A Basketball Friendship Became a Tag Team for Social Justice

Like the rest of the world, Natasha Cloud and Bradley Beal were watching history unfold.

They saw the Milwaukee Bucks refuse to take the court for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin, the Bucks’ home state. They saw the N.B.A. postpone the remainder of the playoff games scheduled for that night, and the next two, as more players indicated they would not play, either.

“I was surprised initially,” Beal, a Washington Wizards guard, said in a phone interview. “But at the same time, you had no other feelings but respect, joy and this mind-set of: ‘That’s the right move. It’s the only move.’

“They set the example, and the rest of the league followed,” continued Beal, who is not at the N.B.A. restart in Florida because of an injury. “That just shows how much of a league we are, how much we pride ourselves on being more than just ballplayers.”

Hours later, Cloud saw her colleagues in the W.N.B.A. follow suit, causing the postponement of two days of games. Cloud, a guard for the Washington Mystics, was not there with them because she had opted out of the season to focus on social justice after the police killings of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Kentucky, gave rise to protests against racism and police brutality around the nation.

Cloud has joined the wave of protests, as has Beal, and as have their teams, which share some facilities in Washington, D.C., and are under the same ownership group. Cloud and Beal have transformed their long friendship into a partnership of sorts, serving as the faces of a rare sisterhood-brotherhood between an N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. team. Both see their athletic careers evolving to permanently include activism.

Cloud chose not to enter the W.N.B.A.’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., amid a swirl of emotions.

“I had every emotion you could think a human being could feel — from sadness to frustration to straight rage to feeling not safe, feeling hurt, being fearful,” Cloud said. “I didn’t need to know George or Breonna or Ahmaud because we are them.”

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed in Georgia while he was out jogging in February. His death gained widespread attention because of the unrest over the Floyd and Taylor killings, leading to murder charges against three white men.

Cloud said she didn’t feel like she could give her full effort to both basketball and activism.

“When I’m with the Mystics I want to be 100 percent in, focused on winning the championship, and with the community I’m the same way,” she said. “I want to be on the front lines, I want to be in person, standing side by side with our community, letting them know I’m not only here as a public figure but I’m here as a Black woman.

“To be impactful is to be present, and that was huge for my decision.”

A shoulder injury was the impetus for Beal’s decision to opt out of the N.B.A.’s resumed season in a bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. He planned to spend the time off resting and rehabbing, but the events of this summer have taken precedence.

“I didn’t make my opt-out decision on social justice issues. I always felt like we could continue to play as well as address those issues and continue to bring about change,” Beal said, adding that “100 percent” he wanted to be there last week as the players walked out in protest of Blake’s shooting. “It has propelled my attention to want to do more and to want to be more involved.”

Cloud said that even though she opted out, she backs the W.N.B.A. players who are still competing.

“I think a lot of people when I opted out were thinking ‘she doesn’t support the women going into the bubble.’ Absolutely wrong. I completely, 100 percent support every single woman that went into that bubble and is doing their part creating and shining light on the issues we are facing in America.”

Cloud admitted to having a little bit of FOMO — a term for the fear of missing out — “because I love the game of basketball. I love our team. We just came off a championship and, especially because they’re struggling right now, it’s really hard to sit and watch and not feel like, man, if I was there I feel like I could make a little bit of a difference.

“But I’m so happy with the work I am doing socially for reform and against social injustice and inequality within our country.”

Beal credited Cloud for always being outspoken. “I’ve honestly been kind of behind her on a lot of it,” he said. “She’s way more vocal than I am. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s not afraid of backlash, and that’s what I love and respect about her.

“She’s an unbelievable ballplayer, but outside of that, whatever she’s headstrong about, she stands firm on. She speaks on it, she educates herself on it, and I think that’s big. She’s very much on the forefront of the W and giving them a voice.”

Beal and Cloud led more than 20 of their teammates and over 1,000 participants in a Juneteenth rally and have spent time in the Washington area on voter outreach, including creating videos. They’ve been speaking out on social media, and Cloud has made public appearances to discuss social justice.

“Our players see injustices, and they are calling it out,” said Ted Leonsis, chief executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards, the Mystics and several other pro sports teams. “They are helping to force a conversation.”

He added, “They understand the tremendous influence they have to inspire an evolution in hearts and minds, and create change.”

John Thompson III, who leads athlete development and engagement for Monumental Basketball, said Beal and Cloud are “extremely bright, smart and are very passionate about the times in which we live in.”

He added: “Both of them have an understanding that they have a voice, they have a platform, they can move the needle and affect people with their thoughts and their energy and they understand that they have that responsibility to do that.”

That influence has been cultivated through a unique relationship between the Mystics and the Wizards.

“Being in the most powerful city in the world, we know we have the ability to reach these politicians and these people who are able to make changes,” Beal said.

Cloud calls the synergy between the Mystics and the Wizards special. “You don’t really see a W.N.B.A. and an N.B.A. team not only working together, but who are actual friends on and off the court,” she said.

She applauded the N.B.A. players who support the women players, such as by wearing W.N.B.A. apparel and attending games.

“They do a very good job, and that’s dope, but our relationship with the Wizards runs much more deep than that,” Cloud said. “I know that in this fight for social reform, if at any point I run into a roadblock and I need Brad for something, I know that I can call him or text him and he would help me immediately without even batting an eye, and vice versa.”

The synergy also translates into mutual respect between the players.

“They are pro athletes just like us, and they demand respect just as well as we do, playing the same sport we do,” Beal said. “It’s just amazing that they don’t necessarily get that respect.”

While the N.B.A. playoffs roll on, Beal is home rehabbing, but with an eye on getting people to vote.

“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but we know that the guy in office isn’t necessarily bringing about the change that we want, so that’s our first initiative,” Beal said.

“Then we have a busload of other things that’s wrong with society, and I think that’s what’s so crazy — like what is the next step? Do you address police brutality? Do you address the education system? Do you address the financial opportunities present to communities?”

Beal said the public often puts athletes on pedestals, but they understand their role and know they are not politicians.

“There’s a lot of things we can and cannot do, but we understand what our platform is able to do and we’re just utilizing it to the best of our abilities,” he said.

Cloud said she plans to rejoin the Mystics in 2021. For now, she is focused on expanding her social justice work.

“I’m from Philadelphia, and we’re one of the worst cities right now when it comes to violence,” she said. “That just means I need to do more.

“As athletes, we always step up to the occasion, we always figure out how to adapt, so I’m really excited to get back on the court. But getting back on the court doesn’t take away my love and passion for my community. I’m trying to make sure I’m doing what I can with my God-given platform to give back and be a voice for the voiceless.”

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