Last summer, before his team’s playoff game against the Orlando Magic, Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks, started receiving text messages from reporters: The players were in the locker room, staging a walkout in protest of the shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.
“The team wanted to make sure by doing this, this wasn’t going to be just boycotting a game,” said Lasry, who reached out to the state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general on the players’ behalf. “What can we do to actually make a statement and try to effect some positive change?”
Now Lasry, a 33-year-old Democrat who worked in the Obama White House, is running for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Republican Ron Johnson. But as the son of a billionaire and a former Goldman Sachs banker, he has drawn criticism from both sides. During a recent interview with The Washington Post, Lasry talked about his decision to seek office in the battleground state, why pro teams should not stick to sports and how the Bucks have navigated matters of racial equality in what has been called “the most segregated city in America.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Did the Sterling Brown incident help open your eyes to systemic racism and unfair policing?
A: That was something that I just kind of had known. Really, it was something that hit me extremely hard just because how close I was to it and knowing Sterling and what a good guy he is. It was just something that opened the Bucks organization into being: “Okay, this is something we have to make sure that we’re speaking out on.”
Q: You have been vocal in advocating for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and how the Senate must pass that. But what does reimagined policing look like to you?
A: One of the things that we need to really think about is, have we asked the police to do too much? Do we always need an armed officer arriving at a situation that may escalate something? And how we make sure that the police and the community feel connected that there’s this trust and bond.
Q: How has the team’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement played out in Milwaukee?
A: I think the city really rallied around our team and that message that we were trying to promote. All we were trying to do was support the activists and people who are on the ground and doing this every day, and make sure we’re able to give [them] more visibility and a louder microphone. Hopefully what we were able to show is that being on the right side of history isn’t actually bad for business.
Q: Do pro sports teams have a responsibility to get involved in social justice movements or politics?
A: Sports has always been a way to move society forward, whether it’s boycotting the Olympics or Muhammad Ali, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics. Some of our greatest civil rights heroes are athletes: Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Now you’re seeing that same thing. People who have a large microphone and are able to command the presence, like LeBron [James] or Chris Paul — it’s great what they’re doing.
Q: You mentioned how embracing social justice movements hasn’t hurt business. But the NBA Finals ratings were down last year. Did having “Black Lives Matter” on the court impact the NBA’s business?
A: I don’t think so. If you look across sports, this summer was just tough for ratings. I think baseball’s were down, football’s were down. I just think it was a tough, anomaly of a summer. What the league was actually able to do with putting “Black Lives Matter” on the court was something that was even more powerful. It in a way normalized a saying that shouldn’t have been controversial. You see a league putting “Black Lives Matter” on the court, that’s going to have a profound and a good effect on generations of people who are watching.
Q: George Hill sparked the player walkout, and you two canvassed Milwaukee neighborhoods to urge residents to get out and vote in November. He was traded, though, and in January, he implied that he thought his activism led to the team’s decision to trade him. What’s your reaction to Hill’s comments?
A: I don’t think that’s what he was referring to. I obviously don’t want to speak for George. George is a friend, and we couldn’t have been more proud of the moral voice and center he was for that team. Basketball is a tough business. George has been around for a while; everyone’s been in it. Trades happen, but George is someone that we love, still love. In a lot of ways, what he did was more important than what he did on the court.
Q: Your critics often talk about your age and your last name. But you are a young New Yorker who holds liberal views. So how do you feel connected to the people of Wisconsin? Particularly in places such as Jefferson or Dodge County, which are near Milwaukee but voted for Trump?
A: For me, this is my home. What we’ve been able to see — when I’ve traveled to places like Baraboo or spoke to people in Dodge County, or even going into Rusk County and talking with people there — they care about things getting done. And making sure that wages are being able to be raised or that jobs and investment can come back to this state. That we’re able to get broadband across the state. There are real issues that people are talking about, but people don’t feel like they have a voice.
Q: In light of the country’s racial reckoning, and what you’ve said about giving a louder microphone to people who may not have had that before, did you ever consider identifying and helping to fund a Black candidate to run for Senate in Wisconsin?
A: For me when I look at this race, I wanted to get in because I thought I could be the person who could be the best senator. And I thought I could bring something unique and different to the race. And so, for me, this is about trying to make sure we’re able to have someone who’s not only able to beat Ron Johnson but give [Wisconsin Democratic Sen.] Tammy Baldwin a partner in D.C. With my background and what we’ve actually accomplished at the Bucks, I thought I could bring a unique and different perspective to the race.
Q: You worked in the White House. Did you ever ball with Obama?
A: (Laughs) I did not. There was a staff game that I played in every week, but I never got into the president’s game. I think he always said he liked playing with guys who were better than him, and so I think that’s probably why I wasn’t able to get into that game.