Raptors championing cause for racial, social justice as NBA nears resumption

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) and head coach Nick Nurse, pictured above. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors are set to play to play their first scrimmage of the restart next Friday against the Houston Rockets, the first time they’ll play another basketball team in some form since the initial March 11 restart.

Outside of the excitement of playing real basketball – even if it’s only in exhibition form – the knowledge of scrimmages being so close also serves as notice for one of the greater altruistic goals of this NBA restart.

An important aspect to monitor of this NBA season resumption will be how the league, teams and players look to continue and further the ongoing conversation about racial and social justice.

So far, what we’ve seen from the league is a plan to have the “Black Lives Matter” slogan painted on NBA courts as well as giving players the option of replacing their names on the back of their jerseys with one of 29 league-approved social justice messages.

The latter of these two initiatives that we know of has been criticized by some players, bringing up the question if what the NBA is doing is actually enough to help champion this cause.

The jury’s still out on that one, but something that’s been near indisputable has been the job the Raptors have been doing in the lead-up to the season restarting to help keep this narrative going.

Showing up to the Walt Disney World bubble in a bus proudly emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” in giant upper-case letters, the Raptors made a statement to the rest of the NBA as the standard-bearers of the league’s important socially-conscious mission.

“It’s super intentional for endless reasons, but I think we understand our position, we understand the impact that we can have,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said on Tim and Sid Friday about his team trying to make a statement about racial justice. “The buses were great because they raise awareness and bring attention to the matter, but we’re also just as dedicated to actually making real change in the communities, whether that’s in Toronto, whether that’s in Canada, whether that’s in the U.S. So those are kind of the two paths that we’re always focused on which is always how do we continue to have the conversation be public, but also how are we working in our own communities and how are we working in our own scenes to really affect change for the long-term.

“So, hugely important to all of us, who we are as people, what we want this organization to represent, what we want this organization to be synonymous with the NBA and the world. So it’s something we deeply care about.”

The Raptors have been something of the envy of the league for what they’ve done so far to help champion the cause, drawing universal praise from players, teams and commentators alike.

And by the sounds of things, the Raptors are just getting started in this pre-games lead-up phase we’re still in. There should be expectation that the Raptors will continue to get this message out, even there’s actual basketball to discuss.

“I think the message I gave the guys today is this stuff is awesome,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said in a conference call Friday while emphatically drawing attention to the “Black Lives Matter” shirt he was wearing. “Our buses and our messaging and the coaches wearing pins and the floor and the backs of jerseys it’s awesome, but we’ve got to remember that when we started all this we were looking for some concrete, long-lasting change and really impactful things.”

Among the long-term ways Nurse is looking to impact change is an ongoing conversation he’s had with his fellow NBA head coaches about how to get people out to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Nurse has personally worked on material to educate U.S. citizens, like him, living abroad how to register to vote. He said that a PSA with information about this is set to drop sometime Friday or Saturday.

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Additionally, in those conversations with his coaching peers, Nurse said there’s been conversations to have coaches utilize the platform they’ve been afforded in their daily press conferences to get messaging across, such as what Nurse did Friday with his “Black Lives Matter” shirt.

So just because basketball games will begin to be played doesn’t mean the ongoing conversation will just suddenly stop, as long as the Raptors are concerned. They won’t allow it to happen.

The Raptors have a players sub-committee made up of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol where members of the team can go to bring up matters of racial and social justice. There’s another sub-committee with management and some of the coaching staff that includes Nurse, Wesbter and team president Masai Ujiri that can be relied upon as a resource as well.

This has created a mosaic of thought within the Raptors organization. It has given players the freedom to express their feelings on the matter of racial inequality right from the outset of this movement’s beginning, sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

It’s a probable cause why a player like Norman Powell felt comfortable criticizing the NBA’s approved list of social justice messages players can wear Thursday and why his teammate Malcolm Miller also had no problem echoing his sentiment.

“I definitely understand the NBA trying to give us a platform, give us a voice, use their platform,” said Miller. “But, at the same time, I feel like limiting the options is cookie-cutter. It’s a little bit of a censorship, almost, of what we want to say.”

Also like Powell, Miller is choosing to wear “Black Lives Matter” because he believes it’s an important movement. Unlike Powell, however, Miller doesn’t know what he’d put on the back of his jersey if given the choice, mainly because once the final list of choices was sent out, he hadn’t narrowed down what he wanted to say.

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If given the choice, the message surely would’ve been interesting. Miller is unafraid to let known where he lies socially and politically. He has intriguing perspectives as a player who played a season in Berlin and he believes seeing the kind of repentance there is necessary in the United States.

“[Berlin’s] still one of my favorite cities to go to because of the level of understanding between people, between individuals, between different races,” said Miller. “And I feel like that type of growth is what we need to start striving towards, of understanding everybody and not being selective.

“…Acknowledging what was wrong and what you did wrong and not passing it off like it was ancient history, that’s a big step. The monuments and the things that are there are acknowledgements of the mistakes they’ve made in the past, not commemorating different war generals that believed in slavery.

“Yes, I think we can definitely take some notes from that. Definitely different situations, definitely different types of oppression with certain similarities. At the same time, acknowledgement and moving forward as a country is something we need to do and we need to focus on.”

This is but one example of the wealth of knowledge the Raptors have at their disposal, and coupled with an organization that seems to encourage a diversity of thought, it’s a small wonder why Toronto has appeared to be at the forefront of the NBA’s social justice messaging.

Real basketball games are just around the corner, and while there might be some trepidation over if the Raptors can repeat as champions on the court, there shouldn’t be any about them off the court.

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