A delegation of five N.B.A. players and officials from the players association met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday to discuss their social justice efforts.
The visit came after the Vatican extended an invitation to the players union about two weeks ago. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the union, the National Basketball Players Association, joined Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, Anthony Tolliver, Marco Belinelli and Jonathan Isaac, players who are all active in the union, at the meeting.
“I thought it was a fraud email that I got,” Korver said of the invitation on a Zoom call from outside the Vatican. “I called Michele right away. I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ She said, ‘Yes, it is and would you like to come in like two days?’ This came together really quick.”
The meeting lasted about 30 minutes. The players took turns addressing Pope Francis, they said.
“He said sport is such an opportunity to unify and he compared it to a team, where you have a common goal and you’re working together, but you all use your own personalities,” Korver said.
Pope Francis also discussed sports in terms of discipleship, Korver said, a way of modeling behavior and leading others. “It’s this beautiful opportunity that it provides, and he really encouraged us to just humbly walk into that,” he added.
For the players, the meeting was an opportunity to expand global awareness of the efforts to promote social justice after the deaths of several Black Americans at the hands of the police, including the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
Brown and Korver were members of the Milwaukee Bucks team that initiated a work stoppage throughout sports in August. Confined inside the N.B.A.’s so-called bubble environment in Orlando, Fla., the Bucks players refused to take part in a scheduled playoff game after the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Their protest quickly spread to other teams and other sports, forcing the postponement of games in the W.N.B.A., Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.
In June, Pope Francis said he had watched the social unrest enveloping the United States after Floyd’s death with “great concern.”
“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” the pope said at the time, adding his voice to those of other world leaders who had spoken up about the unrest across the United States.
The players all said they immediately agreed to take part in the visit, despite the short notice and the compressed time period before the start of the new N.B.A. season next month. Training camps open next week, and Brown agreed to a free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets only a few hours before flying to Rome. Isaac paused his rehabilitation from a torn A.C.L. to take part.
“This visit is the kind of thing that gives you, I believe, the sense of confirmation that the work that you’re doing is making a difference,” Roberts said. “The confirmation comes from someone whose life is spent giving of himself to others, saying what you’re doing is exactly what you should be doing and I encourage you to keep doing it.”
Tolliver said he was honored to be part of the trip, and described Pope Francis as “super chill.”
“He was actually way more relaxed than I’d ever imagine a pope being,” Tolliver said, though it was unclear if he had ever considered the matter before this week. He said the pope told the players about how he used to love watching the Harlem Globetrotters and even flashed a sense of humor.
“And you know, when the pope makes a halfway joke, it’s the funniest thing ever, right?” Tolliver said. “So when I say making jokes, anything that was supposed to be remotely funny, we made sure we gave him a good laugh.”