Pope Francis hosts NBA players to talk social justice

In an unprecedented meeting, a delegation of five NBA players and several officials from the National Basketball Players Association met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday morning for a private audience to discuss their work on social justice issues.

An assistant to Pope Francis reached out to the players' association last week indicating the Pope wanted to learn more about how players had recently brought attention to pressing social justice issues and economic inequality -- and what they planned for the future, union officials told ESPN. The union agreed and quickly scheduled an overnight flight Sunday to make their private meeting with the pope, which happened at 11:45 a.m. local time Monday morning at the Vatican. With training camp set to open on Dec. 1, players and union officials had to squeeze the trip in now.

The delegation included Kyle Korver and Sterling Brown; Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic; Anthony Tolliver, the union's secretary-treasurer; Marco Belinelli; and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players' union.

The meeting lasted about an hour at the papal library of the Apostolic Palace, after which the players and union officials toured St. Peter's Square.

"We're here because, frankly, we're inspired by the work that you do globally," Roberts told the pope during the meeting, according to The Associated Press.

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 players and the union, in cooperation with the NBA league office, used their stage at the NBA's 2020 season restart in Orlando to place a spotlight on police brutality, racial injustice and other issues. Most players selected various messages related to social justice -- including "Say Their Names," "Equality" and "Enough" -- to place above their numbers on the backs of their jerseys. The league and union agreed to paint "Black Lives Matter" along one sideline. Almost every player and coach kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before games.

Brown and Korver both played at that time for the Milwaukee Bucks, who decided to sit out a postseason game against the Orlando Magic in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bucks' impromptu strike inspired a wave of such actions across several sports.

Brown, who agreed to terms with the Houston Rockets over the weekend, and George Hill, now a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, were the first members of the Bucks to decide they would not play the game. Brown is the victim of a high-profile case of police brutality. In early 2018, eight Milwaukee police officers surrounded Brown outside a Walgreens to investigate a potential parking infraction. One forced Brown to the ground. Another used a Taser on him. Earlier this month, Brown settled a civil rights lawsuit he filed against the city of Milwaukee and its police department after the defendants agreed to a $750,000 payment.

Brown, in his remarks to the pope, told him about what he and the Bucks went through in the NBA's restart bubble and the decision not to take the court against Orlando.

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

"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."

Isaac, an ordained minister, was one of the only players and coaches to stand for the national anthem during the NBA's restart in Orlando.

The meeting was kept very quiet. They will return to the U.S. on Tuesday morning.

Roberts said Pope Francis sought the meeting with the players, and that it "demonstrates the influence of their platforms."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.