How Martin Luther King Jr.’s death affected the NBA
On the eve of Russell vs. Chamberlain, MLK Jr. was assassinated — could the game go on?
News didn’t travel as fast in 1968. Radio, evening news and morning papers were still decades away from being taken over by the internet. And the most effective form of social media was still word of mouth.
But it was a large crowd, mostly black, that gathered in a poor section of Indianapolis to hear Robert F. Kennedy speak. The night was April 4 — hours before the NBA’s Eastern and Western Division finals were set to tip off — and the crowd was upbeat, as many expected the senator to soon be the second Kennedy to call 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home.
It was evident that no one in the crowd had yet heard of the assassination that had happened earlier that evening. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination would bring black America to its knees and the country at large to a crossroads. Kennedy’s police escort knew, of course, and refused to follow him into the neighborhood, fearing a volatile reaction from the crowd. Outrage had already sprouted in various pockets of the country. Why wouldn’t Indianapolis be next?
The Democratic presidential hopeful handed down the news from the back of a flatbed truck. King was dead.
The crowd shrieked in horror. For black America, it was the bloody zenith of a decade sinister enough to rob it of every leader who seemingly had its best interests at heart: Robert Kennedy’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — plus the countless men and women who sacrificed their lives in both the civil rights movement and what felt like a generational genocide thanks to the Vietnam War. King, of course, was the civil rights movement’s and, alongside Muhammad Ali, the anti-war movement’s most recognizable face. And the most prominent voice of a race that has seemed always behind the eight ball of equality.
His last words as the bullet — per CBS’ Walter Cronkite, describing the civil rights titan’s final moment — “exploded in his face” on the second floor of Memphis, Tennessee’s, Lorraine Motel, “Ohhh!” King collapsed.
Robert Kennedy — who himself would die from an assassin’s bullet just 63 days later — delivered the defining speech of his career. As any savvy politician would, he preached peace in a time of carnage. Responding with violence isn’t what King would have wanted, he cautioned. But Kennedy also sympathized with the anger. The ’60s had robbed him of a piece of his soul as well.
“For those of you who are black, and are tempted to … be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said in the unrehearsed speech. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond and go beyond these rather difficult times.”
Indianapolis remained calm the evening of April 4 thanks in large part to Kennedy’s grace, humility and vulnerability. But Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; Chicago; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; and Washington, D.C., were far less peaceful. The assassination had been announced at 8:19 p.m. in D.C. By 9:25, the first window was shattered. In Atlanta, Gov. Lester Maddox refused to lower the flag for King. He reportedly told state troopers to “shoot [protesters] down and stack them up” should they try to enter the state capitol. Maddox later lowered the flag only after being required by federal mandate.
King had spoken out against segregation, unfair housing, income and economic disparity. Now he was gone. Cities rioted out of hopelessness more than anger. Fear more than fury. And desperation more than enmity. Their pleas for justice had long gone unaddressed. America found itself involved in a war that millions opposed, barreling toward its most important presidential election in years, and the blood of the civil rights movement stained its streets. No one knew the direction the country was headed in — including the NBA. Its playoffs were set to resume the next day.
Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell was in shock Thursday night and all day Friday in his Philadelphia hotel room. He hadn’t slept. His mind raced. He was one of the most visible athletes involved in the civil rights movement, and for him King’s assassination was a kind of confirmation. “Stuff that I said 10 years ago, that everybody dismissed as an angry Negro talking, is coming out today,” Russell said in Aram Goudsouzian’s 2010 King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.
King hadn’t been dead 24 hours and the NBA was in an awkward position: to play, or not to play? The equivalent of today’s conference finals were slated to tip off April 5. This wasn’t the first time a major sports league had been directly affected by a high-profile assassination. Five years earlier, the NFL played after President Kennedy’s assassination — a decision infamously dubbed “Black Sunday” and one former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would define as “the worst decision I ever made.”
Even in 1968, the NBA was a majority-black league. Its biggest superstars — Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Nate Thurmond, Dave Bing, Elgin Baylor and more — were black. Jerry West was the league’s only bona fide white superstar. The black players, like black Americans as a whole, wrestled with grief, shock and rage. King was more than a civil rights leader. His work and his words were reflections of their stature. His murder was not only personal. It was affirmation of the value of black life. Or the lack thereof.
“Russell saw it as, black people continue to give to America. [Black people] were sort of the most loyal Americans of all,” Goudsouzian said. “And [King] gets taken away from us.”
In the final months of King’s life, his philosophies shifted. Tactics and philosophies had fractured the civil rights movement throughout the decade, and Black Power was usurping nonviolence as a popular resistance. King focused on the economic discrimination in America of poor people of all ethnicities. He openly opposed the Vietnam War. Exactly a year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, King spoke in a manner very similar to Ali’s refusal to fight. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
King also openly praised Harry Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) platform. He saw eye to eye with the OPHR with regard to it reinstating Ali, restricting apartheid South Africa from Olympic participation, removing International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, the hiring of black coaches and administrators by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the desegregation of the New York Athletic Club.
And so with all this in mind, Russell still had a game to play. His Celtics were set to square off against a familiar opponent, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Russell vs. Chamberlain was the premier rivalry in basketball. Their statures made them larger than life, and their exploits made them hardwood gods. Russell and Chamberlain carried the league on their broad shoulders throughout the decade, although the image of both couldn’t have been any more different. Russell was the thoughtful and defiant sociopolitical defensive savant who participated in the March on Washington and led the Boston dynasty via actions and words. Chamberlain was the 7-foot freak of nature and dashing playboy who compiled stats with ease but could never eliminate Russell and the Celtics to cement his place as champion.
