Before tipoff of the opening game of the 2017-18 NBA season at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, members of the Cleveland Cavaliers stood and linked arms during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” choosing a standing demonstration of unity and solidarity over kneeling during the national anthem in opposition to racial inequality, police brutality, and the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump.
The Cavs link arms during the national anthem before tonight’s season opener vs. the Celtics pic.twitter.com/VY6wFzE4CP
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) October 18, 2017
The Cavs’ opponents, the Boston Celtics, stood with bowed heads as the anthem played.
Some NBA players have said they wanted to kneel during the national anthem, in connection to and solidarity with ongoing protests by some NFL players. NBA legend Kobe Bryant has said that he would kneel were he still an active player, and the great Bill Russell has shown his support for those who take the knee, even as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made it clear that he expects players to stand.
Even so, it seemed unlikely that the Cavs would kneel. Team leader and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James — who has famously had some strong words for the president of late — told reporters last month that he did not intend to kneel, due in large part to the work he does off the court.
“My voice and what I do in my community is more powerful than getting on a knee,” James said at Cavaliers media day last month. “[…] It’s not about the disrespect of the flag and our military, it’s about equality and the freedom to speak about things they feel are unjust.”
The issue of whether, and how, to protest during the national anthem dates back to last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose first to sit, and then to kneel, during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before NFL games, in protest of the oppression of black people and other people of color. That choice drew loud criticism and support alike, both inside and outside the NFL. Some athletes in other sports followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps, taking a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with his protest.
Kaepernick’s ongoing protest sparked response from many NBA players and multiple NBA coaches. In a predominantly black league widely viewed as the most progressive of the major American sports, that support seemed like a prelude to similar protests prior to NBA games during the 2016-17 season.
Those protests didn’t really come to pass last season, as players and teams elected to stand and lock arms. Such gestures — which stop short of violating the NBA’s rule requiring players, coaches and trainers “to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the national anthem” — continued during the NBA preseason.
The emotion surrounding the issues at play reached a fever pitch last month after Trump decried ongoing protests by NFL players, asking attendees at a rally in Alabama if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.'” That sparked a new round of demonstrations from NFL players and teams.
The president also took aim at the NBA, responding to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry’s disinterest in visiting the White House, as has become customary for defending NBA champions, by saying the Warriors’ invitation had been “withdrawn.” The NBA world closed ranks around Curry and the Warriors. James took to Twitter, proclaiming the president a “bum,” and many other players, coaches, executives and even owners expressing both their support for standing against social injustice, and their opposition to the president’s words and deeds.
Given the harsh words passed between the players and the president, many wondered whether some players would feel compelled to kneel for the anthem this fall. Before the start of the 2017 preseason, though, the NBA sent a memo to all 30 teams reminding players of the league’s rule about standing respectfully for the anthem, and saying “the league office will determine how to deal with any possible instance in which a player, coach or trainer does not stand.”
Like James, other players indicated they might not feel inclined to take a knee during the anthem, preferring instead to let their commitments to community action stand on their own merits.
“I think the message is getting lost in the kneeling, for a lot of us, with all the narratives that are being brought out of it,” Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports. “People [in the public] can kind of say what they want about everybody’s kneeling, but I think I’m more about the action, more about voicing it. I feel like the guys in the NBA have done a really good job, since the players have spoken out on it, of just being vocal. [They’ve been] showing you what their stance is, and what they’re trying to do about it, and hopefully the mindsets and the gears change towards just being productive on that front.”
“We said what we had to say,” Warriors forward Draymond Green told reporters earlier this month. “Everyone knows where we stand. We don’t need to do anything else to show where we stand. Everyone knows where we stand.”
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