ATLANTA — Today is the Monday after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, which is observed as a national holiday.
While the day might just represent a day off from work for many non-elementary school students around the country, the holiday is a taken very seriously in the birthplace of the slain civil rights icon.
“Dr. King was a native Atlantan who matriculated as a student at Atlanta’s own Morehouse College, one of the nation’s most respected historically black colleges,” Atlanta Hawks Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Nzinga Shaw wrote via email.
Tourists from around the world come to visit and flood the streets in downtown Atlanta to pay their respects to King at his national historical park on Auburn Avenue.
Another norm for the holiday is a matinee home matchup for the Atlanta Hawks.
“The Atlanta Hawks have the great fortune of being the only NBA team to reside in the home of Dr. King and have a responsibility to amplify his message of unity, peace and hope through all of our activations both on and off the court,” Shaw wrote.
Over the years, the games have added more entertainment value to honor King. One year, a 3D court wide projection flashing video clips of protests and images of King played before tip-off. A popular tradition that has stuck, however, is the choir player introductions.
Every season, Hawks Public Address announcer Ryan Cameron stands court side with his microphone while a funky instrumental, which was once dominated by a synthesizer before switching to more strings in recent seasons, plays in the background. A choir, wearing pulpit robes of various colors, surround Cameron and give a soulful rendition of each Hawks starter that he announces.
This season, the planning for today’s game against the Orlando Magic began last summer. The team is not only expanding its in-game entertainment experience, but the community service surrounding it as well.
In addition to the choir introductions, which will be led by Bishop William Murphy this year, Grammy-nominated Gospel singer Koryn Hawthorne will sing the national anthem. At halftime, Hawthorne will perform her smash-hit single “Won’t He Do It.”
The basketball club also plans to honor Ambassador Andrew Young during the game as a part of its 50-year anniversary of being in Atlanta. Young, a former longtime Mayor in Atlanta, worked very closely with King in the civil rights era. Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce invited Young out to the Emory Sports Medicine Complex during training camp in September to speak to the team.
In the morning, the Hawks are hosting 30 middle school students for a mentoring breakfast to kick off the Dream Day seminar. Pierce’s wife, Melissa, Atlanta Dream guard and WNBA Champion Renee Montgomery, Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli and former Hawk Roshown McLeod are among the scheduled mentors for the event.
“We have been extremely intentional about planning substantive events that adequately reflect the significance of Dr. King’s life and all of his work surrounding diversity and inclusion,” Shaw wrote.
MLK Day has become a holiday of public service for many citizens in recent years. The Hawks began their weekend of service on Thursday when the team released its 23rd outdoor community basketball court. In 2015, the Hawks pledged to unveil 25 outdoor community courts in the metro Atlanta area by 2020.
At the event for the latest unveiling was Dr. Elder Bernice King, Hawks owner Tony Ressler, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, Hawks guard Trae Young and Pierce.
“Dr. King’s legacy is one of service, selflessness and universal human dignity,” Bottoms said. “The Atlanta Hawks’ investment in our communities continues his legacy, and Atlanta is fortunate to have a hometown team that gives so much to its neighbors and fans.”
In year two of a rebuild, there are many new faces on the Hawks roster and staff including forward Justin Anderson.
“Atlanta is very vital to MLK and what he’s done for us,” Anderson said. “His ability to pass the message of being a dreamer, pushing for equality and being a man of his word. Him being an honorable man in many ways to push for equality are all things we use that are still relevant today. To be in Atlanta to celebrate that will be a unique experience.”
Anderson hasn’t shied away from speaking up on social issues in the past. Last fall, he tweeted out his support for Colin Kaepernick after Nike made the blacklisted athlete the face of a new campaign. In Atlanta, Anderson said that he’s really grown to love his new teammates, the city and its culture. He said that he also enjoyed the fact that so many of his new teammates are open-minded, and that Pierce has taken the team on tours to civil rights museums in Memphis and Washington D.C.
“I think that we’re in an age where guys don’t care about what the perception is anymore,” Anderson said. “Guys want to be able to speak for what they believe in, and guys want to be able to be in a position to use our platform. Some of us will never be able to get this type of stage again to use our voice. When you’re around guys like Jeremy [Lin], who’s able to speak on such issues, topics that may be touchy or hot topics, and how he does it, the way he carries himself is a way for me to learn. It’s also a way for me to put myself in that position and continue to try to be better at that. That’s the benefit about having someone like him around. Vince Carter, as well. Older guys who are at a point in their career where they’re not really worried about what everybody else thinks. They want to speak on what’s right, and what they believe is truth. It’s good to be around guys who promote peace, equality and helping others in need.”
Anderson has a resume of serving, being a part of an initiative to bring clean water to East Africa. Two fellow former University of Virginia athletes, Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long are also a part of the campaign. Anderson said that he hopes to go to Tanzania this summer to help raise money to build wells so the citizens could have access to clean water.
“It’s very important to me because it puts me in a position to remember that yeah, maybe I’ve obtained a status of playing on TV, but that’s never been my aim to be where I am as a player,” Anderson said. “I’ve always been someone that has always wanted to give back, inspire the youth, lend a helping hand, be a servant, have a level of humility and being able to help those in need.”