NBA coaches reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and what it means to play on MLK Day
A roundtable discussion with Gregg Popovich, Dwane Casey, Stan Van Gundy, Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was a basketball player at the Air Force Academy on April 4, 1968, the day civil rights movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey was attending an all-black school in a racially segregated small town in Kentucky. Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy was a young boy in the racially diverse San Francisco Bay Area. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers was a young boy growing up in the predominantly black suburban Chicago town of Maywood. And Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a toddler in Los Angeles.
The NBA will celebrate MLK Day during all of its games played Monday, which would have been King’s 89th birthday. Casey, Kerr, Popovich, Rivers and Van Gundy spoke to The Undefeated about their memories of King’s assassination, his legacy, coaching on the holiday and whether there has been progress since King’s death.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Do you remember where you were and your emotions at the time?
Casey: I was in elementary school in Morganfield, Kentucky, a small town in the South. We hadn’t integrated schools at the time. I went to an all-black school. The teachers were all crying. The principal was crying. I just knew it was one of those things where something catastrophic happened with him dying. Growing up in the South, we went to integrated schools, saw the [Ku Klux] Klan march and [comedian-activist] Dick Gregory coming to our town to speak on the courthouse steps with the Klan moving around. [King] passing was a big thing because he was our hope and our shining light that we had going forward.
Kerr: I was 3 years old. I believe I would have been in Los Angeles. Let’s go ask my sister, she’s right here.
(Kerr turns to his sister, Susan van de Ven, to answer the question.)
Van de Ven: I remember the day. I was 10 and you were 3. I remember it was an era. There was Martin Luther King. There was Bobby Kennedy. It was very, very distinct.
Popovich: Sure. I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy in ’68. To other people, I was a junior in college, although I didn’t call ‘The Academy’ a college — I called it an institution in a good sense. It was politically and socially aware at the time. It was a huge surprise. A shock. You couldn’t believe that something like that would happen.
Rivers: I remember it being the first time I saw my father cry. My dad was a police officer in Chicago. My dad did not cry. I never saw him show emotion. I remember going to my grandmother’s house. And I walked in the house and my grandmother was crying and my grandfather was crying and, more importantly, my dad was crying. I had never heard of Martin Luther King. I was in the second grade. I didn’t know nothing. Everyone was at home watching a little tiny TV, crying, mad and angry. That led me to want to know who this man was.
Van Gundy: I was not quite 9 when Dr. King was assassinated. What I remember most was the grief and sadness of my parents and their friends. As I grew older and learned more, what stuck with me was that he clearly expected that he would be killed. But he continued on because civil rights and equality were more important to him than even his own life.
What are your thoughts on King’s legacy?
Casey: We all are living in a country of opportunity now because of Martin Luther King and the sacrifices he made. As a leader, he gave up his life. Medgar Evers and all the leaders of the civil rights movement, and Dr. King being the leader of it, it’s just great that our government found a day to recognize him by giving him a special day.
Kerr: That’s a broad and difficult question. I think about Memphis since that is where he died. Maybe one of the most powerful images I’ve ever saw was the sanitation workers from Memphis who he was helping. ‘I AM A MAN.’ Wow. I get chills thinking about that. ‘I AM A MAN.’ Guys holding signs and wearing that on their shirts. For him to dedicate his life to people like that who just wanted dignity, respect, that’s what I think of.
Popovich: Instantaneously, we knew what kind of loss it was because he became such an iconic figure for his stances on Vietnam, social justice and the peaceful protests he led. But still, making people uncomfortable and realizing nothing was going to change unless action was taken. He wasn’t just a talker. To lose a person like that seemingly or accurately out of the blue was a little shocking.
Rivers: His legacy is the start of why we are here. Equal rights for all. He wasn’t just fighting for black America, he was fighting for people in general. Right now, we are in the #MeToo. That is what Martin Luther King was saying in the early ’60s. That is what he was saying. Now it keeps changing from women to blacks to Hispanics. It’s the same stuff that we’re fighting for. To be treated fairly. To be treated equal. To have the same opportunities that everyone else has. Dr. King’s legacy goes without saying.
Van Gundy: He led a movement that proved the power of a nonviolent resistance. He willingly gave his life for the cause of racial equality, in addition to the poor people’s movement and his anti-war stance. This man both dedicated his life, suffered in this life and ultimately gave his life for others. Is there anything greater?
Do you consider it an honor to coach on MLK Day and for your team to play on that day?
