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Memphis Grizzlies honor civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. with new Nike uniform

Front-office execs discuss the ‘I Am a Man’-inspired look in our exclusive interview

The NBA’s most meaningful uniform of the season honors the civil rights movement, an iconic slogan, and one of the era’s most fearless, Martin Luther King Jr.

On Friday, the Memphis Grizzlies announce the release of its MLK50 City Edition uniform. The new look marks the fourth and final installment of the series of uniforms presented to all 30 NBA teams by Nike in the company’s first season as the league’s official apparel provider. Nike’s Association and Icon uniforms follow the traditional home and away concept. The Statement uniforms (for example, Golden State’s “The Town” jerseys) are geared to styling big games and rivalries, while the City uniforms, which have yet to be fully released across the league, draw inspiration from each team’s community.

Memphis, Tennessee’s, version of the City uniform honors the 50 years that have passed since the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike for racial, social and economic justice. The movement was sparked by the deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck on Feb. 1, 1968. The strike brought King to Memphis, where he was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Hotel, the very day after delivering his now timeless “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

The stark and subtly designed black-and-white uniform, with an underlined wordmark, draws inspiration from the “I Am a Man” slogan, which served as a powerful rallying cry in bold lettering on protest signs wielded during strike marches. The Grizzlies will debut the jerseys on the court in a nationally televised home Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, set for Jan. 15, 2018. The team is also scheduled to wear them on April 4, 2018, in support of the National Civil Rights Museum’s (located at the Lorraine Motel) remembrance of the 50th anniversary of assassination of King.

The Undefeated spoke with Grizzlies president of business operations Jason Wexler, as well as John Pugliese, the team’s vice president of brand, content marketing, broadcast and communications, about the process of bringing the tribute to life.


How did the idea come about — to honor the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike?

Wexler: As there’s been greater flexibility in uniform design over the years. And, locally as we approach the 50-year anniversary of MLK’s death, we felt that maybe there was an opportunity in the lead-up to express the history of how we got here. The difficult thing was the uniform design would have to be 100 percent spot-on to be completely respectful, and completely understanding of the magnitude of the history we’re trying to bring awareness to. We were committed going into it, that if the design wasn’t spot-on, respectful and understanding, we weren’t going to do it unless we could get the design perfect. We really commend the designers at Nike for coming through.

When did the Nike design process begin, and how hands-on was the Grizzlies organization?

Wexler: We understand the importance of MLK Day, and the anniversary of his death being [at its] the 50th year in Memphis. So we really gave Nike a lot of background with regard to what we’ve done with the museum. We shared with them what our intentions were from the organization for this year, and the things we want to recognize. They were able to look at that, combined with their take on the history of Memphis. It was really a great partnership in terms of design, and part of that is fueled by the fact that Memphis is the second-biggest Nike city in the country. Their North American Logistics Center is here, so their design was really motivated both by the history, and Nike’s physical presence, and civic presence, in our community.

 

The Grizzlies will debut the jerseys in a nationally televised home Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 15, 2018.

Why the ‘I Am a Man’ sign?

Wexler: When you look back to the history of what led to April 4, 1968, it came from the sanitation workers’ strike, and those signs are the most iconic image of the strike. And the church, Clayborn Temple, where the strikers organized, and marched from is literally across the street from FedEx Forum. The Civil Rights Museum is four blocks away. We’re in their backyard. So when we were looking for design inspiration and we look back to that moment in time, that’s the most iconic image.

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One thing that really struck me about it, too, is last year when the team was doing a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, Elliot Perry, one of our owners, who does radio commentary, and player support with respect to player initiatives in the community … he was leading this tour and he points to a person in the photo, and goes, ‘This is my grandfather.’ So this is somebody we know, and work with every day. In this city, this is a very much so alive connection. It’s history but it’s not ancient history. It’s history that’s very present among us daily with the people who are in … Memphis. We’re not looking back so far — we’re looking within ourselves to try and find the right inspiration.

Was the plan always to keep the uniform simple, like the ‘I Am a Man’ sign?

Wexler: Once you decide on the sign as the design influence, it’s so powerful in and of itself, and the starkness of it is so powerful. You look at all the photos of the era, and they’re all pretty much black-and-white photos. You see all these incredibly dignified people leading marches dressed in their dark suits and ties, and it’s inherently a somber moment and event. To sit there and try to dress that up or add flair or pizzazz to it would just do a disservice. If we could not get the tone and aesthetic exactly right on this, we weren’t going to do it. And I think part of the tone and aesthetic was appreciating the inherent seriousness of the subject matter and being respectful of that.

“The uniform design would have to be 100 percent spot-on to be completely respectful, and completely understanding of the magnitude of the history we’re trying to bring awareness to.”

What’s the significance of the use of blue on the mostly black and white uniform?

Pugliese: We utilized Beale Street Blue accents on the both logos in the waistline and the collar on the back. The reason why we wanted to use Beale Street Blue was to highlight location. Our address is 191 Beale St., and Clayborn Temple, where all the protest started, is adjacent to us, right next door, we’re in their backyard. And Beale Street is also the site of the new I Am a Man Plaza opening in April 2018.

Do you remember seeing the final design of the uniform for the first time? What was going through your mind?

Wexler: You go through a fair number of uniform iterations in the course of design, but when we pulled up the screenshot of the jersey, with Memphis in that same block font that everyone here knows and that single underline, you look at it and go, ‘This … captures what we’re trying to do in bringing recognition and awareness to the history here.’ It draws a direct … respectful and purposeful correlation … it was just clear that it worked. Once we landed on that design, the amount of refinement was nominal. The designers really got it.

Pugliese: It’s respectful and powerful together. And it was really the starkness of the wordmark, and how it was treated. When we saw it, we were all taken aback, and knew we had something special.

How did the Grizzlies players react to the design of City Edition uniform?

Pugliese: A few players have seen it, and they got it right away … especially the ones who have been here for a while. They’ve been part of this community, seen the work that we’ve done in partnership with the museum … they immediately got it and loved it … Mike Conley, first and foremost, who’s been here for his entire career, saw it and understood it.

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Wexler: Mike’s understanding of MLK Day … we put on an entire weekend of events, discussions and conversations in and around the game, and Mike has always been a part of that. He knows that imagery as being so immediately recognizable.

“It’s history but it’s not ancient history. It’s history that’s very present among us daily with the people … in Memphis.”

How often will the Grizzlies be wearing this uniform?

Pugliese: There are two key dates. We will debut it on Martin Luther King Day and end on the anniversary of his assassination. But we’ll wear it a few other dates, also. We want to tell the story throughout that entire date range.

How important is this uniform — with regard to the legacy of MLK, and the civil rights movement — in the city of Memphis?

Wexler: Emerging out of the remembrance of Dr. King, we are trying to bring awareness and attention … As the Grizzlies, what we can do is use our megaphone and our platform to make sure that everybody locally, nationally and globally understands what the history is, and bring attention to the National Civil Rights Museum, which has done a remarkable job of documenting that history.

And [it’s about] what we refer to as a ‘call to reflection’: ‘Where do we go from here?’ The ‘I Am a Man’ slogan is bigger than just a uniform, hence why it was inspiration and not a literal translation onto the uniform. We’re not trying to be the interpreters of what that slogan means to the city, we’re just trying to bring awareness and reflection, and let other people make those decisions.

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.