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Around sports world, Juneteenth celebrated like never before

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. “We’ve never posted about Juneteenth, but it is always the right time to do better than before," read a tweet posted by the New England Patriots. “Today is a reflection of freedom, a day to celebrate and educate."

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,” said Spoelstra, who later in the day led a virtual town hall with Heat players and took questions about race. 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. Major League Baseball unveiled a new version of its logo, flipping the colors around to depict the batter as being Black.

The Seattle Mariners hosted a panel discussion with four of that franchise's Black players to discuss situations where they felt like targets of racism and concerns they've had about speaking out on the topic.

“We’re scared to say this. We’re nervous," Mariners infielder Dee Gordon said. “The reason we’re nervous is we’ve been told our whole life and our whole careers to don’t say anything. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t, pretty much stand up for yourself as a man and for your family’s name."

Hockey's San Jose Sharks told fans that it was fine to not know where to start when it comes to understanding the significance of Juneteenth. The team put out a list of resources for fans to review if interested.

“In recognition of Juneteenth, our front office is starting a new tradition," read a statement on the Sharks' site. “As an organization, we will be dedicating time on this day each year to actively participate in Juneteenth. Our goal — to advance meaningful progress."

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