As John Henson approached the front door of a high-end jewelry store in suburban Milwaukee on Oct. 19, 2015, he noticed a police cruiser across the street. He did not think much of it until he heard the door to the store click — and he realized that someone had triggered the lock.
Henson peered through the glass at an employee who tried to shoo him away before she retreated to the back of the store. Then the police arrived.
The events of that day still affect Henson, a 6-foot-9 forward who said he had gone to the store to treat himself to a Rolex watch after signing a contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. What he received instead, he said, was a lesson in racial profiling, one that has stuck with him.
“It gives me chills,” Henson, 29, said in a telephone interview Wednesday night from his home in Tampa, Fla., “because I know I was fortunate enough to have a voice where I could say something and hold those people accountable. But had it been another African-American individual or another person of color, they’re just going be sent on their way — feeling some type of way.”
Many of those feelings resurfaced for Henson this week as he watched the Bucks lead a player-driven protest in the N.B.A.’s playoff bubble at Walt Disney World. Henson, who now plays for the Detroit Pistons, said he was not surprised to see his former teammates spur the league to postpone several playoff games in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wis., about 40 miles south of Milwaukee.
“It’s really indicative of those guys in that locker room,” Henson said. “Just making this type of noise is something that can bring awareness. At some point, it needs to be a loud enough message so that everyone says, ‘Hey, this is not OK.’ And I think this is a start.”
After the Bucks refused to play their game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Sterling Brown joined his teammate George Hill to deliver a message on behalf of the rest of the players, in which they demanded “justice” for Blake and called for the Wisconsin Legislature to “take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”
Brown, a guard, had his own alarming experience with law enforcement. In January 2018, he was tackled by Milwaukee police officers over a parking violation. Body camera footage later revealed that Brown did not appear to raise his voice or to resist the officers before they brought him to the ground and then used a stun gun on him. Brown filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
“The city of Milwaukee wanted to give me $400,000 to be quiet after the cops kneeled on my neck, stood on my ankle and tased me in a parking lot,” Brown said in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune in July. “But here’s the thing: I can’t be quiet.”
Now, Henson is moved that even more athletes are using their voices to speak out.
“The power is amazing,” he said.
Henson, who played for the Bucks from 2012 to 2018, recalled the week that changed his own perspective. After signing his contract extension in the fall of 2015, Henson called Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers in Whitefish Bay, Wis., to ask about their hours. A store employee later called 911 to report that she had fielded “a couple of suspicious phone calls” from people who “didn’t sound like they were legitimate customers,” according to an audio recording.
When Henson arrived at the store a few days later — and stood waiting outside the locked door — an employee made another 911 call.
“I am hiding in my office,” the employee said, also according to an audio recording. “I don’t want them to see me out there. We’re pretending we’re closed.”
The police arrived and questioned Henson, who explained that he was there to buy a watch, he said. One of the officers asked him about the vehicle he was driving, a Chevrolet Tahoe with dealer plates. Henson told him that the dealership had given him the truck through a business arrangement. Henson never identified himself as an N.B.A. player.
“Because I shouldn’t have needed to,” he said.
One of the officers eventually “caught on,” Henson said, and relayed a message for the store to open its doors. The employee initially refused to do so in a conversation that Henson said he overheard on the police radio. “Why do I have to come to the front door?” she asked the 911 dispatcher. “I’m not going to the front door.”
Henson went to the back entrance with the police and was allowed to enter, though he said the employee insisted that the police stay while he shopped. Henson decided to leave.
“When I got back to my car, I cried,” he said. “I had to let it out. It was something that I never thought would happen to me in this day and age. Not in the city where I played. Even now, it’s hard for me to talk about.”
The Bucks organization was highly responsive to the situation, Henson said. He met with the team’s owners, with members of the front office and with Jason Kidd, the team’s coach at the time, so that they could discuss the best way to address his experience. CNN and ABC’s “Good Morning America” were among the news media outlets that requested interviews once the incident became public.
Instead, Henson opted to make a series of appearances at Milwaukee-area schools.
“We decided that we were going to tell this story and make it an open forum,” Henson said. “We’re going to talk about what happened, and what can be done. And I think it was a great success, because we got all these high schoolers and middle schoolers to talk about their feelings, about prejudice, about how to act and treat one another.”
This week, as players inside the N.B.A. bubble in Florida weighed whether they even wanted to finish the playoffs after another police shooting, Henson said he understood the tension they were feeling.
“Because if they weren’t in that bubble, maybe the Milwaukee guys could go to Kenosha and help promote peace and nonviolent protest and maybe even help calm things down,” he said. “But they can’t, and I get that they feel stuck.”
On Wednesday, Henson got a phone call from Harrison Barnes, a close friend who plays for the Sacramento Kings. Barnes raised the idea of heading to Wisconsin to speak with various leaders, to find ways to help. Henson said he wanted to go.