Prior to the NBA’s restart on Thursday, TNT analyst Charles Barkley spoke his mind about players and coaches kneeling for the national anthem.
As expected, players from both the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz, as well as coaches and referees, all took a knee in unison during a taped rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, and once it was over, the television broadcast went back to the "Inside the NBA" pregame show.
Barkley said it was OK if players decided not to kneel as well.
“The thing is, the national anthem means different things to different people,” Barkley said. "I'm glad these guys are all unified, but if people don't kneel, they're not a bad person. I want to make that perfectly clear."
“I'm glad they had unity, but if we have a guy that doesn't want to kneel or the anthem means something to him, he should not be vilified,” Barkley added.
The NBA has had a rule going back to the early 1980s that players must stand for the national anthem. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, anticipating that players would kneel during these games at Walt Disney World, has made clear that he supported peaceful protests.
"I respect our teams' unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem," Silver told reporters Thursday.
Many players warmed up wearing "Black Lives Matter" shirts. Thursday also marked the debut of new jerseys bearing messages that many players chose to have added, such as "Equality" and "Peace."
NBA players have used their platforms — both in the bubble and on social media — to demand equality and justice. Coaches have also said it is incumbent on them to demand change and educate themselves and others. The pregame actions by the Jazz and the Pelicans were just the start of what is expected to be a constant during the remainder of this season.
"It's taken a very long time to get this momentum going," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said in a video that aired pregame, a project organized by both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association. "It cannot be lost."
New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said he appreciated the accidental symmetry that came from the first games of the restarted season coming only hours after the funeral for Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights icon who died July 17 at the age of 80.
Lewis spent most of his life championing equality and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington — the one where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Gentry said he believes this movement, like the one Lewis helped spark six decades ago, will endure.
"If you talk to some of the younger generation, I think this is here to stay. I really do," Gentry said. "I have a 20-year-old son and a 22-year-old son, and I know that they feel like this is the most opportune time for us to try to have change in this country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.