The previous year, Chamberlain and the Sixers had finally defeated Boston en route to the ’67 championship. After defeating the Celtics, the crowd chanted, “Boston is dead!” and sparked dozens of cigars — mimicking the victory routine of Celtics coaching great Red Auerbach. Philly’s 68-13 record (then the best ever), along with the championship, earned that season’s team an eventual Hall of Fame nod as the best team of the NBA’s first 25 years.
The Sixers returned the following season with hopes of establishing a “mini-dynasty” of their own. Visions of the Celtics’ demise were all but etched in stone. Philly was the new Boston, and Chamberlain had finally dethroned Russell. Their 1968 East finals clash was to be a mere formality. Until the course of American history changed on the second floor of a Memphis motel balcony.
Russell called his longtime friend and rival Chamberlain in the early afternoon of April 5. Though never at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Chamberlain was distraught and shaken. Neither wanted to play in Game 1, but there was hesitation about postponing. Tip-off was only hours away, and neither team knew exactly what it wanted to do. Race had reared its head in the Boston meeting. Celtics forward Bailey Howell wondered why the idea was even being discussed. “What was [King’s] title? Why should we call off the game?” he asked, angering many black players.
For the Sixers’ part, Chamberlain and Wali Jones voted not to play. Chet Walker refused to vote, calling it a “dreary charade” on the heels of the league disrespecting its black players. The sentiment was common. NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was at a University of Cincinnati banquet on the evening of April 4. “I don’t think the game should have been played [a day later], but that’s the NBA for you,” Robertson told The Undefeated. “There was not a regard for Dr. King. He was almost like an enemy to many in America. But he was a savior to a lot of us.”
Savior or not, the decision was made. Game 1 of the 1968 Eastern Division finals went on as scheduled. There were safety concerns around the city that if the teams did not play, Philadelphia would add its name to the growing list of cities in revolt.
Leonard Koppett covered Game 1 for The New York Times. The crowd of 14,412 filled the Philadelphia Spectrum, reacting in “normal fashion.” But “shock and despondency” was the mood of most of the players. Though the effort on the court was at its expected level, the image of King’s dying body in a pool of blood covered the arena like a layer of fog.
Similar to a performance by James Brown — ironically in Boston — that same night, Russell, Chamberlain, the Celtics and the Sixers were temporary bandages on an open wound. Boston defeated a dejected Philly squad 127-118. Chamberlain finished with 33 points and 25 rebounds, but fell short to Russell’s 22 rebounds and John Havlicek’s 35 points and 11 assists. All stats and no win — history was repeating itself with Chamberlain. The pair of NBA giants attended King’s funeral the following Tuesday, a moment that would spark Chamberlain’s brief stint in politics.
Sunday’s Game 2, however, was postponed, originally scheduled on what President Lyndon B. Johnson dubbed the national day of mourning. Major League Baseball followed suit, postponing its season openers between the Minnesota Twins and Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. But while athletes grieved with the rest of the country, they were also expected to play peacemaker in communities forced to deal with vitriol of America’s bigotry. Athletes involved in the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (NIEU), which Jim Brown helped organize in 1965, were asked to “move into the streets and ghettos and try to stem the tide of racial unrest,” an April 8 Associated Press report stated. Cleveland Browns guard John Wooten, the NIEU’s executive director, noted that 35 to 40 athletes would be involved in the initiative, including the Chicago Bears’ Gale Sayers and Russell.
The haze over black America hadn’t lifted by the start of Wednesday’s Game 2. “The whole day felt like a daze — like being underwater or in humid weather,” a volunteer at King’s funeral recalled to author Rebecca Burns in 2011’s Burial for a King. “You’re aware of the moment but not aware fully of all that is around you.”
After the funeral, the Eastern finals resumed. Boston, having stolen Game 1 on the road in Philadelphia, proceeded to lose the next three, giving the Sixers a 3-1 lead. Philly had resumed control of the series. They resembled the team that had become the king of the hill in the Eastern Conference, until Boston mounted an epic surge, rallying from 3-1 to win the series in seven.
“If they hadn’t stolen that first game when Philadelphia was kinda discombobulated, who knows what that series looks like?” said Goudsouzian. “Then the Celtics beat the Lakers and Russell’s legend is burnished. Then he wins again in 1969, giving him two titles as a player-coach. There’s a basketball dimension to the story that’s obviously not as important, of course. But it’s still sort of interesting from … a sports perspective.” Logic says if Philly were the better team, the series dictates as much. They would have won in five or six or, worst case, prevailed in seven. It is intoxicating to ponder the possibilities. With the Boston demon officially exorcised, would Philly have repeated? And if they repeat, does Chamberlain remain in his hometown of Philadelphia, thus giving rise to a new Eastern Conference powerhouse? It just wasn’t meant to be.
King’s assassination ruptured the future of civil and human rights. King was dead at 39, his legacy partially realized by the election and re-election of former President Barack Obama. Yet, despite the romanticization of his life and words, the bullet that shredded King’s neck and the fallout thereafter affected every fabric of society. Even the NBA and its most storied rivalry.