LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — All players, coaches and the three referees taking part in the game between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday knelt along the sideline in front of the team benches — with the players wearing shirts that had “Black Lives Matter” written on the front as they stood behind the words “Black Lives Matter” on the court — as the national anthem played before the opening game of the NBA restart inside the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
The only noise inside the HP Field House was the anthem itself, as musician Jon Batiste played the national anthem on guitar and piano, shown on a video board with an image of the American flag ribboned around it. None of the people aligned along the baseline — in three rows stretching from one end of the court to the other — moved.
“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,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement to ESPN.
At least one player, Jazz guard Rayjon Tucker, had his right elbow bent and fist raised during the anthem.
Michele Roberts, the National Basketball Players Association’s executive director, appeared to wipe away tears. She later tweeted: “Tonight we witnessed sober, powerfully moving and heartfelt demonstrations by our players of their commitment to the pursuit of justice. Very proud.”
New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday said the unity the teams showed pregame spoke volumes about basketball’s return as a whole.
“Just to be able to feel like we’re bringing people together,” he said when asked what was going through his mind as he knelt during the anthem. “Two teams that were about to go out there on the court in battle, we can also come together and fight for something. I feel like that was huge. I feel like that’s one of the reasons we wanted to come back and one of the reasons the league wanted us to come back.”
In the second game Thursday night, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers also knelt along the sideline with the “Black Lives Matter” messaging on the court in front of them. Coaches Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel swapped spots so that both teams were connected to one another — Rivers linking his right arm with Anthony Davis and Vogel linking his left arm with Ivica Zubac.
Before the anthem in the Jazz-Pelicans game, audio of a roughly 2 1/2 -minute video featuring Big Sean’s song “One Man Can Change The World,” which promotes social justice and racial equality, was played, with players, coaches and referees standing along the sideline. A technical issue prevented the video from being played on the video boards in the arena itself, a league source said.
The video features a series of NBA players either participating in protests or speaking to the cause that has overtaken the country since George Floyd was killed when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes on May 26. The players involved included Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, JJ Redick and Damian Lillard.
“We need to change people’s hearts,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said during the video. “It’s a mindset.”
Both teams put out a statement after the game began addressing the decision to kneel for the anthem.
“The Utah Jazz are committed to advancing social justice and stand in support of the players, coaches and staff as they exercise their First Amendment rights, and use their voices, their experiences, and their platforms to peacefully express themselves. We are a values-based organization and believe in the foundational principles of justice, equality, fairness, and economic empowerment,” the Jazz said in their statement. “Our organization strives to be a unifying force in our communities, and we hope this time in our history can be a catalyst for positive change in a country we love.”
“The New Orleans Pelicans stand by the ideals of freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest. Collectively with the Utah Jazz, our organization joins the NBA in supporting our players and coaches,” the Pelicans said in their statement. “To promote meaningful change relative to social justice and racial equality, the New Orleans Pelicans have partnered with our players, staff and coaches to create a Social Justice Leadership Alliance committed to furthering the discussion, listening and learning and taking action to make positive change in our community and our country.”
The Jazz took the court about 19 minutes before tipoff to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” with every player wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. A couple of minutes later, the Pelicans — designated as the home team in this neutral-site game — ran onto the court led by Redick, all wearing the same shirts.
Once the game began, players took off their warm-ups and, for the first time, played a game in jerseys with social justice messages of their choosing on the backs of their jerseys in place of their names.
In the second game, Lakers players Dwight Howard and JR Smith briefly left the court during the anthem, which was a recording by the Compton Kidz Club, a group of Black young women. Howard and Smith returned shortly thereafter.
Players came to the court wearing a black T-shirt with “Black Lives Matter” printed in white block letters; however, Kawhi Leonard spent the majority of warm-ups in a standard-issue Clippers Dri-FIT T-shirt.
While the backs of the uniforms of players such as Alex Caruso (“Black Lives Matter”) and Marcus Morris (“Education Reform”) looked different, so too did uniforms worn by players who chose to keep their last names rather than swap them out to select a social justice message. LeBron James‘ surname appeared below the No. 23 on his gold Lakers jersey, rather than above it. So did Leonard’s last name, appearing underneath No. 2 on his his white Clippers kit.
The messages being placed above the uniform number, where the player name would typically appear, was requested by players to show that the message is more important than their name, a source with knowledge of the league’s plans for the restart told ESPN. For the players who chose no message and just their name, it is placed below for consistency. For this restart, above is reserved for messages and below for names.
The first basket of the restart was scored by Jazz center Rudy Gobert — the player whose positive test result in Oklahoma City on March 11 led the NBA to suspend its season — 18 seconds into the first quarter on the first possession of the game. Gobert also sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap the Jazz’s victory.
Before the game, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry talked about the importance of the making a gesture in this moment — which came on the day of civil rights legend and U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ funeral.
“If you talk to some of the younger generations, I think this is here to stay,” Gentry said. “I have a 20-year-old son and a 22-year-old son, and I know that they feel like this is the most opportune time for us to try to have change in this country.
“I think you are going to see a pretty united front with this generation coming — they feel like now is the time and the need for social change. I think you are going to see them do everything they possibly can to make that happen.”
ESPN’s Malika Andrews contributed to this report.