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This Week in Sports History: MLK’s legacy magnifies race relations in the NBA

This week saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day come and go on Jan. 19, but the impact of his legacy, and especially his assassination, proved that racial ideology (and conflict) affected every facet of life even then. The NBA, being one of the first mostly-Black American leagues, was undoubtedly the most outspoken about the death of one of their most revered heroes.

Bill Russell is, and always will be, an NBA legend. The man with the most championships at 11 in 13 years, leading one of the greatest dynasties in sports’ history in the 1960s’ Boston Celtics, was also tied to civil rights activism. He shared in King’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” protest in 1963 and was present for King’s emphatic “I Have a Dream” speech. It should come as no surprise, then, that James Earl Ray’s assassination of King in 1968 put a tremendous void in Russell’s heart. The league, at least among the players, was fraught with hopelessness and misery, Russell included. 

The shock, however, didn’t give the NBA a good enough reason to postpone the upcoming finals in their eyes. As ruthless of a decision as it was to many Black Americans and supporters of King’s cause, the world of sports had been proven to be heartless before, as the NFL hosted live games immediately following the death of President John F. Kennedy. The coldness of big business and entertainment was well known (and has only grown in recent years), but it nonetheless added to the despair felt among Black communities, especially as certain figures in the NBA were outspoken about their lack of respect for King, according to a quote from Celtics forward Bailey Howell: “What was his title? Why should we call off the game?” That sentiment mirrored a prevailing attitude at the time; King’s efforts — as strongly as they had appealed to some — were marginalized and ridiculed by others, probably far greater in number than those who supported him. 

In the wake of King’s death and the violence that was soon to arise from it, Wilt Chamberlain, a Philadelphia 76ers Hall of Famer and Russell’s rival in the finals, was visibly shaken. So much so, in fact, that he voted to sit the game out, along with teammate Wali Jones. After the game, in which Russell’s Celtics downed Chamberlain’s Sixers, the two attended King’s funeral — a moment so moving for Russell that it inspired his entrance into the political sector. 

The clouds of uncertainty and confusion that draped over the players’ minds would take a long while to fade away — after all, their greatest hope for the future of their nation had just been cast into the flames of hatred and disillusion. Who would represent their interests as voraciously or as grand as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Would more fall victim to the same fate, and would anybody care if they did? Russell revealed these doubts in a 2010 interview, feeling that his ideas — which others had called him a “crazy Negro” for — had been coming to fruition, and it’s without a doubt that such feelings had been present since the death of King.

The NBA’s approach to King’s death in the moment, to many, was callous and emotionless, but the players’ decisions led to more respect for the activist in later years. Games in MLK’s honor became a regular occurrence; in fact, the Memphis Grizzlies host a national game every MLK Day, and some players collaborated to build the Dream BIG Campaign — an effort to recognize Black achievements and cultural contributions — that gets together every MLK Day as well. 

Undoubtedly, these efforts are able to expand as a result of the growing number of Black athletes in the NBA, as well as their vastly grown spheres of influence. Opinions like that of Bailey Howell’s would certainly be scrutinized, as the NBA as a whole has become an organization that celebrates Blackness and the goals that have been reached socially, which have come out of efforts made by the Black community. Certainly, the death of King, while horrifically traumatic for those who supported civil rights and equality, was a spark. That spark took activists to new heights, which desegregated cities and schools, and that spark was definitely helped along by high-profile athletes, like Russell and Chamberlain, making their voices heard.