Lake Buena Vista, Florida – Black players were next to white players. Coaches from one team were next to their compatriots from the opposing side. Many locked arms with the man next to them, some shut their eyes tightly, a few including LeBron James briefly raising a fist into the air or pointing skyward.
The NBA had a strong, powerful re-opening night message.
When it comes to demanding change, the league stands united — and Thursday, the four teams that played on the first night of the league's restart showed that by not standing.
They were unprecedented images for the league in unprecedented times: The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans knelt alongside one another during "The Star-Spangled Banner," their way of joining the chorus of those demanding racial justice and equality in society. In the second game Thursday, James' Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers did the same thing during the anthem preceding their matchup.
"Tonight we witnessed sober, powerfully moving and heartfelt demonstrations by our players of their commitment to the pursuit of justice," National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts tweeted. "Very proud."
The NBA has a rule that dates to the early 1980s decreeing that players must stand for the national anthem, and Commissioner Adam Silver quickly announced that the policy is being adjusted. The anthems were pre-recorded: Jon Batiste performed the one before Pelicans-Jazz, the Compton Kidz Club had the task before Clippers-Lakers.
"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," said Silver, who watched from a plexiglass-enclosed suite because he has not been quarantined and therefore cannot be around players and coaches who are living inside the NBA's so-called bubble at Walt Disney World.
The coaches, first New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry and Utah’s Quin Snyder and then the Lakers' Frank Vogel and the Clippers' Doc Rivers, were next to one another, their arms locked together. The scenes, which occurred with the teams lined up along the sideline nearest where "Black Lives Matter” was painted onto the court, were the first of what is expected to be many silent game-day statements by players and coaches who will kneel to call attention to many issues – foremost among them, police brutality following the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.
James said he took a knee with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco quarterback who began kneeling during anthems in 2016 – a protest against oppression, he called it — in mind.
"I hope we made Kap proud," James said. "Hope we continue to make Kap proud."
Lakers 103, Clippers 101
On the court, James and the Lakers showed some rust.
They knocked it off with time to spare.
Anthony Davis scored 34 points, James had the go-ahead basket with 12.8 seconds left and the Lakers moved closer to clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by topping the Los Angeles Clippers 103-101 on Thursday night in the second game of the NBA’s re-opening doubleheader.
James had 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to help the Lakers move 6½ games ahead of the Clippers in the West with seven games remaining. Kyle Kuzma added 16 points.
Paul George had 30 points and Kawhi Leonard scored 28 for the Clippers, who had an 11-point lead midway through the third in a game with deep ebbs and flows.
Jazz 106, Pelicans 104
Rudy Gobert sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap a 14-point, 12-rebound and three-block performance, giving Utah the victory in the first game of the NBA’s restart.
New Orleans, which led for most of the game and by as many as 16 points, nearly pulled out the victory as time expired when Brandon Ingram’s 3-point attempt rimmed out in a bitter end to his 23-point night.
Zion Williamson, who missed nearly two weeks of practice after leaving the team for a family medical matter on July 16, was deemed fit to start, although his playing time was limited.
He scored 13 points in just more than 15 minutes, highlighted by a couple alley-oop dunks, one on a nearly half-court lob from Lonzo Ball. But Williamson checked out for good with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter and had to watch the tense finish from the sideline.
Jordan Clarkson scored 23 points for Utah and helped lead a second-half comeback, while Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley each added 20.