Not only were there virtual fans in the stands, but players were adorned in “VOTE” t-shirts, “Black Lives Matter” was etched onto the court and coaches and players alike capitalized on the moment and kept social justice at the forefront—even going as far as to stage a strike in response to the officer-related shooting of Jacob Blake.
Much like the rest of the world, apparently Pope Francis was keeping an eye on this new-look NBA too. Because on Monday, when a group of NBA players visited the Vatican, he made it a point to shout them out for doing their part to combat racial injustice, according to The Guardian.
The delegation of NBA players on hand included Marco Belinelli of the San Antonio Spurs; Sterling Brown of the Houston Rockets; Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic; Kyle Korver of the Milwaukee Bucks and Anthony Tolliver of the Memphis Grizzlies. They were joined by Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, and two other union executives, Sherrie Deans and Matteo Zuretti.
Per Roberts, it was the pope who requested an audience with the players, and that his request “demonstrates the influence of [the NBA’s platform].”
“We’re here because, frankly, we’re inspired by the work that you do globally,” Roberts told Pope Francis during their meeting.
Players used the time to discuss their “individual and collective efforts addressing social and economic injustice and inequality occurring in their communities.” Belinelli, who’s from Italy, also spoke to the pope in his native tongue, while the group gave the pope some early Christmas gifts: a commemorative basketball and an Orlando Magic jersey.
During a particularly powerful moment, Brown reflected on what it was like when his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, refused to play against the Magic in response to the officer-related shooting of Jacob Blake.
“It was raw and emotional for our team,” Brown told the pope.
“You’re champions,” Pope Francis told the players. “But also giving the example of teamwork, you’ve become a model, giving that good example of teamwork but always remaining humble [...] and preserving your own humanity.”
The trip seems to have left a profound impact on the players who attended.
“We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis,” Korver said. “His openness and eagerness to discuss these issues was inspiring and a reminder that our work has had a global impact and must continue moving forward.”
As we previously reported at The Root, since the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has openly admitted that this “super-woke” incarnation of the NBA was a direct reflection of our unprecedented climate and that the upcoming season will be more of a return to form.
“I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court and our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time when we began these discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer,” Silver said on ESPN’s NBA Countdown in October. “My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy—that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor.”
So while Korver and other players have every desire to keep that same energy this upcoming season, it will be interesting to see how or if it will be conveyed when the NBA resumes play in December.