The Toronto Raptors rode into Orlando on a bus painted with the words Black Lives Matter, and have ensured that message is heard ever since.
It’s written on their masks, a necessary accessory that comes from playing basketball amid a global pandemic. It’s the through line present in every interview and media availability. It was on the backs of their jerseys when they set foot on the court for their restart opener against the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night, and it was conveyed even louder as they knelt in silence during the playing of the Canadian and American national anthems.
“I tip my hat off to the Lakers and their organization for staying down there with us during the Canadian anthem,” Raptors star Kyle Lowry told reporters after the game when asked about the team’s decision to kneel. “To be down there for four straight minutes …to think about another human being kneeling on another human being’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s a bad thought to have, an unbelievable messed up thing that that man did to an innocent Black man.
“Those are the things that went through my head. I tip my hat to our organization, to the Lakers organization, for allowing us to protest peacefully and continue to push our message.”
The human being Lowry is referencing, tragically, is famous. His name was George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death, along with the deaths of Breonna Taylor — who was fatally shot by Louisville police in her apartment — and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot by armed white residents in a South Georgia neighbourhood, and the countless others whose final moments were not captured on video sparked a nationwide reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism. NBA players marched alongside citizens in protests and vowed to ensure basketball’s return would not take the spotlight away from much-needed change.
Since games returned this week, peacefully protesting by kneeling during the national anthem, an act pioneered by former NFLer Colin Kaepernick, has occurred in each game held within the NBA bubble so far.
“Kaep was someone who stood up when times weren’t comfortable, when people didn’t understand, when people refused to listen to what he was saying,” Lakers superstar LeBron James said recently. “If you go back and listen to his post-game interviews when he was talking about why he was kneeling, it had absolutely nothing to do with the flag.
“It had absolutely nothing to do about the soldiers, the men and women that keep our land free. He explained that, and the ears were closed. People never listened. They refused to listen. I did. A lot of my people in the Black community did listen.”
Prior to the bubble, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was the last NBA player who decided not to stand during the anthem. He did so in 1996, and was suspended one game. To say a lot has changed would be a disservice to the seismic ways the world has shifted since.
This time, the league has supported its players decision to advocate for a cause bigger than basketball. On Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he would not enforce a “long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem” because of “these unique circumstances.”
“It’s a big statement,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said after Saturday’s game against the Lakers. “I think we just wanted to treat it [kneeling for both anthems] as one. You know, our problems in the States might be a little bit deeper than what we deal with in Canada, but I think speaking with Chris Boucher and Oshae [Brissett] and some of our Canadian staff members, [we] just want to acknowledge that it does exist everywhere and we’re going to stand against it whether we be in the States or in Canada.
“…I think that was just an act of solidarity to stand against all types of racism all over the world.”