Casey: It’s great because it gives kids an opportunity to come to the game. A lot of people who are commenting on the Civil Rights movement and taking a knee weren’t around when all that was going on. I lived it and went through integration and segregation. I remember being the fifth African-American basketball player to play at Kentucky. Getting past those barriers are so important. And seeing the opportunities we have today makes Martin Luther King Day special.
Kerr: I enjoy it. It’s a good day for the NBA. There are certain days of the NBA [season] where you feel special. Christmas is one. Opening night is another. MLK Day is another. It feels like a [special] NBA day. The games are on TV all day. It’s a holiday of celebration, but it’s also kind of a solemn day, so it’s a special feeling to play on that day.
Popovich: It’s one of the very few things we do to honor the contributions of black people in our country. Every year, every six months when you find out about more people who did ‘A, B and C’ that none of us ever heard about in the books for sure. So to have someone like this, it’s not just a highway or a street is named after him, but for the league to understand who we are, who makes up our league and how important it is to honor that day with early games to show that we know what is going on here and how important he was, it’s not just important. It’s a mandatory and important thing to do.
Rivers: I don’t mind coaching on that day because it gives me an opportunity to share his story. Every once in a while we use days to give black history but, more importantly, the history of America. And there is so much information about Martin Luther King we don’t know. I try to find little nuggets to teach. We don’t just coach our players. We teach our players life, and that is a good time to do it.
Van Gundy: MLK is a lot bigger than basketball. I don’t think a basketball game does anything to add to the holiday.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. Do you think Americans have progressed since then?
Casey: Wow. We have progressed. The NBA is one of the places with occupations that are really progressive, breaking racial barriers. There are opportunities for minorities, women and all genders. We really have a special platform that we work with.
I think there are other areas where we haven’t progressed. The police brutality that we see every day in different cities. … Those narratives are still out there against minorities that we don’t work as hard or we are not as smart. Whatever it is, those narratives and stereotypes are still there. Those are the things we have to continue to work with. The only way you defeat that is being a success and leading in your field, whether it’s the medical field, athletic field, whatever field it is, being an educator. Being successful in those fields is the only way we can do away with those negative narratives and stereotypes that people still have of minorities.
Kerr: Fiftieth. Wow … I do think a lot of progress has been made, but it is not linear progress. There are a lot of people out there who want what Dr. King wanted. There are a lot of forces working against that. Some cases are circumstantial. Other cases are man-made, human stuff that is difficult to process. Education is lacking in a lot of ways. In some ways, we have come a long way. In other ways, we have taken a step backwards. It’s not an easy thing to quantify.
Popovich: Fifty. The older you get that sort of thing hits you. Things happen like last week and six months ago and you learn how precious time is and how much we have to work on a day-to-day basis to make the situation of this country better for everybody, especially those who have been beleaguered by systemic racism.
To say it’s been 50 years … and you say, ‘How much progress has been made?’ You say, ‘Yes and no.’ And it’s a hell of a discussion, and you can fight back and forth as to what has been gained and what has not been gained. And in today’s environment really question where are we now, where are we going and what do we need to do.
Rivers: That’s amazing. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. I just hate when people say, ‘How much more?’ Well, until it’s equal. That’s how much more. I always laugh. When you go back and look at movies in the ’60s, they say, ‘Well, this is the ’60s … this is the ’70s … this is the ’80s.’ This stuff isn’t going to happen in the ’90s. But it keeps going, and it’s less and less, but it’s still a lot. We still have a long way to go, but we have more soldiers to fight that war, so that’s good.
Van Gundy: Sadly, though, I think the 50th anniversary of his death finds us going backwards on the issue of racial equality. The Voting Rights Act has been largely dismantled. Men of color, and even boys of color, face systemic inequality in the justice system, and we used the war on drugs to lock up a generation of black men. Affirmative action is being torn down. Police are killing men like a modern-day Bull Connor, and economic equality is headed in the wrong direction.
Marches like Charlottesville are disturbing. It used to be that the KKK wore hoods, embarrassed to reveal their identity. Now people with racist beliefs proudly march in the open and are not even repudiated by our president. So yes, we honor Dr. King and all that he sacrificed and all that he accomplished. But if we truly want to honor him, we must get back out and fight like he did against the now-resurgent voices of racial injustice, discrimination and hate. I think 25 years ago Dr. King might have been happy to see some progress. My guess is today he would be in tears over where we are headed.