We have reached Martin Luther King Day, a big day on the NBA schedule, and so far the Phoenix Suns are still slated to honor the day with a national TV game versus the Memphis Grizzlies on TNT at 3 p.m.
What is so important about MLK Day to the NBA? And why is Memphis an important location?
Memphis is where King was murdered, at the Lorraine Hotel on April 4, 1968, after marching with striking sanitation workers and giving one of his most famous speeches on the need for racial equality — a goal still largely out of reach for Black people in America.
January 18, today, is Dr. King’s birthday and was made a holiday by most states over the last several decades.
Suns head coach Monty Williams spent a few minutes talking about MLK with the local media:
“When we landed today, we were talking about the two things that we love to do here other than eat more than you humanly should is to go to the museum and go to St. Jude. Because of where we are we won’t get a chance to visit the museum but what a blessing and honor it is to be able to play in this city on that particular day.”
The National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis, though closed these days due to the unchecked COVID pandemic.
Williams worries that the message from Dr. King will be lost in ‘going through the motions’, becoming a rote ritual rather than a moment of true reflection.
“I hope it continues to become a moment in time, a season in the year where we really think about Dr. King’s sacrifice so that a guy like me can be in this position. Because that’s what I think about. Many people like Dr. King spoke and sacrificed a ton so that someone like me would have an opportunity to be in this position. An African-American is a position of leadership, making more money than I deserve. People like him and my grandfather and many others, Loki Mulholland [filmmaker and son of civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland], so many people laid it on the line so that we all could have a chance to play on an equal playing field.
“When I come here and go to the museum and I learn more and more and more about what it was like to go through all that, to have this opportunity to play in this particular game means a ton to me and I know it means a ton to our guys.”
Most of America has little idea about Dr. King other than snippets of his speeches in black-and-white TV footage, and even less idea about other luminaries in the civil rights movement.
Williams said it took him a while just to realize the full scope of Dr. King’s legacy:
“When I was a kid you get the historical facts when you go to school, I think my memories are my families reaction to Dr. King. Growing up in colonial Virginia, if you know anything about that part of the country, there was a number of tensions there. Because of that you heard your family members talk about Dr. King and many others who were not just speaking out, but sacrificing a ton so that our world, our country could be a better place.
“We learned a ton about him in school but it was limited. The older you get, the more you realize you didn’t learn as much as you could’ve learned. Our education system back then...you know how it was back then. Columbus discovered America and all of these weird things that didn’t happen. There were so many things about Dr. King that I didn’t know that I learned from my family.
“My granddad who raised me was someone who grew up in that time and looked up to Dr. King and listened to the stories that they went though in colonial Virginia but you also as a kid saw their reaction to Dr. King. It was always of utmost awe and respect and that had a huge impact me as a five, six, seven year-old because my granddad was my hero. And Dr. King was his hero. So I would watch his reaction to people like Dr. King and it had an impact on me.”
The Suns are currently still set to play this game, though Jonas Valanciunas was a late addition to the Grizzlies’ health and safety protocol list over the weekend. The Suns will be without the services of Dario Saric, Damian Jones and Jalen Smith due to COVID protocols. Backup point guard Cameron Payne is questionable, still dealing with an ankle issue.