Sports." I didn't get to say that. I got to watch that. In the same way, we got to experience the George Floyd video. That was me. His knee was on my neck. I got shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Because it's such a normalized in the United States part of our lived experience. And then to know that there are people who are cheering for you because you're wearing a shirt they like, in a city they're from, who aren't listening and don't want to listen, and wants to turn off your experience because it's not their experience.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and I think it's remarkable in that respect that the team, there was no hedging. There was no sort of PR spin put on it. They're like, "These guys need a moment. We're cool with that. We've got their backs." There was no, "They're professionals and we expect them to go to work and do their jobs." There was no, "Okay. Take a day and then let's get back to it tomorrow." It was, "We don't know what's going on either. We're cool with it. Take all you need." Historically speaking, would that have happened even 10 years ago, 20 years ago?


Andrew Julian:

I would say it definitely wouldn't have happened even four or five years ago in the NBA. I think it would absolutely not have happened that way in the NFL. I'm going to go, but you're talking about cynicism for a second. It's very, very easy for the NBA and the NBA Board of Governors, the ownership groups from 30 teams, to have gotten on board with what the Bucks did. From a PR standpoint, from a moment in history, from a moment in that year standpoint. It was very, very easy for the league to say publicly, "Yes, we agree with what the Bucks did because of the moment." I go back to Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers situation.


Dusty Weis:

For those of you who need a refresher, Donald Sterling was the owner of the LA Clippers NBA team. As the capstone on a career of accusations of racism about which the NBA did little to nothing. In 2014, Sterling's girlfriend leaked damning audio of a spat they had.


V. Stiviano:

If I had black people on my Instagram and it bothers you.


Donald Sterling:

Yes, it bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people. You could sleep with him, you could bring him in, you could do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it.


Dusty Weis:

The NBA vacillated for a few days and then ultimately read the room, fined Sterling two and a half million dollars and banned him for life.


Andrew Julian:

Now the Clippers wore their warm ups inside out so they didn't have the logo. And they took them all off at the same time and threw them down on the court. But they played, a man wasn't paralyzed in Donald Sterling situation. But pulling back the curtain in that kind of arena on Donald Sterling, put the league in a position where they were forced to grow. Because they had to publicly acknowledge this man repeatedly over years and years saying racist things. And then he was the owner of this basketball team where almost all of the players he employed are black men, and he's saying these things specifically about black men. So the league was forced to take a stand on that. And they took a different stance than the NFL did in the wake of Colin Kaepernick. And so they had to live up to that, even if some of the Board of Governors or some in the league offices didn't necessarily see it that way.


Andrew Julian:

So my cynicism about that is, "Well, yes, that's what came out and was said." But the possibility to me still is very real that their hand was forced. But if their hand was forced, the NBA wound up on the right side of history anyway, right?


Dusty Weis:

And so Andrew says here that, "Yes, it was the right move for the Bucks and league to back their players when they walked out." And yes, it earned them the ire of some fans and even the tweeter in chief and the Fox News crowd at the time. But also, yes, it was the league's only move, and they didn't really have a choice given the context of the moment. So yes, historically, it's remarkable. But it's also remarkable that it took us so long to get to the point where being moral and decent was the bare minimum that you could do in civilized society. And that's why, as a white guy, I'm always grateful to Andrew for his patience and his willingness to explain the context to a guy like me. You and I had talked about a month before this whole thing went down, with Kenosha in the NBA bubble and all that. And you actually provided some really important insight for another episode that I was working on at the time, that dealt with a lot of these same issues. And this is not a podcast about race. But race is in everything including public relations and marketing. And so sometimes we talk about race, because it's important thing to talk about.


Dusty Weis:

But at the time, we had a long talk and you told me some of what was stewing in your head. What a tough summer it was for you personally as a black man. And so I've got to ask you, when those players refused to take the court, and when the entire sports world rallied to the cause, and sports went on strike for the better part of a week. How did that feel to you? Did that help and did you find hope in that? Did you find positivity in that? Did you find cynicism in that? Did you find a whole mess of those things?


Andrew Julian:

Outside of work, I found myself centering my feelings on the NBA players. So many of whom are my age. And so many of whom know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody who has been in a situation like... who's been affected by racism. When I say affected by racism... I mean, all of us are affected by racism on a daily basis. But the lead story in the six o'clock news shot by a cop type of racism. And so my first thought was, "Oh, my gosh, these boys get to rest. Just for a couple of days." I know that they're grown men, I know that they're millionaires. But I had these conversations a lot with black friends throughout last summer. "Are you okay? Just turn off the Twitter for a couple of days, just try and rest." And I was hopeful that those men could just get some rest.


