Over the past week or so, I’ve had conflicting emotions about the return of major professional sports. It has been a long wait, and I was excited to watch. Still, I was uneasy about the return.
Was it appropriate for sports to rush back, despite surging cases of coronavirus around the country? Was the notion that Americans “needed” sports as a distraction from their troubles a crass rationalization for lining the pockets of millionaires?
Really, are televised pro sports more vital to our society than other pastimes that remained limited or locked down, like going to the movies, bowling or hanging out in large groups in bars?
Those are reasonable questions. But Thursday altered my perspective in a profound way. It was an uplifting day for the country, a day of shared grieving and celebration, and it seemed fitting to have one of our sports leagues waiting at the end of it.
Late in the morning and into the early afternoon, the civil rights legend John Lewis was honored in a funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached during the movement.
The Lewis service was deeply moving, with eloquent declarations of love and appreciation for an iconic American who put his life on the line as a young, Black civil rights leader in the 1960s and continued the fight in Congress for more than three decades.
Three former Presidents spoke at the church — George W. Bush, William Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama, the country’s only African American president and a man who considered Lewis one of his great heroes, was the most powerful and inspiring.
Surely Obama, a great basketball fan, was impressed by what he saw Thursday night, as the NBA returned for a TNT doubleheader after a 140-day shutdown due to COVID-19.
Anyone who loves basketball had to be glad to see the NBA players making a unified stand for social justice and racial equality. The NBA, a predominately Black league, has generally been ahead of the others on social issues, and the players were speaking out about racism and police brutality long before George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis cop on May 25.
It has been nearly four years since Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem before an NFL exhibition game in the summer of 2016 to protest racial injustice. The gesture sparked fierce debate in the country and cost Kaepernick his job. He seemed like a lonely force at times.
The national dialogue on kneeling has surely changed since then. Last week, a handful of baseball players knelt during the anthem when MLB came back. On Thursday night, an entire sport took a knee, as all the players from the Jazz and Pelicans took a knee during the anthem before the first game in the NBA's Orlando “bubble.”
It was a truly moving sight. Not so grand as former presidents standing to praise John Lewis, but riveting just the same. All the players had black T-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” across their chests in white. They locked arms along the entire sideline. Everyone knelt — players, coaches, even the referees.
Most players also had messages of social justice on their backs, instead of their names. Several, including Zion Williamson, had “Peace” on their backs. There was “Say Her Name” in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in Louisville on March 13, two days after the NBA shut down operations.
The scene was the same for the nightcap between the Lakers and Clippers, the two LA rivals who will likely meet in the conference finals (LeBron James seemed more determined than ever). I’d be remiss to leave out the WNBA players, who walked out during the anthem a few nights earlier and have dedicated their season to the Say Her Name movement.
It had the sense of a pivotal moment for the nation. It was encouraging to see prominent athletes using their platform and raising their voices, which hasn’t often been the case in modern times. It summons memories of the 1960s, when famous athletes like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took public stands for civil rights, at great cost in Ali’s case.
It was a fortuitous convergence of events, happening on the same days as the John Lewis funeral. It stitched the whole day together, and at the end basketball fans got to see the sport they loved.
The NBA restart put a nice little bow on it, allowing us to cherish meaningful hoops for the first time since the pandemic shut things down in mid-March, just before the scheduled start of the NCAA Tournament.
I hope it works out. The NBA seems to have gotten it right by putting everyone in the bubble at the Disney World Resort under stringent safety measures. It’s still early, but the NBA — like the NHL in its Canada bubbles — has so far avoided any major setbacks associated with the coronavirus.
I’m fearful for baseball, which allowed teams to play in their own parks and has already seen major complications. The last week was sobering, with the Marlins having to pause after 20 members of the team, including 18 players, tested positive for the virus. The Jays' first game in Buffalo — and the first big-league baseball in the city since the late 1800s — is against the Marlins on Aug. 11.
Three MLB games scheduled for Friday were postponed: Marlins-Nationals, Phillies-Jays and Cards-Brewers. The Phillies and Cardinals have both had a couple of players test positive, necessitating a momentary pause in action.
Who knows what will happen with the NFL, which has had a run of players opting out and several positive COVID-19 tests? The Bills sent their rookies home Thursday after five players — none of them prominent names — tested positive for the coronavirus. What happens when players start blocking and tackling?
Anyway, our pro team sports are back in action. I’d like to believe that when we finally emerge from this long, turbulent period in our history, the country and its sports will be better for it.
Thursday helped. It provided something that John Lewis had in infinite supply, and that we all desperately need these days: Hope.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.