There were many parades and ceremonies on Monday, January 21, commemorating Martin Luther King’s birthday. Later in the week, on January 24, there was a quieter and meaningful ceremony at US Airways Center, where the Phoenix Suns and PetSmart hosted a MLK Symposium.
Professional sports played a major role in Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. King described Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American in Major League Baseball, as "... a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides." Robinson became one of the most popular and effective spokespeople for King’s civil rights movement.
Fewer people know that Earl Lloyd debuted with the NBA’s Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950. The contributions of African-Americans led to changes in the pace, style and popularity of the sport. Today the NBA is a popular American sports globally, with one of the largest social media communities in the world (278 million likes). It is also the sport, where African-Americans have made the greatest strides: 78% of players, 47% of headcoaches, and 13% of CEO/President positions.
The Suns event featured a panel that spanned generations: Lenny Wilkens, the second winningest coaches of all time, Eddie Johnson, former Sun, 17-year NBA player, and current broadcaster, and Adrian Williams-Strong, a former Phoenix Mercury and WNBA All-Star. They described how Dr. King influenced their lives to an audience of local non-profit groups.
Dr. King’s effect on their confidence, decision-making, actions and beliefs was evident as they described anecdotes, such as a young Lieutenant Wilkens refusing to play in a game in Texas after the Black players were forced to use the back door of a local restaurant; Johnson’s having to fight while growing up in Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago (Dr. King often cited Chicago as one of his biggest challenges); and Strong’s current resistance to sitting in the back of the room, when so many sacrificed to give her the right to sit up front.
The audience was very moved and swarmed the panelists after the discussion. The Suns were inspiring that night, too, beating the Pacific-leading LA Clippers. Sports, in the form of protests and boycotts, played a major role in the passage of the MLK holiday in Arizona. Phoenix sports did honor Dr. King on Thursday.