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For the NBA, it’s time to play, kneel and demand change

UPDATED: Wed., July 29, 2020

A basketball court is shown at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmee, Fla., on July 21. The NBA’s marketing motto for the restart of the season at Walt Disney World is “Whole New Game,” and that is true in many respects.  (Associated Press)
A basketball court is shown at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmee, Fla., on July 21. The NBA’s marketing motto for the restart of the season at Walt Disney World is “Whole New Game,” and that is true in many respects. (Associated Press)
By Tim Reynolds Associated Press

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Miami center Bam Adebayo did not know Breonna Taylor. He never heard of the woman who worked as an emergency room technician and had designs on becoming a nurse, a homeowner, a wife, a mother. Never knew anything about her.

That is, until she died.

Not a day goes by now where he doesn’t say her name.

With the return of NBA basketball, players and coaches are determined to ensure they use this opportunity and their platform to make strong statements at a time when the demand for racial equality is as loud as it has been in generations.

“What happened to Breonna Taylor could have happened to me because of the color of our skin,” Adebayo said. “We want people to understand that Black lives do matter. We’re tired of seeing our brothers and sisters dying at the hand of police brutality for no reason. Put yourselves in our shoes. We just want to be equal. That’s it.”

The NBA shut down on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Taylor was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment two days later. The league officially restarts with two games on Thursday night. There is great anticipation in the resumption of play, but there is equal anticipation – if not more – in what players and coaches will do beyond playing the games.

None of the 22 teams at Walt Disney World have said specifically what they will do in terms of an on-court demonstration. Kneeling during the national anthem, an action that started in the NFL with Colin Kaepernick and has permeated through other sports since, is expected. Players from some teams, though none wanted to release details before games begin, said the actions will go beyond kneeling.

But with Black Lives Matter painted on the courts of the three Disney arenas and some players having considered opting out of the restart out of concerns that playing would minimize the demands for change combined with the hundreds of millions of eyeballs around the world set to watch these games, whatever the statements are they will be seen and heard globally.

It has been a constant since teams got to Disney. Coaches believe they are off to a strong start in trying to spark change and are vowing to continue. And many players have turned their media sessions into opportunities to only call for Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to order arrests of the three officers who fatally shot the 26-year-old Taylor when they burst into her apartment using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation. The warrant to search her home was in connection with a suspect who did not live there, and no drugs were found.

“We obviously have an opportunity here to continue the messaging of the social justice movement,” New Orleans guard J.J. Redick said. “I know a lot of guys have been very outspoken about Breonna Taylor and about calling attention to Daniel Cameron and what he needs to do to bring her killers to justice. I think that’s been great. The messaging on shirts, the court, it’s all great. I know, I think I’m most proud of the guys who have stepped up and started taking action on some of these things.”

LeBron James, who turned the majority of a post-scrimmage interview session into a plea for justice for Taylor earlier this month, is championing an initiative to get more people to vote in November. The league and the National Basketball Players Association are putting together a foundation where $300 million will initially be earmarked for economic empowerment in Black communities. Countless players took to the streets in protests that popped up nationwide following the deaths of Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Colin Kaepernick kneels; it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?”

The messaging will go beyond whatever happens during the national anthems. And though the NBA has had a rule in place for nearly 40 years saying that players must stand for the national anthems when they are performed before games, no one has expressed fear of repercussions of that rule right now.

“I respect peaceful protest,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday.

The overwhelming majority of players will wear a social-justice message on their jerseys for the remainder of the season, along with their names. Some will bear the word “Equality,” which will be displayed in nine different languages. Others will say “Black Lives Matter.” A few will simply say “Enough.”

James, the league’s biggest star, opted not to put a message on his jersey. He’s using his reach in other ways, including donating money to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help those in the state with felony convictions pay off fines and become eligible to vote.

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