FROM MY SEAT Extra: Full House Sees Pistons-Griz in MLK Game

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The temporal juxtaposition is impossible to ignore. On January 19, 2009, a nation takes pause to honor the man — an African American — who was and remains the personification of the civil rights movement in the United States. A day later, in the same city where Martin Luther King once dreamed about “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” joining in brotherhood, the son of an African man and a white woman is sworn in — on a bible once held by Abraham Lincoln — as the 44th President of the United States. Some dreams come true . . . others are exceeded.

Here in Memphis on Monday, as part of the city’s tribute to the man who died here almost 41 years ago, our NBA outfit conducted its seventh annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration Game, the one and only chance this season for the entire country to see the young (and too often inept) Grizzlies perform. In front of the TNT cameras, Memphis scored but four points over the last six minutes of the game and dropped its sixth straight game to the Detroit Pistons, 87-79. Allen Iverson led the Pistons with 27 points as Detroit ended its own five-game skid.

The announced attendance of 17,483 was the largest crowd of the season to date at FedExForum, and there was plenty to cheer, both in terms of the action on the court and the atmosphere in the air. Before the late-afternoon tip-off, Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Julius Erving were honored with the fourth-annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award. A longtime Piston, Bing recently announced his candidacy for Detroit mayor, so whatever challenges the Grizzlies may feel they’ve undertaken this season pales in comparison to the challenge Bing is ready to confront in a city all but broken by the decline of America’s auto industry.

As for Erving, he seemed a nice fit for the occasion, the famed “Doctor J” now sporting a gray beard to match the color of his still-thick head of hair, even if the most famous afro in sports has been gone more than 30 years now. Erving, of course, was a teammate of Grizzly head coach Marc Iavaroni on the 1982-83 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers, still one of the ten greatest teams ever assembled.

The 2008-09 Grizzlies are trying to avoid the distinction of worst Memphis team ever assembled, and they seem to be taking strides in that direction, however small. Monday’s game featured 13 lead changes, and the Grizzlies erased a 9-point deficit before finding a lid on the basket at game’s end. Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo led Memphis with 15 points each and Marc Gasol added 12, including a pair of free throws to give the Grizzlies a 75-74 lead with just over six minutes to play. Detroit would outscore the home team 13-4 the rest of the way.

“Losing frustrates you,” said Iavaroni during a brief press conference after the game. “Keeping a positive spirit is very important. Unfortunately, we’re going through a tough stretch right now.”

A positive spirit, ironically, was central to the event. Even with Bing, Erving, and Brandy (who sang the national anthem and performed at halftime) in the building, the loudest cheer of the night came during a video tribute at halftime, when highlights of Dr. King’s life were followed by a clip from Barack Obama’s election-night acceptance speech in Chicago. The crowd seemed to channel November 4th once again, asked once more about the possibilities of America, and the chances for hope. “Tonight is your answer,” the 44th president reminded his viewers. A standing O for President O.

Before the game, in accepting his award, Erving addressed the crowd and mentioned April 1968, and how troubled he was by the rioting and unrest across the country after King’s assassination. He explained that as a high-school senior, the man now known as “the Doctor” resolved to become a “change agent,” to see a better America, one where King’s aspirations might still be fulfilled.

Which brings us again to the 48 hours in January 2009 no Memphian will ever forget, when the city’s last basketball game before America had a black president was played.

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