Fall 2021 SS Magazine

NBA leaders invited to meet with Pope Francis to discuss social justice

Five players from the NBA got a surprising message late last week that Pope Francis wanted to meet with them to discuss social and economic injustice and inequality. On Monday, those five players and three representatives from the National Basketball Players Association found themselves at the Vatican in Rome, Italy.

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The NBA delegation was given about an hour with the pope in the papal library of the Apostolic Palace. The group consisted of Marco Belinelli, Sterling Brown, Jonathan Isaac, Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver (the union’s secretary-treasurer) — all players who have been active in various social justice initiatives. They were joined by NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts and the NBPA’s Sherrie Deans (executive director of the NBPA Foundation) and Matteo Zuretti (chief of international relations).

“We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis,” Korver said in a release. “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.”

“Today’s meeting was an incredible experience,” Tolliver said. “With the pope’s support and blessing, we are excited to head into this next season reinvigorated to keep pushing for change and bringing our communities together.”

 

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According to the Associated Press, Belinelli addressed the pope in Italian, and the NBPA group presented him with a commemorative basketball, a union-produced book highlighting efforts players have taken, and an Orlando Magic jersey.

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

Roberts noted that Pope Francis is “one of the most influential leaders in the world,” and he sought to speak with these players because of “the influence of their platforms.” Belinelli also discussed the power of athletes’ platforms, saying on Twitter, “We know we can reach lots of people on multiple media platforms and we need to do our part to better out society… [The pope said] we need to act like brothers and teammates in order to be role models for the younger generation. Humility and compassion are the keys.”

In addition to speaking out about social justice, some of these athletes are also well-known for speaking out about their faith in Christ. Isaac (who’s an ordained minister), Korver and Tolliver have all been guests on the Sports Spectrum Podcast.

Isaac received much backlash and praise for his decision to stand during the national anthem in August, but he referenced the Gospel numerous times during his postgame media session that night.

“Honestly, I don’t really see it as religion for myself. I see it as a relationship with God, whose Son died for our sins. I don’t think that kneeling or putting on a T-shirt, for me personally, is the answer. I feel like, for me, Black lives are supported through the Gospel. All lives are supported through the Gospel,” he said.

Korver joined the podcast in June to discuss faith and racial reconciliation with NFL linebacker Wesley Woodyard.

“We gotta continue to reshape our hearts,” Korver said. “This has to come from a real place, this is real work, man. This is not about doing more charity, that’s not what this is. We have to break down and scrape out what’s in [our hearts], and we have to live differently. If we want to be leaders, yo, the Church has an opportunity right now to lead in this space. Everything that we need (as a society) is what [Christians] believe, right? But you can’t have reconciliation until you have confession. And that’s where we have to be, we have to confess our sin.”

Tolliver was on the podcast in May, soon after the coronavirus pandemic hit and the world as we knew it was beginning to change. He said is his faith in Christ served as his “base” for life, keeping him grounded and level-headed. He said that soon after he entered the NBA, he realized his opportunity “to affect people for change and show people Christ.”

“He’s teaching me to keep in perspective what is really important,” Tolliver said when asked was God was teaching him in this season of life. “My family to me is the most important part of my life. I feel like God is showing me during this COVID season and what God has revealed to me is to refocus. Refocus on what is really important. If you come out of this season the same exact person as you were in the beginning, you wasted this opportunity. This is a prime time to work on whatever God is revealing to you.”

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