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The History Of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the NBA

January 21, 2019


The History Of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the NBA

January 21st, 2019 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Its a special day not just for the African-American community, but for the whole nation. It is a celebration of MLKs dream where the country would one day recognize that all men are created equal.

People of all races, ages, and backgrounds will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, especially in the divisive climate that has currently taken hold of America.

This special occasion also carries great importance in the sports world as well, and especially in the NBA.

The league has had a longstanding affinity for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, often making tributes to it. In 2019, on the 51st anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.s death, it wont be any different.

Jazz Hornets Martin Luther King Jr Day

The Impact Of MLK Jrs Assassination on the NBA

On that fateful night on April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary. Unlike todays era of information overload, there was some lag time before news of the assassination reached members of the black community.

When it did, there was a collective feeling of horror, disbelief, and anger. The man who symbolized hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed was now gone. The grief didnt end there.

More affluent and well-known individuals of color felt as if their own identities had been threatened, including NBA stars of that era. The cities of Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, and Washington D.C. were quickly engulfed by violent riots and the country stood still. The NBA was unsure whether they were to proceed with the playoffs or not. The conference finals were scheduled to tip off on April 5th.

Most of the NBA in 1968 was predominantly filled with black players. This was the era of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. With a key figure they respected now assassinated, it would be hard for players to have a business as usual attitude in response to the murder.

But the league went ahead with play the next day. Of course, not all the players were thrilled by this, with NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (then of the Cincinnati Royals, later of the Milwaukee Bucks) saying I dont think the game should have been played, but thats the NBA for you. He also went on to say there was not a regard for Dr. King. He was almost like an enemy to many in America. But he was a savior to a lot of us. And a savior he proved to be for many NBA players, fans and citizens alike.

It has become a ritual for NBA players to pay tribute to the late Martin Luther King Jr. when his day arrives. At the start of the millennium, the Memphis Grizzlies began a tradition of hosting the nationally televised game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Also part of that tradition is a youth basketball tournament, a mentorship panel, and a civil rights symposium.

In the years to come, individual teams have ramped up their own efforts to support Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as finding their own ways to commemorate his activism.  

Notable Tributes to MLK Day in the NBA

Over the past few years, there has been more activity from different teams when it comes to paying their respects to King.

For the MLK Day game on Monday, January 20th, 2014, the NBA announced Dream Big, a campaign to celebrate the legacy of African-Americans. On game day, all 30 teams that played wore Dream BIG shooting shirts during game warmups.

There were various matchups including the New York Knicks versus the Brooklyn Nets, the Portland Trailblazers against the Houston Rockets, and the Indiana Pacers versus the Golden State Warriors. The aforementioned Bill Russell joined SiriusXM radio host Mark Thompson for an hour-long show, Remembering the Dream, to pay respects to Martin Luther King Jr.

More recently, there was the 2018 I Have a Dream campaign, where numerous teams wore shirts which sported the phrase on the front of them. On the back of shirts was an excerpt from his famous speech as well, along with the date he made the speech.

The shirts also went for sale on the NBA store with all proceeds going to the National Civil Rights Museums. There was also an outpouring of social media activity for the event, with players, coaches and league organizers tweeting and otherwise sharing their thoughts about the significance of MLK Jr. Day.

MLK Day 2019 in the NBA

But whats in store for this years MLK Jr. game day? So far, theres been a release of an inspirational trailer featuring the likes of Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins, Dikembe Mutombo, and Vince Carter. Check it out below:

Will the teams wear shirts containing phrases from Kings speech? Possibly - that hasnt been confirmed yet. But we do know the teams who are scheduled to play that day.

2019 MLK Day Matchups on Jan 21st

The Dream Always Remembered

This generation, as well as previous generations and generations to come, will never forget the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Individuals of all backgrounds will commemorate him and the NBA will be just one of the many organizations who will give his name the spotlight it once again deserves. The matchups will no doubt be exciting to watch on their own, but theyll also be a celebration of how far America has come. More importantly, it will also be a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

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