ATLANTA -- On Monday, the Atlanta Hawks hosted the first-ever Unity Game at Philips Arena during its first home preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the defending NBA Champions. But it was what happened before the two teams took to the court that's bound to leave an impact.
For months now, athletes, led by the example of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kapernick, have been standing or kneeling in silent protest against police brutality in African-American communities.
But, instead of taking a knee, the teams asked everyone inside Phillips Arena, including the fans in the stands, to link arms and stand united with them. The gesture was similar to the one shown by the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints unity circle, when the long-time rivals stood together on the field. But unlike the NFL, the NBA requires all players to stand during the anthem.
The overall message of the Unity Game was to celebrate people's differences and improve the relationships among different groups.
The team played videos that featured Hawks and Cavaliers players explaining what unity means to them and their communities. At the game, there was a preview of Breaking Barriers: Sports for Change, a traveling exhibition that chronicles how athletes are using sports to increase inclusion and challenge social stigmas. The exhibit debuted at the 2016 ESPYs.
The idea for the game came from a staffer at an employee meeting who was troubled by the recent violence and events that occurred during the summer, that included the Dallas Massacre and police-shootings that killed African American men. The Unity Game was already in the works before Kaepernick and other athletes began protesting.
"Hopefully we've started a conversation with our players, not just about what's happening during national anthems, but what's happening in our country," head coach Mike Budenholzer said at the team media day. He added that will be supportive of his team and the rest of the organization on how they choose to express their opinions, including during the anthem.
"It makes me think the more thoughtful, the more respectful we can be, those two things, our country will be better. I think our players have always been both of those things."
Kent Bazemore said there are unfortunate situations happening around the country, but he wants people to continue to "live for the greater good" because it can help bring change.
"It's a super delicate situation. Right now, we have people taking a stand, and right now we have people quiet about it," Bazemore said. "I'm not a super confrontational guy, but Colin Kaepernick is taking a stand, to stand up for what's right. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but he's a fellow athlete, and I support that. He stepped out on a limb."
Thabo Sefolosha, who filed a civil suit against New York City and five of its officers for using excessive force and injuring his leg, thinks Kapernick's protests are a great way to keep the conversation going, but he said he does not plan to protest the national anthem.
"I think the conversation is a healthy one, and it needs to happen, but at the same time, I think we've got to focus on the game and what we're doing," he said.
The NBA's collective bargained agreement contains a rule that states all players, coaches and trainers are required to stand in a "dignified posture" during the national anthem. The league sent a letter in September that asked for players' thoughts about how to participate in positive change.
Cavaliers superstar LeBron James, along with fellow NBA stars Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony, opened the 2016 ESPYs by calling on athletes to speak up against police brutality and gun violence while making a positive change in their communities.
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