‘A new awakening.’ The NBA sparked a glimmer of hope in a year full of sadness

We should have known.

Right off the bat, everyone should probably have realized that the NBA was in for a calendar year of sadness and loss and disruption and difficulty — by the way it began.

It seems much longer in the past, but the basketball world entered 2020 to news of the loss of David Stern, the iconic, at times acerbic, visionary commissioner who had led the league to untold global popularity and financial windfalls that were unimaginable not that many years ago.

It was sad news. He was just 77 years old and still very much a presence around the sport, and his passing on New Year’s Day was the first sign that 2020 would be like no other year.

“He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before,” NBA legend Michael Jordan said.

Stern’s passing, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant in a January helicopter crash, the four-month suspension of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bubble restart that denied eight teams a chance to even finish the schedule — it was a tumultuous year that cannot end soon enough.

The loss of Bryant, along with 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in an early-morning helicopter crash, cast a pall over the entire season. The all-star weekend in Chicago was a complete tribute to the star, and the Lakers commemorated him throughout their championship run. He was on everyone’s mind.

“Growing up, he was my idol,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Not just my idol, probably the whole generation, a lot of people my age … He was one of those guys that gave back to the game so much, gave back to the players.”

While the first month was marked by tragedy, it just set the stage for more tumult on an even grander stage. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc worldwide, but the NBA managed to seize an opportunity that came from it to cement itself as a leader in social responsibility.

By shutting down on March 11, after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, the NBA became the first league to fully suspend operations — another historic moment in a year full of them.

But it was what they did when they came back — for an ambitious 22-team “bubble” mini-season and playoffs on the Disney grounds near Orlando — that will resonate for years to come.

With North America reeling from the murders of Black Americans Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, protests raging in every major city and anger mounting, the league — its players, teams and franchise ownership — took up the cause of social justice and anti-racism like never before.

“Black Lives Matter” was emblazoned on the courts, while players wore jerseys with statements where their names would usually be. It became the cause that surpassed all others.

“Having our games highlight the continuing discussion about these issues, I think, moved the conversation forward well beyond where we would have been able to move it had we not done the games,” said Michele Roberts, executive director of the players’ association. “I’m satisfied that the players as well believe that they did the right thing and decided to play.”

The games were interrupted for three days when players, led by Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, walked out to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. It was another seminal moment, proving once again that players would not just shut up and dribble.

“I was pretty excited, and then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday,” the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet said in the moment. “So that kind of changes the tone of things and puts things in perspective. So that’s really kind of all that’s been on my mind. And coming down here, making a choice to play, was supposed to not be in vain. But it’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions and nothing’s really changing, and here we are again with another unfortunate incident.”

The games resumed with muted enthusiasm, given the realities of the time, but perhaps that dark part of a dark, dark 2020 will lead to some good in the future.

“I think there’s also been a new awakening among the players in the league, as to the impact they can have when they use the platforms they have to speak out on issues that are important to them,” commissioner Adam Silver said before this season began.

“So, I think as a combination of the collective action that the league will be taking together with its players and coaches, and on top of that players realizing the enormous reach they have of their voices, I’m very confident that our focus on social justice and racial inequities will continue.”

This Post was originally published on thestar.com

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‘A new awakening.’ The NBA sparked a glimmer of hope in a year full of sadness

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