Andrew Julian:

The most indelible image tied to the NBAs response, and the aftermath of the Bucks walking out the wildcat strike, was a few nights later in the Denver Nuggets games. Jamal Murray's were 50 points and he was asked by the post-game reporter, I think it was on TNT. Just what he was feeling after this week after everything that had happened. And he just, he couldn't speak. And he looked like he was about to cry. And he just pointed to his shoes and said, "These shoes mean a lot to me." And then TV cuts to the shoes and you can see Mr. Floyd's face on the side of shoes. And he was asked another question. And he leans over. It was hands on his knees just to collect himself. There were so many moments I had like that, last summer. And so many moments where I've had like that in my regular life. And every black male I know, black woman I know, black person I know, has had moments like that. Where it's just, "Oh, that was a lot. And that's going to be a lot tomorrow. And it's going to keep being a lot."


Andrew Julian:

But to see that. I've never felt closer to the NBA personally than when I saw that. And you know, I've been in NBA locker rooms. But I've never personally felt closer to the people in the NBA because it was just so honest.


Dusty Weis:

But even with moments like that, even with protests and news coverage and everything that happened, Andrew worries that the messages of social justice are already getting lost today. Just a year removed from the Black Lives Matter summer.


Andrew Julian:

Those playoffs I think will be more remembered for happening in Orlando, and LeBron winning with the Lakers than they will be for the Bucks walking out. But I think it is on the storytellers, and the people who care about and wants to put issues of race, issues of justice and talk about these things in sporting arenas. And talk about how they affect the people who come into these arenas, and then talk about how they affect the games themselves and talk about how they affect the economics of the game and the perception of the game, the perception of the people playing it. Those people keep the story alive. And those people provide the historical context. Those are the people who are the ones who say, "Yeah, Cassius Clay but then Muhammad Ali said, "No Vietcong ever do anything to me. No Vietcong ever kicked me out a restaurant... wouldn't let me eat a restaurant, said I had to sit in a back of a bus. Why am I going to go 8000 miles across the world to kill some other poor people, when I'm poor home." By that time he was an Olympic champion, famous boxer.


Andrew Julian:

But you get what he's saying about that. And then he gave it up. He went to jail and gave up the World Heavyweight title. Social justice and race are inextricable from sport, because sport is simply a reflection of the society that we live in or that was built before we got here. And, in the West is supported by racial caste systems and hierarchies that have existed since ships with slaves came over here 500, 600 years ago.


Dusty Weis:

And on that matter, Andrew Julian and Alex Lasry, Vice President of the Milwaukee Bucks, are in agreement.


Alex Lasry:

I think the impact that that had on the sports world was huge in on the world in general. But again, I think what we still need to figure out is, how do we turn that into real change? I think the conversation has moved, which is good. But how do we now turn that into public policy? And that's what then we decided to do with again, something like our Bucks Vote initiative. Trying to discuss and educate and tell people, "Hey, this isn't just about the presidency. This is about your DA races. This is about your sheriff's races, about your mayoral races, city council races." Those are all things that have as big an impact on racial and social justice and police reform, as the presidency or a Senate race.


Dusty Weis:

And in fact, when Wisconsin governor Tony Evers called a special session of the legislature to immediately take up policing reforms in the wake of the Bucks protests.


News Reporter:

In just a matter of seconds, both the Assembly and Senate galved in a special session by Governor Evers, and then promptly delayed action on police reform legislation.


Wisconsin Legislator:

Today is September 3rd, all in favor say aye.


Dusty Weis:

Republicans who control the legislature told their members, "Don't even bother showing up guys." They just went ahead and gambled and then immediately gambled out of session, throwing it right back in everyone's face that they didn't think that it was an important enough issue to take out.


Alex Lasry:

And no matter how much light we shined on it. I mean, boycotting a basketball game is a pretty big step to take. And boycotting a playoff game is an even bigger step. And that still couldn't get Republicans in the legislature to take this seriously. And so I think now the question is, great, we've done that. What can now we do? How can we bring real change and some results to ensure that this stuff doesn't happen?" And if it does, there are consequences for when it does happen.


Dusty Weis:

Is that what lit a fire under you to get out and run for US Senate seat? Because I'll say this, I'm kind of a news junkie. I get the feeling that you are too. I watch what's happening in Washington right now in particularly in the Congress. And I look at that and say, "Why would any sane, rational person want to go be a part of that?" And here you are, you're running for US Senate.


Alex Lasry:

Look, I've always seen from when I worked on the Hill to the White House, working on the DNC convention and just being involved in politics, my entire adult life. I've seen the good that government can do, when you have the right people in office, have the right people working in government. It can do a lot of good, and it can have a meaningful impact on people's lives, sometimes in ways that we can't see or aren't always on the news. And I think that's one of the frustrating things that I see is, we see a lot of talk, but we're not seeing a lot of results. And I think that's something that I constantly see from politicians all the time. It's, when you've got good ones, they get results done. When you've got people who are more interested in Twitter and being on meet the press or something like that, then actually doing the job.


