A Better Way for the NBA to MLK

I have an annual MLK Day tradition now.

On the one hand, I talk to high school students about how basketball players and other athletes from the mid-20th century fought for labor and civil rights.

On the other, I get MAD ONLINE.

This particular post initially began as an endeavor of being MAD ONLINE. For many years, I’ve found the NBA’s commemoration of Martin Luther King to be underwhelming.

Well in the spirit of trying to stay positive like I was with The Youth on Monday, I’m here to make positive suggestions to the NBA.

But first my chidings…


Here are summaries of three gripes I have with the NBA and MLK Day.

  • Black people basically own nothing in the NBA. The NBA is in its 70th season, yet there have been a grand total of two black people who’ve held majority-owner status of a franchise. And one of them literally had to be the Michael Jordan of black people to do it.

  • The NBA is too often in cahoots with despotic regimes. The Hong Kong debacle may have forced a reckoning on this front, but it sure seems odd for the NBA to associate itself with governments in China, India, and Dubai. I perfectly understand the NBA is a business and shouldn’t be expected to go out of its way to champion political agendas, but it’s also a basketball league based in North America. So, it’s definitely going out of its way to host games in these far-off locations.

    Hence the awkwardness of championing human rights icon Martin Luther King while making money with unequivocal human rights abusers.

  • The NBA treats MLK Day as a showcase akin to Christmas instead of behaving with some semblance of symbolism the occasion is due. IMO, if any games are gonna be played, they should only be in Washington, Memphis, and Atlanta. Let’s go from where King made his most famous speech (Washington) to where he made his last civil rights stand (Memphis) to where he was born and buried (Atlanta). Instead the league has a cavalcade of 14 games. Not inherently bad, but not giving all three “MLK teams” the coveted national TNT games seems to reveal the drive for showcase over substance.

The NBA seems comfortable, like most of America honestly, in embracing the King sanitized through that one famous line in the I Have A Dream speech that I won’t even bother quoting cuz you can imagine it yourself.

Here’s a better quote from Dr. King, btw…

“[W]e must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

MLK, April 4, 1967

However, if the NBA wants to thump its chest about Martin Luther King and have all these games while not seriously tackling what King called the evil triplets - racism, extreme materialism, and militarism - then I’ve come up with the perfect solution that is easy for a business to do, while still having the potential for honoring King in a real way.


We’ll give the NBA a bone and say they’re doing well enough addressing racism. And we know they aren’t about to give a full-throated denunciation of militarism or materialism.

So with that said, how about taking into account one of King’s other great pursuits: voting rights.

Given recent shenanigans in states like Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio, the NBA has a platform to inform those residents about voter registration law. Indeed, Atlanta, Miami, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Cleveland all hosted NBA games on MLK Day.

Everyone in attendance should have received info on voter registration. Everyone watching on the local or national broadcast should have been doused in voter registration info too.

Heckle, harass, harangue fans into becoming good citizens.

To their credit, the Kings and Hawks have undertaken small forays into this endeavor. However, this should be something the NBA can proudly champion all year round, every year. After all, Martin Luther King didn’t single out one day a year to do some voting work.

King and the civil rights marchers who got their skulls bashed in during the Selma March were able to push the nation into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They even got ole crusty ass Lyndon B. Johnson to say “We shall overcome” to a joint session of Congress.

After successful protesting and cajoling, the Voting Rights Act was passed and LBJ had MLK in attendance as he signed the bill into law.


Five years ago, I was teaching some high school students about civil rights and King. We were going over different forms of civil disobedience, when it’s right to protest, etc.

When we got to King’s death, I told them he died standing up for garbage workers. The looks on their faces clearly revealed they had not been taught a thing about why King was in Memphis the day he was murdered.

So, we had a conversation about how perhaps the most famous American of the 20th century and most influential political figure in modern American history was gunned down trying to get sanitation workers a living wage and decent working conditions.

The NBA - players included - could work to fulfill what was really the core of King’s political campaign by the end of his life. Philanthropy and an NBA Cares commercial don’t quite cut it.

Set a real example by not having the league operate on a sea of underpaid and/or overworked laborers. The league and its players should commit to every team employee - and the employees of the arenas they play in - being paid a living wage in line with the cost of living for the region the each franchise is based in.

Or as Dr. King put it speaking in Memphis just weeks before his death…

“Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income. You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.”

MLK, March 18, 1968

So let’s not only see Martin Luther King, let’s lay our eyes on the prize of annihilating bigotry and poverty.

(Or you know, simply stop running a basketball academy in a Chinese province currently littered with “re-education” camps.)


(or you ain’t said a damn thing)