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NBA: Preseason opens with Raptors' protest during anthems

(Reuters) - Members of the Toronto Raptors locked arms in solidarity during the playing of the Canadian and U.S. national anthems on Saturday, as protests to draw attention to racial inequality spread to the National Basketball Association and into Canada.

The Raptors lined up on the court with their arms locked together, as the NBA preseason opened in Vancouver with Toronto hosting the Golden State Warriors.

The gesture added to protests that began during the National Football League preseason when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem.

Toronto beat Golden State 97-93. In the other NBA preseason game, the New Orleans Pelicans topped the visiting Dallas Mavericks 116-102.

The protest by the Raptors, the NBA’s only Canada-based franchise, was the first at a sporting event where both the American and Canadian anthems are played before the start of a game.

Protesting players have been seen as allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew in response to high-profile police killings of unarmed African-Americans across the United States in the last two years.

The protests have provoked anger among some fans, who see them as a sign of disrespect for the U.S. flag and the military.

Raptors player DeMar DeRozan, who helped the United States to a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, said this week that a close friend had been murdered when he was shot 17 times by police and that the team was considering a protest.

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Raptors coach Dwane Casey said he had told his players that if they protested to “do it from the heart, don’t do it just for the sake of doing something or saying something.”

The protests during “The Star-Spangled Banner” have spread since Kaepernick sparked the controversial movement.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA finals’ reigning most valuable player, said on Monday that he supported athletes who have chosen to protest but had no plans to follow in their footsteps.

The Cavaliers open their preseason on Wednesday when they host Orlando.

Players from several NFL and college football teams have protested during the anthem, either by kneeling or raising their fists. U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe has also knelt during games.

The fist-raising protests recall the famous gesture by U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ian Simpson and Muralikumar Anantharaman