It was a warm, welcome, even beautiful sight.
Before the ball went up, two teams stood in a circle, arms joined, heads bowed as The Star-Spangled Banner played. Competitors, but for the moment, brothers in arms.
That was the picture from Phoenix where the Toronto Raptors were being hosted by the Suns after yet another edition of one of the strangest 24 hours anyone’s ever seen.
It was a gesture of unity, of solidarity and maybe — just maybe — the hope that standing together can keep things from falling apart.
The plan was devised on the fly in response to the events of the day by the Raptors Kyle Lowry and the Suns' Chris Paul, who share 31 years of NBA experience and more relevantly experience as Black men and Black fathers.
“We’re strong Black men and we’re always going to continue to use our voice and our platform to make sure that our voices are heard,” said Lowry. “The things that happen in the world, we’re gonna talk about them, we’re gonna discuss them, we’re not gonna shy away from them. And it’s not pressure, it’s what we are here to do and what we can do, and we are always going to make sure our voices are heard.”
There’s a lot to say, though it’s not clear enough people are listening.
The need to make some kind of gesture started with the news Tuesday evening that a Kenosha, Wisc., police officer would not face charges in the shooting that left Jacob Blake paralyzed this past summer.
It was video of the Blake shooting in late August that proved to be the tipping point during the NBA restart, the moment when the conversation around Black Lives Matter and the social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis required action.
The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic, prompting a wave of protests and tributes across sports. It briefly appeared that the NBA season would be over. Play only resumed after a number of pledges from the league to join the players in pushing for more social change were earned.
The news that the officer who fired his weapon seven times into Blake’s back – the prosecutor’s office argued that because he was resisting arrest and reaching for a knife in his car, the officer was unlikely to be convicted – wasn’t going to face trial, hit hard.
“Man, I’m frustrated,” said Raptors guard Norm Powell. “It makes you feel like the work that you’re doing is not enough. The outcries and things from everybody around the world coming together over these issues and topics aren’t being heard.”
Around the time that Powell was speaking Wednesday afternoon, images began to emerge from Washington D.C. of insurrectionists in support of out-going president Donald Trump breaching the U.S. Capitol Building, damaging property, sending members of congress into lockdown. It got more shocking as the protesters were able to leave peacefully after a few hours, escorted to the door, without seeming consequence.
“I’m reading breaking news that there’s four dead after the rioters stormed congress,” said Lowry. “Like, what the f–––? And the man that was the president [Donald Trump] incites that, he told them to do it. That man is a criminal. He should be charged. It’s crazy. That is crazy, man. You basically told them to go do this and people died. How is that even cool?”
Unfathomable also, given the level of heavy handedness that law enforcement showed Black Lives Matter protesters over the course of the summer.
The NBA restart in the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort was in some ways a call to action; the players’ participation in part conditional on a commitment to social change.
Things move slowly.
“I grew up in this country so I’m kind of used to it and that’s not a good thing, but it’s the way things are," said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “So I’m not surprised anymore by anything. We just got to keep doing our part individually and collectively but my message to people in my life is just stay together and continue to build as best we can inside this broken system. It’s a flawed system that preys on the weak and less fortunate and spits them out. ... If you don’t know what it is by now, you probably don’t want to know what it is or you’ve just not been paying attention.”
But there are some fauna somehow growing through the cracks. Before events turned south in Washington there was a moment of triumph from the South with the news that Raphael Warnock – the leader of Ebenezer Baptist Church, former home of Martin Luther King Jr. – had become the first Black man to win a Senate seat in Georgia and in so doing helped give the Democrats control of congress for the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Warnock was an outsider who defeated a Trump-supporting incumbent Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA who was outspoken in her opposition to Black Lives Matter during her campaign.
It was the Dream and the rest of WNBA’s public and persistent support of Warnock that is credited for creating the momentum that earned him his historic victory and could end up shaping history in the coming years.
Even when things seem bleak, there’s hope.
“I think this shows that we do have some say, some power, especially when we stick together and rally up and try to make changes as best we can. We can make change,” said VanVleet. “…We can’t lose hope … I think things are going in the right direction but this is going to be hundreds or thousands of years. This is going to be a long thing and we just got to keep doing our part day by day.”
The Raptors and the Suns eventually played. There were no cancellations or postponements league wide. A number of teams took a knee for the anthem; the Raptors and Suns joined arms.
And then they went to work and for the Raptors at least there was a repetitive feel there too as they dropped their sixth game in seven starts so far this season, and their first on a four-game west coast road trip, 123-115.
The Raptors trailed the entire second half but were able to cut a 15-point Suns fourth quarter lead to six twice in the final minutes but couldn't get over the hump. Pascal Siakam led all scorers with 32 points – his highest total since he put up 33 in Phoenix in March of last season. He was supported by Kyle Lowry's 24, OG Anunoby’s 20 and Fred VanVleet's 13 points and seven assists, while Powell chipped in 13 off the bench.
But outside of that, production was sparse. Starting centre Aron Baynes was scoreless for the second-straight game and the rest of the roster contributed just 13 points.
Meanwhile, the Suns got 42 points from their bench and shot 21-of-40 from three, off-setting the Raptors, who shot 14-of-35 from deep and 50.6 per cent from the floor.
The Raptors started well but once again the game began to slip away in the third quarter as the Suns hit 8-of-10 threes on their way to a season-high 21 triples. The Raptors have now allowed opponents to shoot 52 per cent from deep in the third quarter this season and 57 per cent from the floor – both the worst marks in the league.
But as the Raptors head to Sacramento to play Friday, they have some positives to draw on. Siakam looked as quick and decisive as he has in nearly a year, which translated directly to a season-high 14 trips to the free-throw line and builds on a 22-point outing against Boston on Monday night. The Raptors outscored the Suns in the paint and in transition and held their own on the glass – all points of emphasis.
“We can’t do anything about them ones we already dropped,” said VanVleet as the Raptors try to weather their worst start in 14 years. “If you look at this as an isolated game tonight it’s a lot to build on, a lot of positives. … I liked our swag, our approach and we just got to continue to keep building. This is obviously a different year for many different reasons for all of us and sometimes you got to change the scope of things and your perspective. So, continue to stay positive.”
So sure, at the end of a long, strange, troubling day, the scoreboard told a familiar, frustrating story for Toronto, echoing the theme of a concerning time.
But there was reason for hope too.
As in most things, the only path is to link arms and keep trying.