A Momentous First night time for the N.B.A.

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Close games, social justice protests, and a principal role for Rudy Gobert, again.

About Momentous

A Momentous First Night for the N.B.A.

About N.B.A.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is an American men’s professional basketball league. It is composed of 30 teams (29 in the United States and 1 in Canada) and is one of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. It is widely considered to be the premier men’s professional basketball league in the world.The league was founded in New York City on June 6, 1946, as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). It changed its name to the National Basketball Association on August 3, 1949, after merging with the competing National Basketball League (NBL). The NBA’s regular season runs from October to April, with each team playing 82 games. The league’s playoff tournament extends into June. As of 2015, NBA players are the world’s best paid athletes by average annual salary per player.The NBA is an active member of USA Basketball (USAB), which is recognized by FIBA (also known as the International Basketball Federation) as the national governing body for basketball in the United States. The league’s several international as well as individual team offices are directed out of its head offices in Midtown Manhattan, while its NBA Entertainment and NBA TV studios are directed out of offices located in Secaucus, New Jersey.
The NBA is the third wealthiest professional sport league after the NFL and the MLB by revenue.

The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz during the national anthem on the first night of the N.B.A.’s return.
The New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz during the national anthem on the first night of the N.B.A.’s return.Credit…Ashley Landis/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Marc Stein

  • July 31, 2020Updated 8:41 a.m. ET

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When his postgame Zoom interview was over, before making a triumphant exit to the team bus, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz acknowledged that the historic play he was savoring did not go exactly as planned.

A Momentous First Night for the N.B.A.

“I wasn’t supposed to get a post-up,” Gobert said. “I was supposed to get a dunk.”

After using a Donovan Mitchell screen to shake free, finally corralling a deflected pass and then spinning back toward the baseline against an ex-teammate, Derrick Favors, Gobert dropped the ball in right over Favors inside the first 20 seconds on Thursday night. Gobert’s brief nod that followed seemed to acknowledge the significance of the score.

What Gobert ultimately got was a layup that will be recorded as the first N.B.A. basket in July that has ever counted. He scored the first two points and the last two points in Utah’s 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, the first game of the N.B.A. restart at Walt Disney World — 141 days after Gobert’s positive coronavirus test on March 11 led to the indefinite suspension of the season.

“Life works in a mysterious way,” Gobert said.

That opening sequence and his clinching free throws, as a mere 62.1-percent foul shooter, helped make it a redemptive evening for Gobert — shortly after a moving social justice protest, in an arena with no fans but teeming with unity and purpose, made it a momentous occasion with many layers for the whole league.

For more than four minutes before the Jazz and the Pelicans tipped off, both teams’ players, coaches and staff members, along with the referees, congregated side by side, stretching from baseline to baseline. They gathered near the BLACK LIVES MATTER lettering affixed to the floor near the scorer’s table at each of the three game venues at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, then knelt in unison during the playing of the national anthem recorded by Jon Baptiste.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, Staples Center co-tenants and championship rivals, came together to do the same thing before their game, during a recorded rendition of the anthem by the Compton Kidz Club from the Los Angeles area. LeBron James had just helped the Lakers clinch a 103-101 victory with winning plays at both ends in the final 12.8 seconds when he told TNT in a postgame interview: “I hope our fans are proud of us.”

James wasn’t talking about the basketball. Nor was he referring to the league’s official comeback, after such a lengthy coronavirus-imposed absence, or the hopeful start to N.B.A.’s efforts to erect a so-called bubble on the Disney campus (at a cost of at least $180 million) with made-for-television arena settings and daily coronavirus testing. Like most players involved in Thursday’s doubleheader, James was moved most by the unity displayed in their anthem protest.

“I hope we made Kaep proud,” James said, referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has not played in the N.F.L. since Jan. 1, 2107, after making it a practice in 2016 to kneel during the anthem to protest racial injustice.

“I hope we continue making Kaep proud every single day,” James said.

Said the Pelicans’ JJ Redick: “The ‘stick to sports’ crowd, keep politics out of sports, all those things, they’re meaningless now. You can’t. Politics and sports coexist now, and the league has recognized that.”

Indeed. Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, attended both of Thursday night’s games, wearing a blue hat and watching from behind plexiglass high above the floor in both the HP Field House (Jazz-Pelicans) and the Arena (Lakers-Clippers) because he has not yet been quarantined and thus cannot be around any of the estimated 1,500 inhabitants of the league’s bubble. Silver, though, did issue a statement affirming that the league will be not be enforcing its longstanding rule, dating to 1981, that mandates all team personnel to stand for the national anthem in a “dignified posture” along a sideline or the foul line.

The Games Resume

Sports and the Virus

Updated July 31, 2020

Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:

    • The N.B.A. returned, and the Lakers held on to beat the Clippers in a thriller. Zion Williamson played in the first game of the night for the Pelicans.
    • Players, coaches and analysts are watching this season’s baseball games to see what effect the absence of fans has.
    • With no summer tournaments to play in, top high school basketball stars are committing to colleges earlier. Villanova is one of the beneficiaries.

“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our longstanding rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” Silver said.

There was a lot for the commissioner to take in. The games were played in two different gyms so Turner could broadcast them back to back without waiting out a sanitization delay. The Jazz overturned a 16-point deficit in front of the “home” team Pelicans’ virtual fans, and James followed up a clutch rebound basket with decisive defense against both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the same possession in the final seconds to topple the short-handed Clippers. The players wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts during pregame warm-ups and many had social justice slogans on their backs of their uniforms in place of their names: “Peace” for New Orleans’ prized rookie Zion Williamson, “I am A Man” for Utah’s Mike Conley, “Say Her Name” for Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.

ImageJJ Redick of the Pelicans shot over Rudy Gobert on Thursday night.
JJ Redick of the Pelicans shot over Rudy Gobert on Thursday night.Credit…Pool photo by Ashley Landis

Mitchell went even further in his protest against systemic racism, entering the building clad in a bulletproof vest inscribed with the names of numerous victims of police brutality.

“The game was great, we won by two, but at the end of the day, Breonna Taylor’s killers are still free,” Mitchell said. “There are so many different things that we could honestly talk about. I’m going to continue to talk about Breonna Taylor because that’s near and dear to me.”

Mitchell, of course, played collegiately at Louisville. On March 13, two days after Gobert’s positive coronavirus test resulted in the N.B.A.’s shutdown, Taylor was fatally shot when police officers burst into her Louisville, Ky., apartment with a no-knock warrant they used as part of a narcotics investigation.

In the much smaller picture of their Utah partnership, Mitchell — who also tested positive for the coronavirus in March — and Gobert went weeks without speaking. This was partly because of an infamous video clip of Gobert touching a table full of reporters’ recording devices before he knew he had been infected, prompting many critics to assert that he was not treating the virus seriously, but it later emerged that tensions between the two players had been bubbling for some time.

On this night, Mitchell scored eight consecutive Utah points in crunch time, then made the crucial drive and assist that set up Gobert’s game-winning free throws. Gobert finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots and the opportunity to reflect on the roller coaster of the past four months when the N.B.A. was forced to go dormant.

“I’m just grateful to be back on the floor,” Gobert said. “Honestly, a lot of things have been said, a lot of things happened, a lot of things are happening in the world right now. To be able to do what we love, to be able to do it at the highest level, in safe conditions, to be able to have a positive impact on communities and inspire millions of people and kids around the world — it’s really something that is bigger than just the game.”

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