Alex Lasry:

And I think that's one of the things that I wanted to run for was, to actually be able to go accomplish police reform, to be able to do stuff on racial and social justice, to take the model that we use in creating 1000s of good paying union jobs, and making that a national model. And that's why I decided to do this.


Dusty Weis:

If you want to learn more about Alex Lasry senate candidate, we talked for more than 15 minutes about his candidacy. And I'll be dropping the whole thing as a bonus episode next week. So tune in for that. He's got some great insights on political time strategy in this tumultuous time. But we still haven't finished the story of the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks. Because after about a week of using their platform to advocate for change in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting. The Black Lives Matter summer ended, and the league did return to finish the NBA Playoffs. The Bucks bested Orlando and advanced to the conference semi-finals, where they were then upset by the Miami Heat. And the 2020 season ended there for them. But this year, in case you missed it.


Sports Announcer:

It's over. The Bucks have done it. The long wait has ended after a half century, the Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions once again.


Dusty Weis:

And in case there's any doubt, Alex Lasry and the team fully expects to repeat as world champions in 2022.


Alex Lasry:

I mean, that's the goal. I actually, I think we're just as good if not better than we were last year from a talent perspective. Once you win a championship, that guys have a different kind of swagger and a different kind of confidence. And so I think you're gonna see guys like Giannis, Drew, Chris, pick another step, right? I don't even know if we even think Giannis can, but there's another level for Giannis to get to. There's another level for Chris and Drew to get to. We've got about a seven year championship window. That's pretty great. Now, we got to just have a couple things break our way and we'll be repeating.


Dusty Weis:

And I'll say this, too. Maybe my favorite thing about this team is the character of the guys who make it up. What is it about guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Middleton, Bobby Portis that make them so iconic, not just as basketball players but as Milwaukeeans.


Alex Lasry:

It starts from the top, right? Giannis is someone who leads by example, right? He's not the loudest, he's not going to be the showiest. But he's going to be the first one in the gym, the last one to leave.


Dusty Weis:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who's now an NBA MVP, a world champion and a global phenomenon. It bears repeating, he came to this country as an NBA Rookie, as an immigrant with black skin, who barely spoke any English. And Andrew Julian says, "No discussion about the Bucks and their racial justice walkout is complete without mentioning that fact."


Andrew Julian:

Even though he wasn't necessarily at the forefront of the players on the Bucks talking about it when they read that statement. Again, think about the context in which that man's name is Giannis Antetokounmpo. And then how he gets to Milwaukee, because basketball saves him from poverty. In a country that his parents weren't born in. The whole thing is full of that.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and as you said, it is inherent upon the storytellers to make sure that all of this is framed and discussed in the proper historic context going forward. And certainly as the senior editor at CBS Sports, heavy is the head as they say, but that is a privilege and a responsibility, and frankly, a scary responsibility that falls on your shoulders. And I couldn't think of any better shoulders for that to rest on. So thanks for doing what you do. And thanks for making time to chat with us here. Because I know that talking about this is not only professional, it's deeply personal to you. And you're baring a little piece of your soul every time that you do it. So thanks for sharing that with us, man.


Andrew Julian:

Thanks very much. And I appreciate the platform and the opportunity to not only share the experience, but you mentioned storytelling. I got in to this sort of racket thinking. I would love to be the framer of some sports history things. But thinking of it in terms of, what's the difference between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? And how do we frame that in historical context because I like data. But having the opportunity to do something like this is more meaningful to me as much as I do love coming through quarterback ratings from individual games they played against each other in 2006.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Special thanks to Alex Lasry and Andrew Julian for helping me tell this one. And thanks to you for staying with us for the whole ride. We tell these stories not to make anyone feel guilty or bad about themselves, but to make them feel motivated to build a better world. This is also going to wrap it up for season two of this podcast. Lead Balloon will be back in 2022 with more new episodes, but in the meantime we've got a new podcast project that we are launching here at Podcamp Media, about which we are very excited. It is going to be hosted by the inimitable Larry Kilgore III, who does dialogue editing for this podcast including this episode. And we will be announcing details about his new project in just a matter of weeks. All that is to say, I don't want you to miss any of this. You can subscribe to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app, for other tales from the trenches of marketing and PR. Follow Podcast Media on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to learn more.


Dusty Weis:

And if this episode struck a chord with you, please take a moment. Share it with a friend or colleague, who you think also needs to hear it. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Our new podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Where we work with brands all over North America. Click the link in the show description to sign up for our e-newsletter, and you'll get an invite to our grand opening next spring. By which point I sincerely fricking hope that we can have a big Hootenanny without needing to be concerned about COVID. So stay tuned for that. And until next time, folks, thanks for taking this ride with us. Once again. I'm Dusty Weis.



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