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NBA players, teams celebrate Juneteenth

No matter where Caron Butler’s 15-year NBA career took him, come the third Saturday in June, he made sure he was back in his hometown of Racine, Wisc. A beloved celebration was happening in the city of 77,000 and he couldn’t wait to take part.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve never missed a Juneteenth celebration. We’ve always treated it as if it was a national holiday — which it is in our culture,” says Butler. “I was taught by my grandparents that it’s the Independence Day for black people.”

In many ways, it is. Juneteenth celebrates the day in 1865 that some of the last enslaved black people in the U.S. learned they were free — nearly two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the Confederate states. The executive order was difficult to fully enforce until after the North defeated the South in the Civil War.

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and shared the news that all enslaved people were free. African Americans commemorated the day the following year, celebrating their anniversary of freedom as “Juneteenth,” a portmanteau of the date Granger arrived. Even after the 13th Amendment ended slavery nationwide later that year, Juneteenth remained the focal celebration point, first in Texas, and then throughout the country as African Americans migrated. Today, up to 49 states recognize it in some form.

Juneteenth is a unifying holiday,” Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, told USA Today recently. “It is the completion of the celebration of freedom in America.”

This year, the NBA is joining the commemoration for the first time, providing all league office employees paid time off to observe the holiday. During a period when the nation’s struggle with racism has inspired a global movement, honoring Juneteenth provides the league an opportunity “to pause, further educate ourselves and reflect on both the history and the current state of race in our country,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote in a letter to league employees.

The NBA will also recognize Juneteenth on its social media channels and host a screening for all its leagues and teams of Magnolia Pictures, Participant, and Color Farm Media’s new film “John Lewis: Good Trouble’. The movie is about civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whose march toward justice still continues after more than 60 years on the frontlines of the movement.

We’ve always treated it as if it was a national holiday — which it is in our culture. I was taught by my grandparents that it’s the Independence Day for black people.”

NBA legend Caron Butler

Players and teams throughout the NBA and WNBA will also honor the day in their communities. The Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics, for example, are leading a procession from the National Mall to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The names of Black people lost to racial violence will be read and Natasha Cloud of the Mystics and Bradley Beal of the Wizards will deliver remarks.

The New York Liberty are leading a one-hour virtual conversation about freedom, justice, equality and the power of the African American vote. Layshia Clarendon of the Liberty and Garrett Temple of the Brooklyn Nets will join a panel that examines politics through the lens of popular culture.

The NBA has a long history of addressing race and social justice, and all around the country, other companies like NIKE, Lyft, Target, U.S. Bank, JC Penney and Twitter have joined a groundswell of employers that are recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday. Philadelphia, New York state and even the Commonwealth of Virginia — which only this year ended a statewide celebration of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — announced Juneteenth will be a paid state holiday.

Why now? The recognition comes in the wake of the recent death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Coupled with the killings of Breonna Taylor by police, and Ahmaud Arbery by white men who pursued him as he jogged, anger, mass protests and cries of “Black Lives Matter” erupted across the U.S., spurring companies — and individuals — to reevaluate how they address race, racism and discrimination.

As the NBA approaches restarting the 2019-20 season, it is bringing attention and sustained action to issues of social justice, including combating systemic racism, expanding educational and economic opportunities across the black community, enacting meaningful police and criminal justice reform and promoting greater civic engagement.

On June 3, the league’s black employee resource group, Dream In Color, held a community conversation featuring political commentator and author Van Jones that was attended by more than 1,000 employees. The NBA is also in discussions with the National Basketball Players Association to develop a comprehensive strategy on how the league, teams and players can best address these issues to drive generational change.

Meanwhile, dozens of NBA and WNBA players, coaches, legends and team owners have used their platforms to push for justice and an end to police brutality. They have led marches, written op-eds, launched voting rights initiatives and donated their time and money to the cause.

We have a moment in time,” Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers told protestors at a march in Atlanta last month. “People are going to look back, our kids are going to look back at this and say, ‘You were part of that.’ …We got to keep pushing forward.”

While protestors continue to march for justice, Juneteenth parades will likely be smaller this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, Butler’s hometown canceled this year’s celebration citing “the circumstances, and the difficulties that were beyond our control,” according to Racine’s website, which adds the city is looking forward to 2021.

So is Butler. At last year’s celebration, he participated in a ribbon-cutting on a new basketball court and held a clinic at the community center where he first played the sport. He’s excited about the gospel performances, displays of black pride and traditions like the Juneteenth Day Queen and King.

“Juneteenth has always been a way to recognize our freedom and independence, where we rally around each other and celebrate each other, where we talk about our struggles, but also celebrate our triumphs,” Butler says. This year, he will host a full day of programming on NBA platforms that will educate fans about Juneteenth and amplify the league’s call for justice through multi-generational voices from the black community and across the NBA family.

“Juneteenth makes me think about my ancestors,” Butler continued. “I think about my grandmother who worked in the cotton fields of Columbus, Mississippi, who migrated North. I think about the sacrifices that she made, and her ancestors made. It’s been amazing to be part of the celebration for quite some time, now being 40 years old. It’s a special day.”