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It’s bigger than basketball on MLK Day

Remembering the NBA’s place in racial history and social change on MLK Day.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, on the third Monday in January, Americans celebrate MLK day, a commemorative holiday during which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and accomplishments during the Civil Rights Movement. He and his campaign for civil disobedience under the systemically oppressive Jim Crow laws were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and his nonviolent teachings and methodologies contributed to the eventual enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the monumental law in the United States that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dr. King stood for what he believed was right and just, and his actions helped change the lives for citizens in America’s minority communities. However, many Americans take the day for granted and simply appreciate it as a day off from work and watch basketball. The point of this article isn’t to say that anyone should feel ashamed for relaxing today; in fact, a day of rest is a welcomed relief during these tough times. Rather, my goal is to remind everyone that although we get to watch sports with players hailing from every race and ethnicity, it wasn’t always that way.

The NBA, or as it was known previously the Basketball Association of America, was founded in 1946. During the first season, there were over 150 players spread out across eleven teams, yet among those original 150, none of them were Black men. Was it because African American men weren’t playing the sport? No, it wasn’t. In fact, African Americans began playing basketball in 1904, roughly 42 years before the NBA started. Edwin Bancroft Henderson, an American educator working in Washington D.C. and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pioneer, is credited for introducing basketball to African American communities. Henderson learned about basketball during summers spent at Harvard University, where he was studying medicine, health, and physical education. Upon his return to Washington D.C., he taught the game to the young Black men in his Phys Ed. Class. Not too long after, the game spread across the east coast like wildfire, mostly being played in urban epicenters like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Black men were playing basketball at the time of the NBA, albeit in smaller pro and semipro leagues across the country, and the best players were featured on famous all-Black teams such as the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Renaissance, who won the first World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago in 1939. The Globetrotters were nice; they romped around the country beating everybody and anybody, including the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers. They had style, finesse, personality, and most importantly, they had game. Their fanbase continuously grew as time went on, and NBA owners recognized the team’s popularity. Eventually, the New York Knicks owner wanted to sign Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton to the team. The other owners in the league refused to allow it, but in 1950 they changed their minds after the Knicks threatened to leave the league. That same year, the Boston Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper, and the Washington Capitols (before they were the Bullets and Wizards) selected Earl Lloyd. These three men were the first Black men to sign with the NBA. They broke the league’s color barrier, and they opened the door for future generations to play and grow the game into what it is today.

So, after the NBA allowed African American players to sign with the league everything was well and good, right? Absolutely not. Although the league was starting to interracialize, some parts of the United States still upheld Jim Crow laws and segregation, and NBA superstars weren’t exempt from following them. Thus, NBA athletes began to take a stance on the side of social justice. In 1961, NBA legend and civil rights figure Bill Russell refused to play in protest during a road trip to Lexington, Kentucky. While the team was in town to play the St. Louis Hawks, several Black Celtics players including Russell were refused service at a coffee shop in the Phoenix Hotel. When Russell spoke to media following the road trip, he told them, “I will not play any place again under those circumstances.”

Alongside Russell, numerous NBA icons have expressed their beliefs about racial inequality in the United States and have stood as pillars for social justice modeled after Dr. Martin Luther King himself: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and others. Here in Philadelphia, the Sixers also have athletes who aim to do the work Dr. King did during his lifetime. Sixers forward Tobias Harris, a finalist for the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, is a longtime advocate for social change. His primary focus has been to eliminate the inequalities within school systems that have historically harmed young people of color. Last year, his foundation, the Tobias Harris Charitable Fund, awarded $300,000 for the School District of Philadelphia to recruit teachers from HBCUs or diverse backgrounds as well as provide relocation stipends. He also created Tobias’ Top Teachers program to assist in the recruitment and retention of Black male teachers by helping fund 55 professional development workshops and providing 800 teachers with needed classroom supplies. Additionally, through his Lit Labs program that focuses on improving reading scores among students of diverse backgrounds, he distributed 30,000 books to 8,000 Philadelphia children to prevent summer reading gaps and helped improve the average rate gain for 1st and 2nd graders over a four-week period by 240 percent.

On his charitable work, Harris said: “For me, education for our youth has been a huge focal point that I’d like to get involved in. Being that I play in Philadelphia and that’s where I live, I want to really get down to the roots of the school system and find a way that I can make an impact and help the kids out in the Philadelphia area. Education has always been a huge focal point for me and the things that I do in terms of philanthropy.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted almost 58 years ago, but the job Dr. King started isn’t finished. Some people think there’s a threshold that was crossed when the Civil Rights Act was signed, as if America’s unequal society somehow vanished as soon as the ink dried on the document. Needless to say, that wasn’t the case. Today, we are living in the aftermath of Civil Rights Movement, which means our lifetime is in the wake of ongoing change. Racial, social, and economic inequality are still unfortunate facets of contemporary American society. However, we have been given the tools by Dr. King and other social justice activists to carry on with their mission to create equality.

I don’t want to end this article with a quote from the brilliant mind of Dr. King because his words have been recycled too many times and have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, I am issuing a simple challenge to you, the reader, on this MLK day. Take the time out of your restful day to look outside at your community and your city, and ask yourself, “How can I do my part and make this place better? Who can I help, and how? On which social topics am I ignorant, and where can I find credible information to learn about them? What organizations could I possibly get involved with to make positive change?” However, if you do those things and see nothing wrong with the way things are, then you must live on Mars.