It hardly resembled the league that abruptly adjourned its season at the onset of the pandemic 141 days earlier, but the NBA made its return inside the Disney World bubble on Thursday night as every member of the Pelicans, Jazz, Clippers, and Lakers protested racism during the national anthem.
‘I hope we made [Colin Kaepernick] proud,’ LeBron James said after his Lakers’ 103-101 win over the Clippers, referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who famously protested inequality by kneeling during the anthem throughout the 2016 NFL season.
On courts emblazoned with the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ players in BLM warmups, coaches, and even officials knelt and locked arms in a demonstration that technically violated a 39-year-old league rule requiring everyone to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner.
But as NBA commissioner Adam Silver explained during Utah’s 106-104 win over New Orleans in the early game, the circumstances have changed considerably since May 25, when African-American man George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.
‘I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,’ Silver said in a statement.
All players, coaches and refs take a knee and lock arms during the national anthem before the Lakers-Clippers game. pic.twitter.com/eZ9RHE3eh7
Not only are NBA players suddenly allowed to protest during the anthem, as many NFL players have done since 2016, but league jerseys now feature social justice messages, like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Equality.’
‘It’s so important at this point for us to be unified and be able to peacefully protest many of the critical things that are going on in the country right now,’ said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
While the players appeared unified in their support of the BLM movement on Thursday, they know they face opposition, although Pelicans guard JJ Redick thinks the tide is turning in favor of social justice.
‘The majority of Americas support what is happening right now,’ Redick said after Thursday’s loss. ‘The majority of Americans want real equality, they want to end police brutality.
‘The “stick to sports” crowd, “keep politics out of sports,” all those things, they’re meaningless now,’ he continued. ‘Politics and sports coexist now. And the league has recognized that.’
And that’s not all that changed since the NBA stopped play back on March 11.
There aren’t any fans in attendance, health and safety protocols are now paramount, and teams can’t even shower in the arena after games.
But after 20 weeks of waiting, wondering and worrying, the 2019-20 NBA season is restarting with a champion scheduled to be crowned in October.
The @PelicansNBA & @utahjazz kneel for the National Anthem ahead of the NBA restart. pic.twitter.com/TCFolP06HM
The field for the 16-team playoff bracket that will be finalized next month is already largely filled – 12 of the 22 teams at Disney have clinched spots and Dallas is on the brink of another one. It leaves three teams vying for two spots in the Eastern Conference, and six teams for one spot in the Western Conference.
For the front-runners like the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and West-leading Lakers, the eight remaining games before the playoffs are about tuning up their games. For most of the other teams that have clinched berths, it’s about securing the best possible playoff seed. And for the hopefuls, it’s about finding a way to get into the field and stay at Disney at least a couple weeks longer than planned.
Starting Friday and running through August 14, there will be at least four and sometimes as many as seven games per day, spread out over a three-arena corner of the Disney complex. There will be many instances where three games are happening at once. And there will be days that have games running for more than 10 consecutive hours.
After no basketball for what seemed like forever, a hoops smorgasbord awaits.
The NBA season was suspended when Rudy Gobert of the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus and became the first player in the league with such a diagnosis. Gobert was diagnosed on March 11; two days later, Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was fatally shot when police officers burst into her Louisville, Kentucky apartment using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation. The warrant was in connection with a suspect who did not live there and no drugs were found.
Then on May 25, Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into the Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes. That happened on a street, with the images — and sounds of the man saying he couldn’t breathe, then crying out for his mother — all captured on a cell phone video.
NBA players have used their platforms — both in the bubble and on social media — to demand equality, to demand justice for Taylor. Coaches have also said it is incumbent on them to demand change and educate themselves and others. And the pregame actions by the Jazz and the Pelicans were just the start of what is expected to be a constant during the remainder of this season.
‘It’s taken a very long time to get this momentum going,’ San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said in a video that aired pregame, a project organized by both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association. ‘And it cannot be lost.’
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said he appreciated the accidental symmetry that came from the first games of the restarted season coming only hours after the funeral for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80.
Lewis spent most of his life championing civil rights and equality and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington — the one where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Gentry said he believes this movement, like the one Lewis helped spark six decades ago, will endure.
‘If you talk to some of the younger generation, I think this is here to stay. I really do,’ Gentry said. ‘I have a 20-year-old son and a 22-year-old son, and I know that they feel like this is the most opportune time for us to try to have change in this country.’