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Grizzlies’ Brandon Clarke bonds with dad during trip to civil rights museum

The Memphis rookie got an important lesson in African American history

As a rookie for the Memphis Grizzlies, Brandon Clarke had yet to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. But that changed when his father, Steve, came to visit in December.

Steve Clarke, who lives in Norway, first visited the museum by himself while his son was practicing at the FedExForum on Dec. 14. But after going on the tour, he was excited to tell his son about his trip and suggested Brandon attend when he had the time.

“I said, ‘This museum is around the people you are around every single day, and it’s part of you as well,’ ” said Steve Clarke. “ ‘Although I am not African American, I am of Jamaican descent, so that is the same thing. They paved for you to get here, otherwise it would not have worked out for me or you.’ ”

Steve Clarke, who spent the first 10 years of his life living in Jamaica before his family immigrated to Toronto, said his 23-year-old mixed-race son is still learning about race issues in America.

Brandon Clarke (left), as a kid with his father Steve (right), who taught him the game of basketball.

Courtesy of the Clarke family

Brandon Clarke was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father and Canadian mother, Whitney Triplett, raised him together and moved to Phoenix when Brandon was a child. His dad introduced him to basketball (“When he was born, he had a basketball in his hand,” Steve Clarke said), and Clarke’s parents eventually split.

“He has heard of racism and we talk about these things, but sometimes it goes over past his head,” Steve Clarke said. “He comes from two different races. He is only going to get certain information from one side of the family, and not the other side when it comes to this sort of situation.”

For Clarke’s dad, it was important for his son to learn about African American history. And much to his delight, Clarke heeded his father’s Dec. 14 advice. The father and son made plans to attend the National Civil Rights Museum together the next day. The rookie would pay for two $17 tickets for an invaluable history lesson.

“I didn’t know the museum was made in honor of MLK, at first. I thought it was just for civil rights,” Clarke said. “I had no idea that this was where he was killed.”

The National Civil Rights Museum has exhibits focusing on slavery in America from 1619-1861, student sit-ins in 1960, the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks from 1955-56, the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Black Power Movement. The museum also has 40 films, oral histories, more than 250 artifacts, interactive media and listening posts taking visitors through five centuries of history, including the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and worldwide events in the fight for equality.

The Clarkes spent nearly two hours at the museum. The Grizzlies forward said the exhibit on slavery touched him the most. His father added Clarke was stunned about how poorly African Americans were treated and made a point to talk to his son about the importance of freedom.

“He stayed for everything. Watched everything and listened to everything. I was really happy to see that he was interested to see that,” Steve Clarke said. “I felt good about it. I didn’t know if he really wanted to see anything like that. That is not something we really talk about on a regular basis.”

Clarke said he enjoyed learning more about history.

“It is somewhere you want to go to if you have time because there is so much stuff to go and see,” he said. “It is really hard to pack it all in because there is so much information there.”

After his trip to Memphis, Steve Clarke continued to encourage his son to respect the African American history of the city and the people from all walks of life from Memphis.

“Memphis is great for history. Great for America. And he needs to be committed to the environment that he is in,” Steve Clarke said. “Not just the basketball team, but the community as well.”

The Grizzlies are one of 14 NBA teams hosting games on MLK Day to celebrate the life of King, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. Videos will be played during each NBA game to honor King’s legacy. Former NFL and Grambling star quarterback Doug Williams, former NBA stars Robert Parish and Caron Butler and former WNBA great Sheryl Swoopes will also be presented with the 15th Annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award on Monday for their contributions to civil and human rights.

Clarke, who has been one of the top rookies this season (he’s averaging 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds), is looking forward to playing his first MLK Day game.

“It’s really cool playing on that day, especially in that city with so much history from him,” Clarke said of King. “I’m definitely looking forward to that game. I’m going to play that game for him.”

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.