On Monday, The Undefeated published a piece wherein the Grizzlies‘ all-time leader in games played; Mike Conley talked about what it’s like to play in Memphis on Martin Luther King Day. For those unaware, the NBA has put over 300 games on the schedule on this day (making it one of the rare weekdays with afternoon games) since it was first observed back in 1986.
This year is no different, as 22 teams will compete across 11 games. Not coincidentally, the Grizzlies have hosted a match-up on this holiday every season since 2003 due to Memphis’ connection to King, as it was in that city that he was assassinated on a motel balcony on April 4, 1968. That site is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, and sits less than a mile from the Grizzlies’ FedEx Forum.
“It is kind of hard to concentrate,” Conley said, per The Undefeated. “Your mind is so much entrenched in all the history that was witnessed before you.
Conley continued: “It’s an understatement to call it even special […] It’s unreal how much MLK Day not only means to the world but to the city of Memphis. We have a different sense of it. To me, to have played in every MLK game of my career down in Memphis and all of the stuff surrounding, leading up to it, there are so many things going on and events.”
Conley also added that he’s visited the Civil Rights Museum somewhere between 10 and 15 times.
“Every time I’ve gone, I’ve learned something new, something different from hanging out there a little longer,” he said. “When you first walk into it, it is kind of solemn with a sadness to it. But when you get through it and see more and more, you see what everybody went through and you see what they got out of that. You see the small victories and the big victories we had at the time. You start feeling like you want to celebrate it more because you have a better understanding of what actually went on.”
In the lead up to the holiday, The Undefeated reports that the Grizzlies hold a number of activities, including: “panel discussions, a high school basketball game, a youth basketball tournament, a coach’s clinic and a mentoring recruitment fair.”
On the subject of the week, coach J.B. Bickerstaff also weighed in. “There is a closeness to the situation that I don’t think you can get many other places,” he said. “To be able to, and we’ve done it as a coaching staff, literally stand on the spot where he was assassinated, it brings a different feeling to the entire situation behind it. To have the Civil Rights Museum that close and be able to see the videos and watch the speech he gave where he foresaw this happening, it’s a dramatic feeling.”
Similar to Conley, Bickerstaff also talked about his visits to the nearby museum.
“Not everybody that goes to the museum gets a chance to stand and look across at where the bullet came from,” said the second year coach. “There is a plaque on the ground that shows exactly where [King’s] head was when he fell. No matter your age or not being alive when it happened, understanding the history behind it, being in that spot, that is an experience that you can’t take back. It’s a powerful moment.”
Ex-Grizzles guard (and current team color commentator) Brevin Knight said “It’s special more so because of the festivities around it […] We have a symposium. We honor people that are big in sports and highlight what they do off the floor and how much you are able to give of yourself. MLK gave his life for freedom.”
Knight also implied that the event holds special significance to the fans as well, citing an example from the team’s first MLK Day game, which they hosted on January 20, 2003, amidst a trying season where they got poor attendance. That season they averaged less than 15,000 fans per game, but ended up selling more than 19,000 on that particular day.
“What stands out more to me is that we had 19,000 people,” said Knight. “We were fighting with the University of Memphis’ basketball program for attendance. So for us to have 19,000 people, it meant that the day was bigger than the game.”
The Grizzlies have already tipped off against the Pelicans for this year’s 4:30 p.m. local time contest.