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

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

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

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

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.

“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, Gobert dropped the ball in over his former teammate Derrick 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 in 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. His moment came swiftly after the pregame moment — moving social justice protest, in an arena without fans but teeming with unity and purpose, that made this return engagement an even bigger occasion for the N.B.A.

[Read: How the Jazz beat the Pelicans, and how the Lakers beat the Clippers]

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, then knelt in unison during a playing of the national anthem recorded by the musician Jon Batiste.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, Staples Center co-tenants and rivals, came together to do the same before their game, during a recorded rendition of the anthem by the Compton Kidz Club from the Los Angeles area. Later, after LeBron James had helped the Lakers clinch a 103-101 victory with winning plays at both ends in the final 12.8 seconds, 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 comeback after a lengthy coronavirus-imposed absence, or the hopeful start to the 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 many players involved in Thursday’s doubleheader, James was moved most by the unity displayed in the anthem protests.

“I hope we made Kap proud,” James said, referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the anthem in the 2016 N.F.L. season to protest racial injustice. No team has signed him since.

“I hope we continue making Kap 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.”

N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver 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.

“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 of the three venues at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex so that Turner could broadcast them back to back without a delay in between for cleaning.

In the first game, Utah overcame a 16-point deficit in front of the “home” team Pelicans’ virtual fans . 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.

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.”

On March 13, 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. Mitchell played collegiately at Louisville.

Taylor’s killing came two days after Gobert’s positive coronavirus test resulted in the N.B.A.’s shutdown. Gobert and Mitchell — who also tested positive for the coronavirus in March — 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. 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 crunchtime, 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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