As racial tension simmers, Raptors coach feels for players

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TORONTO (AP) When the Toronto Raptors first gathered for training camp, Dwane Casey knew his players wanted to talk about more than basketball.

Racial tension was simmering in the United States. Images of police brutality had gone viral. National anthem protests were spreading.

The coach was moved by what his players said.

''Terrence Ross, who everyone thought was really quiet, had some very thoughtful and impactful statements and thoughts on the whole issue that you would never think,'' Casey said. ''I was really proud of the way our players had opinions and had thought them out, very respectful yet thought-provoking statements that they made.''

If athletes, with their legions of fans, are in a unique position to speak up, Casey is all for it.

The 59-year-old coach was raised by his grandparents in Morganfield, Kentucky. The town was largely segregated until an effort at integration, when he was in fourth grade, forced him to ride a bus across town to school. He went on to become one of the first black players at the University of Kentucky.

''I've lived it, I know it, I know how (the players) are feeling, what they're going through, what they're seeing,'' Casey told The Canadian Press after a recent practice. ''I've told them, `Hey I've been through segregation. I've changed schools where I've had to fight, and the National Guard was brought in. I've used hand-me-down books in school. I've seen police brutality. I've seen the Ku Klux Klan riding through my town of Morganfield. I've seen the segregated bathrooms.'

The Raptors played the first game of the NBA's preseason in Vancouver, British Columbia, and became the first team in the league to protest during the anthem. They stood with linked arms and have done so in every game since. They open the season at home Wednesday night against Detroit Pistons.

Not everyone was a fan of the gesture.

''Some people got upset because they thought it was disrespecting the police,'' Casey said. ''But, believe me, it's no disrespect to the police force. As a matter of fact, (guard) Delon Wright's mother is a police officer, and we were very cognizant of that and respectful of that.

''It's just to continue the conversation. I would argue those incidents needed to be talked about, and what better way for society to understand it than through sports?''

About three-quarters of NBA players are black. The league is considered the most progressive of North American pro sports. The league moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans over a North Carolina bathroom law that discriminated against transgender people.

Commissioner Adam Silver said last week he hopes players continue to stand for the national anthem, but said ''there may be no organization in our society better positioned than the NBA'' to make an impact.

NBA players have waded into the U.S. presidential race. LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton in an op-ed piece in the Akron Beacon Journal and Business Insider, referencing the ''violence, of every kind, the African-American community is experiencing in our streets and seeing on our TVs.''

Baron Davis wrote a column for the Players Tribune last week called ''Do Something,'' encouraging players to vote.

''I tell my players `Get your absentee ballots, and vote,''' Casey said. ''I remember my grandparents talking about when African-Americans couldn't vote. Or they tried to make it hard for them to vote.

''So that is a privilege a lot of people fought for, you went to jail for. Everyone should vote. That's your way of showing power as an individual. We can protest, but the only way you fight stuff like that is through voting. Using your right to vote.''