For the fourth season in a row, the NBA has used the Martin Luther King Jr. public holiday as an informal Diet Christmas, when the NBA airs five games on the Turner and ESPN-ABC networks. Instead of five games and a showcase game in Los Angeles, however, MLK Day only features two games. Each year, however, the “showcase” game takes place in Memphis. As I write, I am watching the Grizzlies take on the Indiana Pacers in a match to see who can play the ugliest basketball before I have my third cup of coffee.
Now, there are many things that seem problematic about playing professional sports on a day that, at the very least, should be an occasion for remembrance, and in its ideal form, a day for action, education and social justice. Indeed, there is a slightly sleazy feeling to sitting around, having a midday beer while ESPN flashes memorable Dr. King quotes arrayed upon pastel colors with stock gospel music playing in the background, and have NBA players issue unconvincing eulogies for the civil rights leaders in the standard post-game presser monotone. It feels disingenuous; similar to the Christmas felicitations the players and coaches issue on Christmas Day, when they’d much rather be at home with their families (or at least taking a day off) than playing basketball on television. The NBA has never really seemed too concerned about closing up shop on days that likely call for it, so I don’t dwell on that concerning aspect to much.
For me, the biggest issue with this whole day is the simple fact that the showcase game takes place in Memphis in the first place. While Memphis was certainly the site of struggles related to Civil Rights in the 1960s, including the Memphis Sanitation Worker Strike which brought Dr. King to the city for an extended organizing stint, it is probably most famous for being the location where Dr. King was assassinated by CIA agent — I mean, White extremist — James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Already, in twenty minutes of watching, that infamous balcony has been shown by ESPNs cameras three times, piano music playing solemnly while the station’s ubiquitous scroll bar spills the latest non-news about Manti Te’o and the Harbowl to the reverent masses.
Two things seem problematic about this. First, using Memphis, the site of King’s death, as a celebration of his life, seems a bit shortsighted. One would think that a game in Atlanta — his hometown — would be more appropriate. Or perhaps Washington DC, the site of his most famous and iconic oration, the “I Have a Dream” speech. But for some reason, ESPN has centered on the city that King died in as the historical epicenter for Dr. King, a move that seems to straddle an undesirable line between “historically ignorant” and “borderline inappropriate”.
Secondly — and this is what actually gets my goat the most — is the fact that the Dr. King that is memorialized by the NBA, the media and, in my pointed opinion, US history curriculums at nearly every level across the United States, was not the Dr. King that was beginning to organize sanitation workers and anti-war activists in Memphis in April of 1968, the month of his death. The King glorified on television throughout the day is a populist leader, seeking to bring reform through legislation. The King that was killed in Memphis had started to radicalize, and had begun to formulate some sharply militant thoughts about the Vietnam War, and CIA action in parts of Africa and Asia. The “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given the night before King was assassinated, lays out King’s thoughts on Vietnam, and the United State’s role in it. Gone is the reformist rhetoric that has been glorified in King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, instead replaced by far more radical theories about operations of American imperialism, both domestic and abroad:
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
This is not the King that the NBA players awkwardly eulogize during commercial breaks; someone who, in our historical imaginations, seems more similar to the man who, today, was inaugurated for a second term in the Oval Office, and not an increasingly radical activists whose political theories and actions were starting to take a radical turn to the left. This is a Dr. King that can be easily consumed and rosily remembered, acceptable to all, and offensive to none.
My point is this: if the NBA wants to invoke the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to push their product, they need to be historically accurate in their portrayal of him, and properly contextualize both the person he was becoming when he arrived in Memphis in 1968, and the place that he was in. The cookie-cutter version we see on the television, being discussed lifelessly by NBA players and game announcers is a mirage, an image that is acceptable the greatest number of people, and a false image of a man whose political ideologies would make the average white, middle-class male cringe, and would seriously push our perceptions on what the 1960s Civil Rights movement to a new, uncomfortable, and refreshingly accurate level.