Community service may be colorblind, and King himself was as concerned with class as race by the end of his life. But let's be real about this: King did more than anyone else to foment for equal rights in this country; the NBA, a majority-black league that's a constant lightning rod for issues of race and a conduit for pop culture influence, is more than just sports. It's inextricably linked with the issue of race in America.
If the NBA really wanted to acknowledge its importance, and the ways in which it's part of the same story as King, it would schedule zero games today.
What exactly is the link between the NBA and Dr. King? Today, The San Jose Mercury News asked if "the NBA represent[s] what King was about?" The key passage:
As a league, the NBA has long been a champion for Dr. King and his legacy. The league recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day years before it became a national holiday. What's more, players and executives have been champions for the same causes that Dr. King addressed, even before Dr. King.
"The NBA has always been head and shoulder above," [Al] Attles said. "And you've got to delineate even further back to the individuals who hired people who look like me. Mr. (Franklin) Mieuli. Red Auerbach. The owner who hired Lenny Wilkins. The owner who hired K.C. Jones."There you have it. The NBA has a long history of being progressive on race, if only internally, and thus should be celebrated. Later on, we get allusions to guys like Kevin Garnett and Corey Maggette, who use their money to give back to the communities but have no interest in speaking out, or even gaining recognition for their actions. Depending on where you sit, that's either noble beyond belief (in the Jewish tradition, charity is a dish best served anonymously), or a cop-out that avoids the real responsibility of addressing root causes, or raising awareness of the problems these players choose to address with their wallets.
(Incidentally, this puts them in line with the ultra-benign "day of service" take on MLK Day. Heck, it takes it even further-if you lay your money down, you don't need a once-a-year reminder.)
However, while it may be an oversimplification to paint King as solely a Civil Rights leader, or to downplay the connection between race and class in America, the fact remains: If I care about basketball, I'm trying to spend today on the couch, focused on the NBA. And there's something wrong with that. No matter how you like your Dr. King, he's indispensable as a figure who demands we take a long, hard look at our society, and take action to try and bring about equality and opportunity for all. Contrast this with the NBA, which over the years has gained notoriety for -- through no fault of its own -- offering up the false hope of easy millions to any kid who stars in high school, a form of bad faith that depends on accepting the status quo.
Last night, 60 Minutes reported on American Samoa, where a male child is fifty-six times more likely to make the NFL than any other boy born today. It's a beautiful story and yes, Samoans make great football players. However, this meme is pure poison to anyone who has spent years fighting against the myth that African-Americans have an easy shot at the NBA just because of the league's demographic make-up. The NBA probably should stand up and loudly say "kids, for once, pretend we don't exist" on this holiday. Or redouble its efforts to send players out into the community to stress how unlikely, and lucky, their career paths have been, how many of their friends didn't make it, why they're the ones who beat the system.
And let's not even get into the other side of the equation: what highlighting the NBA does for those inclined to see African-Americans as nothing more than athletes and rappers.
Look, I'm not planning to boycott basketball today. Nor am I suggesting that the league, which is a business, be turned into an agent of social justice. It's a day off for many people; give them something to watch. But it's increasingly strange that celebrating MLK Day with basketball has become the natural thing to do, when in fact, it's an incredibly problematic, or at least lazy, interpretation of our society.