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NBA players hailed by pope at Vatican for demanding justice

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Pope Francis delivers his blessing during the Angelus noon prayer he recited from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer

Pope Francis lauded a delegation of NBA players who met with him at the Vatican on Monday as “champions” and said he supported their work on addressing social injustice.

Five players — Marco Belinelli, Sterling Brown, Jonathan Isaac, Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver — were joined by NBA players’ union executive director Michele Roberts and two other union executives, Sherrie Deans and Matteo Zuretti.

“We’re here because, frankly, we’re inspired by the work that you do globally,” Roberts told the pope during the meeting, which took place in the papal library.

The union said the players spoke about their “individual and collective efforts addressing social and economic injustice and inequality occurring in their communities.” Belinelli addressed the pope in Italian, and the group presented the pope with gifts such as a commemorative basketball, a union-produced book highlighting efforts players have taken and an Orlando Magic jersey.

“You’re champions,” Pope Francis said. “But also giving the example of teammork, you’ve become a model, giving that good example of teamwork but always remaining humble … and preserving your own humanity.”

The audience was held days before a book comes out in which Pope Francis supports demands for racial justice, specifically the actions taken following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May. A police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee against his neck for minutes while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.

Roberts said Pope Francis sought the meeting with the players, and that it “demonstrates the influence of their platforms.” Demands for social and racial justice have been paramount among players, especially in recent months following the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.

Brown, in his remarks to the pope, told him about what he and the Milwaukee Bucks went through in the NBA’s restart bubble — particularly when they decided to sit out a playoff game against Orlando in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“It was raw and emotional for our team,” Brown told the pope.

Brown sued officials in Milwaukee after getting taken to the ground, shocked with a Taser and arrested during an encounter with police in 2018, contending in that lawsuit that police used excessive force and targeted him because he is Black. A settlement where Brown would receive $750,000 plus an admission from the city that his civil rights were violated was agreed to this month.

“We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis,” Korver said. “His openness and eagerness to discuss these issues was inspiring and a reminder that our work has had a global impact and must continue moving forward.”