LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Black players were next to white players. Coaches from one team were next to their compatriots from the opposing side. Many locked arms with the man next to them, some shut their eyes tightly, a few including LeBron James briefly raising a fist into the air or pointing skyward.
The NBA had a strong, powerful re-opening night message.
When it comes to demanding change, the league stands united — and Thursday, the four teams that played on the first night of the league’s restart showed that by not standing.
They were unprecedented images for the league in unprecedented times: The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans knelt alongside one another during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” their way of joining the chorus of those demanding racial justice and equality in society. In the second game Thursday, James’ Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers did the same thing during the anthem preceding their matchup.
“Tonight we witnessed sober, powerfully moving and heartfelt demonstrations by our players of their commitment to the pursuit of justice,” National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts tweeted moments after the anthem preceding the Lakers-Clippers game ended. “Very proud.”
The NBA has a rule that dates back to the early 1980s decreeing that players must stand for the national anthem, and Commissioner Adam Silver quickly announced that the policy is being adjusted. The anthems were pre-recorded: Jon Batiste performed the one before Pelicans-Jazz, the Compton Kidz Club had the task before Clippers-Lakers.
“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,” said Silver, who watched from a plexiglass-enclosed suite because he has not been quarantined and therefore cannot be around players and coaches who are living inside the NBA’s so-called bubble at Walt Disney World.
The coaches, first New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry and Utah’s Quin Snyder and then the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers, were next to one another, their arms locked together. The scenes, which occurred with the teams lined up along the sideline nearest where “Black Lives Matter” was painted onto the court, were the first of what is expected to be many silent game-day statements by players and coaches who will kneel to call attention to many issues — foremost among them, police brutality following the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.
The NBA season was suspended March 11 when Rudy Gobert of the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus and became the first player in the league with such a diagnosis.
On Thursday, he became the first player to score in the NBA’s return to the court. He sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap a 14-point, 12-rebound and three-block performance, giving the Jazz a 106-104 victory over the Pelicans.
New Orleans, which led for most of the game and by as many as 16 points, nearly pulled out the victory as time expired when Brandon Ingram’s 3-point shot rimmed out in a bitter end to his 23-point night.
Zion Williamson, who missed nearly two weeks of practice after leaving the team for a family medical matter on July 16, was deemed fit to start, although his playing time was limited. He scored 13 points in just more than 15 minutes.
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