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Juneteenth celebrated like never before around NBA

Players and teams participate in marches across the country

(AP) Bradley Beal grabbed a microphone and asked the crowd that joined the Washington Wizards and WNBA’s Washington Mystics on a march to collectively raise a fist into the air and join together in saying “Together we stand.”

And they did.

“We will stand for something bigger than ourselves,” Beal said.

Such was the sentiment across sports on Friday, as many teams from the major U.S. pro leagues stopped to commemorate Juneteenth — the celebration of what occurred June 19, 1865, the day that all enslaved black people in the U.S. learned they had been freed from bondage.

The day carried particular importance this year, with teams recognizing the day as important enough to declare it a paid holiday for workers — acknowledging the problems the country is facing today after several weeks of protests demanding the elimination of police brutality and racial inequality.

Many pro athletes, black and white, have taken part in those protests.

The NBA gave its employees paid time off on Juneteenth for the first time and Commissioner Adam Silver urged league personnel to take the day and think about race relations.

Silver, in a letter to league employees, said Juneteenth provides a moment in which to “pause, further educate ourselves and reflect on both the history and the current state of race in our country.”

“The past few weeks have left us all feeling sad, frustrated and often helpless,” Silver wrote to staff, citing the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

The league also had an array of Juneteenth-related material on its social channels and made arrangements for all teams to screen “John Lewis: Good Trouble” — a film about U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who has championed social and racial justice for more than six decades.

“Black lives matter. There is no in-between,” Atlanta Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler said.

The Miami Heat celebrated the day with a pledge to make financial contributions and other commitments to organizations trying to eliminate racial inequality. The Heat made the announcement in a video featuring several team employees, including managing general partner Micky Arison, team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra.

“We will not stand for hate, racism or police brutality,” Spoelstra said.

The team said it will make new investments in educational programs that serve the black community and provide more scholarships for black students who want to attend college. The team also said that Election Day will now be a paid company holiday, so Heat staff can assist in getting-out-the-vote efforts.

“Let us be perfectly clear,” Arison said. “This is just the beginning. Our commitment is never-ending.”

The Wizards and Mystics joined together for a march to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in their city, the Memphis Grizzlies urged fans to follow the National Civil Rights Museum to further the conversation on race-related matters, and the Denver Nuggets urged fans to help with a petition to make June 19th an official national holiday.

The Orlando Magic called the day “a day to stand in solidarity and a day for education, connection, and celebration to recognize and celebrate Black history & culture.” And many teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, said the day recognized freedom.

“We’re commemorating the joy… the monumental moment when enslaved people finally gained their freedom,” the Thunder wrote in a statement.

The Chicago Bulls will also make Juneteenth an annual holiday, saying they encourage “staff to take time to advance their understanding of issues surrounding racial injustice and inequity.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.