TORONTO -- When Dwane Casey gathered his players together for their first meeting of training camp, they talked about something bigger than basketball.

Racial tension was exploding in the U.S. and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protest of the "Star-Spangled Banner" was spreading like a prairie fire.

The Toronto Raptors -- facing issues not unlike Casey did growing up during the civil rights movement of the '60s -- wanted to join the growing chorus of protest.

Casey was moved by his players' remarks that day.

"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."

Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan also spoke on media day about a close family friend who was recently killed by police, shot 17 times.

Kaepernick has become one of the biggest stories in sports since he first took a knee for the anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality against African-Americans. Others have followed suit, from the WNBA's Indiana Fever to college and even high school teams.

If athletes, with their legions of fans, are in a unique position to speak up, Casey is all for his players making their voices heard.

The 59-year-old coach was raised by his grandparents in Morganfield, Ky., a town that was largely racially segregated until an effort at integration, when he was in Grade 4, 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 said in an interview after a recent morning 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.'

"I volunteer that information and let them know, there's nothing that they're seeing now that ole' coach hasn't seen before."

The Raptors played the first game of the NBA's pre-season, against Golden State in Vancouver, and thus became the first team in the league to protest the anthem. They stood together with linked arms, and have done so in every game since. They open the regular season at home Wednesday night against Detroit Pistons.

Not everyone was a fan of the demonstration.

"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 (second-year 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?"

The NBA, which is composed of about 75 per cent black players, is considered the most progressive of North American pro sports. The league relocated 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 that 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 on the social climate.

NBA players have also waded into the U.S. presidential race. Cleveland superstar LeBron James endorsed Hillary Clinton in an op-ed piece in the 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."

Casey has already voted.

"I'm a Hillary fan. She's a leader, she's been through it, I think you get two for one with Bill Clinton, I think our economy was strong and powerful with him as president," Casey said. "I think she's going to bring some of the same points and leadership qualities from a business standpoint."

Casey recalled he was in Milwaukee on the night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

"I cried," he said. "Just because my grandparents and great-grandparents never thought they'd see the day that an African-American would be president. It was powerful to see that."