LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant and nearly all of his Los Angeles Lakers teammates wore black T-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe" during their game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night.
The Lakers each had the T-shirts on their chairs in their dressing room before the game. Every player except backup center Robert Sacre wore the shirts in pregame warmups, and most players kept them on while sitting on the bench during the game.
Bryant, a 16-time All-Star and the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history, orchestrated the Lakers' silent declaration of support for the family of Eric Garner, who died July 17 after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold while he was being arrested.
After Bryant scored 32 points in the Lakers' 98-95 victory, he spoke passionately about the convictions that led him to the decision.
"I think if we ever lose the courage to be able to speak up for things that we believe in, I think we really lose the value that our country stands for," Bryant said. "It's important that we have our opinions. It's important that we stand up for what we believe in. We all don't have to agree with it, and that's completely fine. That's what makes this a beautiful country."
Bryant and the Lakers followed the lead of LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett and other athletes across U.S. sports by wearing the shirts to keep a spotlight on Garner's death and its broader consequences.
Previous public protests by athletes over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in suburban St. Louis shot and killed by a white cop, have drawn the ire of police representatives. However, so far the Eric Garner-related protests have not touched off the same controversy.
A recording of Garner's arrest showed him gasping "I can't breathe" during the fatal encounter. Thousands have protested a grand jury decision not to indict the officer for several days, and Bryant sees the seeds of positive worldwide change in the tragedy.
"You're kind of seeing a tipping point right now in terms of these social issues," Bryant said. "It's become at the forefront now, as opposed to just being a local issue. It's something that's carried over and spilled into mainstream. ... You don't just see African-Americans out there protesting. It's not something that you just see in the United States of America. It's become a global thing."
Bryant said the protests have "become a thing where people are really standing up for their rights."
"They're really questioning the justice system and questioning the process of the legal system, and those who have authority and whether or not they're abusing authority, and what's the threshold to use deadly force and so forth," Bryant added. "But that's what our nation is founded on. We have the ability to question these things in a peaceful fashion, and that's what makes us a great country, is we have the ability to voice up. We have the platform to speak up, and we have the platform to affect change."
The rest of the Lakers backed Bryant, and coach Byron Scott had no problem with his former teammate's thoughts.
"It's freedom of choice and freedom of speech," Scott said. "That's their choice, and whatever they choose, I'm going to support them."