The NBA's MLK Game: A Day for Tolerance

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I’m blessed to have good friends in every time zone across the United States. On occasion, one of these friends will make an overdue pilgrimage to see what Memphis has to offer besides a big river and Jungle Room. And I’m always sure to take them to the National Civil Rights Museum. The catch, of course, is that the NCRM teaches lessons that transcend a single city, region, or even country. It’s a powerful experience, one that too often leaves my guests in tears as we pass Room 306 of the former Lorraine Motel. They’re all sad for what they know happened on that balcony. And some, it should be said, are mad. At Memphis.

Memphis, Tennessee, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will forever be linked by the horror of April 4, 1968. When James Earl Ray fired the bullet that killed the personification of America's civil rights movement, a wound was opened in Memphis larger than the one that ended the life of an American hero. A city long strained by racial tension suddenly became, with one man's murder, a crucible, one that represented a violent divide within a country built on the idea — no, the dream — that "all men are created equal." Dr. King died in a pool of his own blood. And that blood was spilled in Memphis.

Deep breath now. And pause long enough to consider this connection. Dr. King called Atlanta home. And James Earl Ray was a common drifter, an openly racist hooligan arrested for crimes in California, Missouri, and his native Illinois before he managed to track down his famous target at the Lorraine Motel. Ray was less a Memphian than the thousands of Graceland pilgrims who spend a week in the Bluff City reflecting on the life of another icon who died here. Martin Luther King and Memphis will always be connected. But to blame Memphis for King's murder — to somehow hold the city or region responsible — is to stretch the connection beyond its breaking point.

Monday at FedExForum, the Memphis connection to Dr. King will be celebrated once again by the city's NBA franchise, as the Grizzlies host the New Orleans Pelicans in a nationally televised late-afternoon game. As part of the celebration, two basketball giants — Bernard King and JoJo White — will be saluted with the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award. This is the sporting event I've come to take the most pride in as a Memphian. Basketball played at its highest level, but with thoughts and memories of those who have sacrificed to help the world become a more tolerant place to live. A world where the color of a person's skin is incidental to the value he or she brings a community, let alone a basketball team.

Consider members of the home team who will take the floor against New Orleans, their primary objective keeping playoff hopes alive in a city still wanting to believe. You’ll see two guards from Indianapolis (Mike Conley and Courtney Lee) and a center from Barcelona (Marc Gasol). You’ll see another native of the Hoosier State (Zach Randolph) share the floor with a sharpshooter from South Dakota (Mike Miller). Off the bench will come players from Minnesota (Jon Leuer) and Washington D.C. (Ed Davis). Black and white will mean very little. It will be a day for the country to get more familiar with Beale Street Blue.

The Civil Rights Game — an exhibition between major-league baseball teams first played in 2007 at AutoZone Park — moved on after two years in Memphis, taken over by Major League Baseball. But the annual MLK Day game at FedExForum is here to stay. Look at the list of Sports Legacy Award winners over the last decade and it reads like a wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Willis Reed, and George Gervin to name six. Throw in Jim Brown and Willie Mays and you could put together a Mount Rushmore of American sports legends, all attached to the civil rights movement. And now all attached to Memphis.

Dr. King spoke of a mountaintop during the last speech of his life, at Mason Temple, on April 3, 1968. It’s hard to measure when or if any of us have reached the level of human tolerance King envisioned. Beyond question, though, it’s worth the climb.

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