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Behind the Atlanta Hawks’ tribute to MLK through their new uniforms

The team will wear the ‘City Edition’ jerseys for the first time on Jan. 18


With Atlanta being the hometown of Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta Hawks have enjoyed the privilege of hosting an NBA game every year to celebrate MLK Day. But this MLK Day will be extra special for the Hawks, who will proudly stick their chests out even further to honor the civil rights icon as the first team to wear a jersey featuring the letters “MLK.”

“For us to be the team that wears [those] three letters on a chest, it was going to mean a lot to us,” Hawks All-Star Trae Young said of the team’s new “City Edition” jerseys, which they’ll wear for the first time Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

King was born in Atlanta on Jan 15, 1929. He also raised his family in Atlanta and pastored local churches, including Ebenezer Baptist, with his father, Martin Luther King Sr.

A graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, King was one of the leaders of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the March on Washington, where he delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts in the civil rights movement.

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at age 39 while supporting the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Dr. King is the first name you think of when you think of the city of Atlanta,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said. “And when you talk about City Edition, there’s nothing better that we can do to represent the city of Atlanta than rolling out some jerseys that represent Dr. King and the legacy of Dr. King.”

The jerseys had been in the making for a few years. The Hawks first briefed the NBA about the jersey idea in September 2018. Members of the Hawks, including chief marketing officer Melissa Proctor, vice president of brand creative Shirley Zhang and vice president of brand merchandising Amy Serino, worked with Nike on the design. At the start of 2019, the original designs were made and the King Center was looped in.

Proctor said the King Center was very supportive of the idea from the start.

“From the very beginning, once we had a design that we liked, there was a lot of conversation in terms of what our ideas were, how are we going to impact the community,” Proctor said. “One of the things that they were adamant about from very early on in their process was how do we bring Dr. King’s legacy and knowledge of Dr. King to the next generation. And based on our target audience, who we literally have named next-generation Atlantans, we thought that it was a perfect synergy in partnering together to help tell the story of Dr. King in a new and unique way through basketball and through the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Atlanta Hawks will debut a new alternate jersey honoring Martin Luther King Jr. when they host the Minnesota Timberwolves on MLK Day. Profits from the jersey sales will be donated to the Atlanta community.

Atlanta Hawks

The MLK jerseys feature black, gold and white colors, which is a nod to King’s membership in the first Black Greek-letter fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. Several of the details throughout the uniform were inspired by architectural elements of churches. And King’s signature is on an authenticity tag at the bottom of the jersey.

The stars along the sides of the shorts represent 22 times King was jailed fighting for justice and equality. And the waistband displays the Hawks’ primary icon logo encircled in black to symbolize “the continuous quest of the Black community to achieve freedom and justice.”

“When you really understand some of the details of it as well, as I’m still learning, I think really people are going to be excited to have that jersey on and come to an Atlanta Hawks game,” Pierce said.

The Hawks said they are donating profits from the jersey sales back into the Atlanta community “to help further initiatives championed by King.”

The Hawks also said the Vatican reached out on Jan. 7 asking for the MLK jersey so the Pope, who wanted to acknowledge the stand NBA players haven taken in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, could pray a blessing over them. The Hawks posted a video on Friday of the Pope receiving the jersey and blessing it.

Along with the jerseys, the Hawks will play Monday’s game on the MLK City Edition court that took nearly a year to complete. MLK’s initials will be set along the court’s sideline, as will the 22 “Freedom Stars.” At center court, the Hawks’ logo will be featured in a mosaic pattern reminiscent of a stained-glass motif in a church.

“The concept was a little bit of a no-brainer in looking at what our fans have been responding to,” Zhang said of the overall collaboration. “Why not celebrate one of our most favorite sons of Atlanta, which is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?”

The Hawks are expected to wear the MLK jerseys 10 times this season. And the players plan to wear them with pride.

“I feel like, for me, it just gives me a little bit of an edge, a little bit more of a chip to play harder, and prove to the city of Atlanta that we earned these letters as we’ve been pushing so hard to tell our fans,” Hawks forward John Collins said.

Said Young: “Honoring him even more, I think it’s going to be even more special to the city and to our team.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.