“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Way back in 2001, when the Vancouver Grizzlies’ move to Memphis was confirmed, the most common thought and expression, from Harbor Town to Collierville and from Millington to Olive Branch, was “We’re finally big league!” After dalliances with the ABA, WFL, USFL, CFL and, lest we forget, the XFL, Memphis would finally be part of a league whose initials — NBA! — could stand alone nationwide, worldwide even. (Bridging eras, the new team’s nickname was actually the informal calling card of the Memphis Southmen, this city’s entry in the World Football League during the 1970s.) Memphis would appear in standings that folks in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York actually cared about.
I’ve got mixed feelings about the “big-league” label. Memphis has been big-league in ventures outside the sports arena for decades. Consider St. Jude and the war against childhood cancer. A few rock-and-roll Hall of Famers sharpened their games in Memphis before becoming household names. And how about distribution before and after FedEx? The Bluff City has long had big-league credentials, just minus those standings in the sports section.
But there’s one day each year that makes me feel decidedly Big League (caps required). It’s the annual Martin Luther King Day game at FedExForum. First played in 2003 (the Grizzlies lost to Portland at The Pyramid), the game serves as a national salute to a surpassing human being, from the city where he was tragically struck down in 1968. (For anyone who might feel the location of such a game is inappropriate, remember James Earl Ray was a drifter from Illinois. He was less a Memphian than Juan Carlos Navarro.) The game is televised nationally, during the day when kids can enjoy the contest from start to finish.
Better yet, since 2006 the Grizzlies and National Civil Rights Museum have partnered in saluting former athletes who have made a difference beyond the sports arena. Want to feel big-league? Check out the list of men (no women yet) who have received the Sports Legacy Award: Bill Russell, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Julius Erving, Dave Bing, Oscar Robertson, Alonzo Mourning, Willis Reed, Lenny Wilkens, George Gervin, Clyde Drexler, Elgin Baylor, and Patrick Ewing. Those are merely the former NBA greats. Three players on every alltime top-10 list (Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, and Russell) and 25-percent of the 1992 Dream Team (Robinson, Drexler, Ewing).
Mannie Jackson was honored (with Russell) in 2006. You’ve heard of the Harlem Globetrotters? Jackson owns the franchise.
Willie Mays was honored in 2011. If not the greatest baseball player in history, he’s among the top three.
Jim Brown is a 2013 honoree (along with Baylor and Ewing). If not the greatest football player in history, he’s among the top three.
It’s wonderful that so many decidedly big-league legends have been accorded adulation here in Memphis, and adulation for making an impact on lives. Mutombo battles hunger and poverty in Africa. Brown battles gang violence. Mourning battles kidney disease, an ailment he knows all too well himself. These heroes have used their achievements as athletes to enhance the difference they can make in the larger community. Think Dr. King would be proud? (Let’s remember the Grizzlies Charitable Foundation earned the franchise Sport Team of the Year for 2012, an international honor awarded over finalists from the U.K. and Australia. And, ahem, the Boston Celtics.)
It would be nice if the Grizzlies could beat a tough Indiana Pacers team Monday afternoon. (Memphis is 5-5 on MLK Day.) But whether you’re watching at the arena or from your living room, take a deep breath of pride and raise your shoulders, Memphians. Our big-league team will deliver on Martin Luther King Day. Victory assured.