Pelicans and Jazz players re-open the NBA’s pandemic-delayed season by protesting during anthem

It hardly resembled the league that abruptly adjourned its season at the onset of the pandemic 141 days ago, but the NBA made its return inside the Disney World bubble on Thursday night, as members of the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz protested racism during the national anthem. 

On a court emblazoned with the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ player swearing BLM warmups knelt and locked arms in a demonstration that technically violated a 39-year-old league rule requiring everyone to stand for the American and Canadian anthems.

But as NBA commissioner Adam Silver explained during a Wednesday-morning interview with Good Morning America, things have changed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

Members of the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz warm up before the start of an NBA basketball game with no fans in the stands as seen in this general view Thursday

‘I respect peaceful protest,’ Silver said. ‘I’m not sure what our players will do when they come out tomorrow night and we’ll of course address it at the time, but I also understand these are highly unusual times.’

‘Highly unusual times’ may be an understatement following more than 150,000 American deaths due to coronavirus, not to mention the nationwide BLM demonstrations. 

Not only are NBA players suddenly allowed to protest during the anthem, as many NFL players have done since 2016, but league jerseys now feature social justice messages, like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’

Meanwhile in Bradenton, Florida, where the WNBA recently began its coronavirus-delayed season, Seattle Storm and New York Liberty players actually walked off the court during the anthem without any reprisal from the league office. They too were seen wearing social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys.

And that’s not all that changed since the NBA stopped play back on March 11.

There won’t be any fans in attendance, health and safety protocols that were painstakingly written in response to the coronavirus pandemic will be paramount, and teams can’t even shower in the arena after games. 

But after 20 weeks of waiting, wondering and worrying, the 2019-20 NBA season is ready to hit the restart button with a champion scheduled to be crowned in October.

‘Nobody’s life is pretty much how they planned it to be at this point with the pandemic, so you take it for what it is,’ Clippers forward and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard said. ‘Everybody is happy that a champion will be crowned this year, and if that’s the 2020 championship, then we want it. You know, that’s how I look at it. This is what the layout is, as far as to go out there and complete this journey.’

The field for the 16-team playoff bracket that will be finalized next month is already largely filled – 12 of the 22 teams at Disney have clinched spots and Dallas is on the brink of another one. It leaves three teams vying for two spots in the Eastern Conference, and six teams for one spot in the Western Conference.

For the front-runners like the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and West-leading Lakers, the eight remaining games before the playoffs are about tuning up their games. For most of the other teams that have clinched berths, it’s about securing the best possible playoff seed. And for the hopefuls, it’s about finding a way to get into the field and stay at Disney at least a couple weeks longer than planned.

‘We want to get back to work,’ said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose Spurs will aim to become the first franchise in league history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances. ‘We want to do what we’re all used to doing. We want to do as much as we can, safely, to energize the country, to play the games we all love. And as long as we can do that safely, it’s a big win for everybody.’

Starting Friday and running through Aug. 14, there will be at least four and sometimes as many as seven games per day, spread out over a three-arena corner of the Disney complex. There will be many instances where three games are happening at once. And there will be days that have games running for more than 10 consecutive hours.

After no basketball for what seemed like forever, a hoops smorgasbord awaits.

‘It’s the biggest and best AAU tournament ever,’ New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said.

The biggest names are here: reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, LeBron James of the Lakers, scoring champion James Harden of Houston, plus the reigning Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP in Leonard. Of the 25 players on this season’s All-Star rosters, 23 are at Disney and a 24th – Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis – may return if his injured left foot heals.

Also here: the defending champions. Toronto lost Leonard and Danny Green to the Clippers in free agency this past offseason – more than a year ago now. And then the Raptors laughed off suggestions that they wouldn’t be good enough to make the playoffs. They enter the restart holding the No. 2 seed in the East, looking every bit like a team capable of another very deep run.

‘We’ve been through it,’ Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. ‘We never got the respect before the last couple months of last season. We’re not used to getting pats on the back or flowers, so it’s not really that different.’He w

There are eight teams not here – Golden State, which went to the NBA Finals in each of the last five seasons before sputtering through an injury-plagued year this season, among them. The others whose seasons ended March 11: Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Charlotte and Chicago.

Ratings for the games at Disney are expected to be big. Every game will be televised, as usual. A sprint to the playoffs is about to begin.

The longest timeout in NBA history is finally over. Game on, again.

‘The intensity is going to start to pick up with the games just meaning much more,’ Philadelphia forward Al Horford said. ‘This is the position you want to be in.’