Rapper Meek Mill celebrated his highly anticipated release from prison Tuesday as the guest of honor at the Philadelphia 76ers NBA playoff game against the Miami Heat.
Shortly after the 30-year-old rapper was freed, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin picked him up in a helicopter and brought him directly to the Wells Fargo Center, where he was greeted by fans and his hometown NBA team.
Meek Mill, also known as Robert Rihmeek Williams, opened Game 5 by ringing the ceremonial pre-game bell ― a replica of the Liberty Bell ― as fans in the arena erupted in cheers.
Williams had been serving two to four years at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Facility for violating probation that stemmed from a decade-old drug and guns violation. The probation violations involved 2017 arrests for a fight and for popping wheelies on a dirt bike.
His original sentencing, which took place on Nov. 6, sparked large protests and drew hundreds of demonstrators, including a number of celebrities and athletes, to the streets of Philadelphia to demand justice for the rapper.
Williams’ allies argued that his sentencing was an example of how the justice system treats people of color unfairly. In a November op-ed for the New York Times, Jay-Z pointed out that Williams was 19 when he was arrested on gun and drug charges and had already served an eight-month sentence.
“What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day,” Jay-Z wrote.
On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Williams’ release and directed a judge to grant him bail due to “credibility issues” with a police officer who was a witness in his 2008 conviction.
After his release, Williams said in a statement that the five months he spent in prison “have been a nightmare.”
“To the Philly District Attorney’s office, I’m grateful for your commitment to justice,” Williams said. “I understand that many people of color across the country don’t have that luxury and I plan to use my platform to shine a light on those issues.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf responded to Williams’ statement by calling for criminal justice reform.
″[Meek Mill’s] case has brought hundreds of thousands to call for change in PA,” Wolf tweeted. “We need to make our system more fair, more equitable, and more focused on rehabilitation.”
Comedian Kevin Hart said he and Rubin had visited Williams in prison earlier Tuesday.
“I think what the support did is bring the overall problem of the criminal justice reform that’s needed to light,” Rubin told CNN on Tuesday, referring to the celebrities who, like Hart, have backed Williams’ release. “There’s so many other people that have been wrongfully convicted.”
Hart watched the game with Williams in courtside seats after celebrating with him behind the scenes.
Williams was expected to speak at a news conference after the game, CBS News reported.