New York Knicks visit balcony where King was shot
Front office, players and coaches call the moment ‘chilling’
Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on that dismal day of April 4, 1968. He was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the place now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.
The day King was killed, the New York Knicks’ front-office power trio of president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and vice president of player development and G League operations Craig Robinson were all in elementary school. But they each have a vivid memory of the sense of loss the world experienced.
Perry, a Detroit native, was only 5 years old.
“I just know that there was sadness in my household. I can remember that. At that young age, it was this deep sadness,” he said.
Mills was 8 years old, but he recalls the sense of loss and his parents and grandmother being in “shock.”
Robinson, the brother of former first lady Michelle Obama, was about 5 years old. He remembers the sadness, but it also was the first time he was introduced to the word “assassination.”
“I also remember it was the first time I had a discussion with my parents about death that wasn’t caused by illness or old age,” he said. “I remember that very clearly because you heard the word ‘assassinated’ and you were like, ‘What does that mean?’ And everybody was sad. It was like the whole neighborhood was sad. It was one of those things, one that you can remember a dark cloud. I don’t remember much, but I remember a dark cloud.”
For the first time, the three men visited the museum with their team, coaching staff and other members of the Knicks organization last week.
And they all got to stand on that balcony where King lost his life while in Memphis advocating for the black struggle.
Private team tours are not new to the museum, established in 1991. But this year, player and team attendance for these tours has increased.
As the world approaches the 50th anniversary of King’s death, known as MLK50, teams are taking the opportunity to treat the private tours as a bonding experience, reflecting on the legacy of King and the civil rights movement.
For Mills, being able to spend time at the museum ahead of the 2018 commemoration was special.
“We had the opportunity, actually, to go out on the balcony, so to end up out there was just incredible. It was very captivating and interesting,” Mills said.
Robinson said that the visit was far more emotional than he’d imagined because it is the location of King’s death and because of the players’ reactions.
“These young guys didn’t grow up thinking about it the way we did, and this was a first event for a lot of the guys,” Robinson said. “And even the guys who had been there before, it had been remodeled and new, and it was interesting talking to them and seeing the disappointment in the way things were. So that was emotional for me, as well, seeing their reaction.”
Mills said Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was showing his teammates photos he’d taken on his phone a day after the visit.
“He was talking about how important it was for Walt Frazier, who was a very sort of introspective guy who doesn’t talk that much, to hear him talk about his experiences as a team and how they used to go and sit at counters and get arrested,” Mills said.
Frazier, a Hall of Famer who played for the Knicks from 1967-77, is the team’s color commentator.
“For our players to hear one of the legendary Knick players talk about those experiences from a personal level, I think that’s what we’re here to do, to try to get these guys connected and understand where they fit. I thought that was a very emotional moment as part of the experience,” Mills added.
Perry called the visit a tremendous learning experience.
“It was a great time for reflection about all the things that had happened in history. And when you leave there, it does really, really give me more of a sense of purpose about trying to do better and serve people.”
The mission of the National Civil Rights Museum is to chronicle key episodes of the American civil rights movement, examine today’s global civil and human rights issues, provoke thoughtful debate and serve as a catalyst for positive change, according to its website. It holds 264 exhibits, including historic collections and interactive pieces.
Knicks forward and team captain Lance Thomas has visited the museum three times, but it was his first time with the Knicks team.
“I think it was amazing, especially for us coming around this time of year,” Thomas said. “It was very powerful. A lot of people know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but they don’t really know the story of the things that he was a part of and the things that he stood for, and we were very lucky to be able to have that tour and to have that team experience. We saw people locking into reading a lot of the descriptions on the wall. … I think we’ve come a long way, and it’s an unbelievable testament to thriving and pushing for things that you believe in. I feel like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive, he would be proud of the progress that has been made.”
Knicks guard Courtney Lee frequented the museum during his two-season stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. This was his fifth visit.
“It’s always good to go back,” Lee said. “Especially with a different group of guys, with all the foreigners we have on our team, it was some of their first time going. So just seeing their reaction once they learned about how this country was built and the sacrifices that a lot of people made for us to live in equality — their reactions were priceless, pretty much. I can speak volumes to how Martin Luther King helped us out.”
Team veteran Jarrett Jack first visited the Civil Rights Museum when he was 15 years old.
“We had AAU nationals here in Memphis. My mom and dad are both from Louisiana, so they are familiar with the struggles and the rigors of what Dr. King and what men and women were fighting for so long,” Jack said. “They made it a point to take us even at a young age when we probably didn’t appreciate it. They would make us understand the history and kind of turn it into, instead of a basketball fun activity for us, but more of an experience. So this was probably my third time. They allowed us to go out on the balcony, which is where Dr. King had his last moments, and that was kind of chilling just to stand in the spot where he fell.”
The 34-year-old said he understands that although King is usually celebrated once a year, his legacy, his teachings and his many speeches live on daily.
“When you think about it, he’s been dead 50 years. … Five decades. … Half a century, which is a very short time for us to do things like play in the NBA or make whatever you want to do possible,” Jack said.
Visiting the museum was important to Perry because it aligns with the organization’s vision of making sure players are well-rounded.
“Basketball is something that they do as a job, but it doesn’t define them totally as people, and that’s what we want, those guys to really be well-rounded. When they’re done playing basketball, there’s a lot of life hopefully for them. Giving them a chance to experience things like what they experienced [at the museum] can go a long way,” Perry said.
For Robinson, the museum introduces some history that is not traditionally taught in schools.
“We have some foreign players on our team, and I was mentioning to Frank Ntilikina about the wall that has a lot of the black history heroes on,” said Robinson, who was Mills’ teammate at Princeton. “And I was explaining to him how, even for me, I knew who Harriet Tubman was, and I knew who Sojourner Truth was or Frederick Douglass or Dred Scott. But there were like 16 other people there who I’d never heard of. And I was just remarking at how little we get in African-American history growing up in schools. And now it’s more because you have a month now. When we were in school, you didn’t have a month. You had those encyclopedias that were beige, that every black family had, and you would flip through. But [Ntilikina] said, ‘You know, I never had any African history.’ He grew up in Belgium, family is Rwandan, and so here I am like, ‘Man, I didn’t have this,’ and then he tells me he didn’t have anything. Just watching him, that was eye-opening for me.”
The intersection of race, sports and culture exists, and the Knicks’ front office wants to encourage a climate that welcomes conversations around topics that may intrigue players.
“I try to make myself available to talk about all that stuff when they want to talk about it,” Robinson said. “I try not to be sort of editorial with my comments because, first of all, we have a professional relationship, so I don’t want my feelings to be their feelings. But secondly, of course, with my history and my familial relations, I sort of try and keep church and state separate, but whenever they want to talk about something political, I’m always right there to talk about it. And you would probably be surprised by the number of times we talk about that stuff. We have quite a few players who like to engage in what’s going on in the world today.”
Mills agreed with Robinson, saying that the three of them are always open to “answering questions, giving a perspective and letting guys have an opportunity to frame what they’re experiencing and give them some perspective.”
Perry said their doors are always open for issues beyond the players’ profession.
“That’s just how I was raised to be as a person,” he said. “I think one of the broader lessons and the type of culture that we want to have here when you start talking about sports and how it intertwines with society is unification, and that’s what we’re about.”