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Atlanta Hawks spend MLK Day encouraging local first-generation college hopefuls

Leaving a legacy was takeaway of the day for kids at State Farm Arena

ATLANTA — In the birth city of Martin Luther King Jr., a familiar event takes place every year. It’s not the celebration of his birthday this time, or people gathering and reminiscing about his assassination on that fateful day in April 1968.

For the past 17 years on the federally observed MLK Day, the NBA has taken the opportunity to honor King for all the sacrifices he made to further educational opportunities, civil rights and equality.

This year, just hours before the Atlanta Hawks lost 122-103 to the Orlando Magic, the team hosted local students from Brown Middle School’s mentorship program, College For Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways, to participate in the Hawks’ Dream Day youth seminar. The unique mentoring partnership between the scholars and the Hawks has been a staple in the team’s community interests since August 2017.

Inside the newly named and renovated State Farm Arena (formerly Philips Arena), roughly 30 students ranging from grades six through eight engaged in conversations and workshops with league staff and volunteers. The activities were mainly centered on King’s legacy of social activism and inclusion.

These future first-year college hopefuls met with several key figures, including Melissa Pierce, wife of Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce; Scott Pioli, assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons; Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery; and Hawks alum Roshown McLeod. They learned about what it means to leave a legacy, the importance of setting goals and pursuing a college education.

“There was a point in my life where I wanted to be rich because I grew up very underprivileged,” said McLeod. “And once I was able to achieve those goals, money didn’t become a driving force for me — it became more of how do I teach my children and the people who come in contact with me. I want them to walk away knowing they have become better and they left me with something. That’s a part of the legacy I want to leave when we speak in terms of Dr. King’s message.”

Pierce says she has been doing this kind of work with youths for years. She did not pass up the opportunity to make sure the scholars understood what this day means to her and her husband, as well as the Atlanta community.

Melissa Pierce (right) speaks with a CFES scholar during the annual youth Dream Day just before the MLK Day game.

Courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks

“Having an opportunity to do some sort of community-based work on MLK Day is always something I jump at, and my husband as well,” Pierce said. “My whole career has been based around working with youth and working in urban situations, and really working to empower and develop opportunities for young people. I was excited even for a couple of hours to go talk to some kids about goal setting and what leaving a legacy even means, and how they can start thinking about that even as early as middle school age.”

Monday’s festivities included the students watching the Hawks’ pregame shootaround, attending a postgame meet-and-greet with Hawks players, taking a VIP tour of the arena and receiving replica Hawks jerseys.

Hawks alum, color commentator and NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins stopped by for photos with the participants. He shared his stance on the importance of MLK Day traditions in Georgia’s capital city.

CFES scholars meet Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins (right) at Dream Day.

Courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks

“This day represents change, it represents progress and success, and who created that for us was Dr. King,” said Wilkins. “Atlanta is a part of history, it’s a part of Dr. King’s history, and to be in the city of the birthplace of Dr. King is a special moment. To be somewhere of such royalty because of what he sacrificed to make sure we all had equal rights.”

The scholars’ day was fulfilled courtesy of Andrea McDonald, CFES director of programs and initiatives.

“I think this is incredibly important. There could not be better symbolism in doing this today,” said McDonald. “That coming together and helping every student look at the incredibly big picture of the work that MLK did, none of us will ever come close to that. But every one of us has the opportunity to do something in our own classroom, in our own family, in our own community, in our own work to continue to move that legacy forward.”

Aside from the game and CFES scholars’ visit, other events from the Hawks organization throughout the weekend included the unveiling of a new outdoor community basketball center at Selena S. Butler Park, next to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation and Aquatic Center. Wilkins and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were both in attendance.

“What makes that court so special is the meaning behind it, representing Dr. King,” said Wilkins. “What he did to bring equality, choices and options for all people, not just black people. It was a great day to unveil that court in honor of him.”

“Dr. King’s legacy is one of service, selflessness and universal human dignity,” said Bottoms. “The Atlanta Hawks’ investment in our communities continues his legacy, and Atlanta is fortunate to have a hometown team that gives so much to its neighbors and fans.”