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MLK Day holds significant meaning for Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley, J.B. Bickerstaff discuss the emotions of playing on MLK Day


No player in Memphis Grizzlies franchise history has played in more games than Mike Conley Jr., who was on the squad that advanced to the 2013 Western Conference finals. But of all the games that Conley has played in a Grizzlies uniform, none conjures more mixed emotions than the Martin Luther King Jr. Day games in Memphis, Tennessee.

“It is kind of hard to concentrate,” Conley said. “Your mind is so much entrenched in all the history that was witnessed before you.”

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for an end to racial segregation. Through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Baptist minister became one of the country’s most influential African-American leaders in the fight for civil rights. In 1983, federal legislation was signed to create a federal holiday in his honor on the third Monday in January. In 1994, Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service.

The NBA has scheduled games to celebrate MLK Day since the holiday was first observed in 1986, and there have been more than 300 MLK Day games in total, according to the league.

The NBA will honor King once again during its 11-game slate on Monday. There will be games in Atlanta, King’s hometown, and in Washington, D.C., where he gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. In Memphis, the Grizzlies will host the New Orleans Pelicans.

Since moving from Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2001, the Grizzlies have hosted an MLK Day game every year since 2003 because of the city’s connection to King. In Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers, King was assassinated while standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. The site is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is a half-mile drive from the Grizzlies’ home arena, FedEx Forum.

“There is a closeness to the situation that I don’t think you can get many other places,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “To be able to, and we’ve done it as a coaching staff, literally stand on the spot where he was assassinated, it brings a different feeling to the entire situation behind it. To have the Civil Rights Museum that close and be able to see the videos and watch the speech he gave where he foresaw this happening, it’s a dramatic feeling.”

NBA teams hosting an MLK Day game typically have several events leading up to the game. In Memphis, the Grizzlies host events for three days, including awards, panel discussions, a high school basketball game, a youth basketball tournament, a coach’s clinic and a mentoring recruitment fair.

“It’s an understatement to call it even special,” Conley said. “It’s unreal how much MLK Day not only means to the world but to the city of Memphis. We have a different sense of it. To me, to have played in every MLK game of my career down in Memphis and all of the stuff surrounding, leading up to it, there are so many things going on and events.”

On Monday, the Grizzlies will host a Sports Legacy Award presentation honoring former NBA player Chris Bosh; the NBA’s first African-American general manager, Wayne Embry; WNBA star Candace Parker; and Hall of Famer Bill Walton. The four honorees are also expected to speak at the annual Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium. Lloyd was the first African-American to play in an NBA game when he debuted for the Washington Capitals in 1950. On Sunday, there was also a discussion scheduled with Grizzlies guard Garrett Temple and former NBA star Grant Hill at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“It’s special more so because of the festivities around it,” said former Grizzlies guard Brevin Knight, who is now the team’s television color analyst. “We have a symposium. We honor people that are big in sports and highlight what they do off the floor and how much you are able to give of yourself. MLK gave his life for freedom.”

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr. (left) and coach J.B. Bickerstaff (right) tour the National Civil Rights Museum in 2018.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Conley said he has been to the National Civil Rights Museum 10 to 15 times during his time with the Grizzlies. Bickerstaff has been there several times as well. No matter how many times both have visited, the museum continues to have a strong impact on them.

“Every time I’ve gone, I’ve learned something new, something different from hanging out there a little longer,” Conley said. “When you first walk into it, it is kind of solemn with a sadness to it. But when you get through it and see more and more, you see what everybody went through and you see what they got out of that. You see the small victories and the big victories we had at the time. You start feeling like you want to celebrate it more because you have a better understanding of what actually went on.”

Conley says the first museum exhibit, including the history of the African slave ships, is what stands out to him most.

Bickerstaff recalled being a part of a private tour where he was able to stand on the ledge where King was assassinated.

“Not everybody that goes to the museum gets a chance to stand and look across at where the bullet came from,” Bickerstaff said. “There is a plaque on the ground that shows exactly where [King’s] head was when he fell. No matter your age or not being alive when it happened, understanding the history behind it, being in that spot, that is an experience that you can’t take back. It’s a powerful moment.”

The Grizzlies hosted their first MLK Day game in Memphis on Jan. 20, 2003, at the Pyramid Arena. They averaged 14,910 fans per game during the 2002-03 season but had a crowd of 19,084 for that contest. Grizzlies forward Lorenzen Wright had team highs of 22 points and nine rebounds in a 99-87 loss more remembered for the MLK celebration during the game.

“What stands out more to me is that we had 19,000 people,” said Knight, who scored two points in that game. “We were fighting with the University of Memphis’ basketball program for attendance.

“So for us to have 19,000 people, it meant that the day was bigger than the game.”

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.