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    Honoring a Legacy: Grizzlies continue tradition with MLK Celebration Day

    Boston Celtics legend JoJo White, left, and New York Knicks legend Bernard King were honored as part of the Grizzlies’ 2014 MLK Jr. Day Celebration, a tradition that has become part of the city’s MLK Day fabric.
    (Joe Murphy)

    The Grizzlies are in their 14th season in Memphis, and next Monday, Jan. 19, will mark the 13th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Day.
    Once the franchise moved from Vancouver, it didn’t take long for the Grizzlies to establish this event as part of the team’s DNA. It predates all the buzzwords currently associated with the city’s pro basketball team – everything from The Grindhouse (FedExForum) to slogans such as “Grit and Grind” and “We Don’t Bluff” that capture the team’s style of play.
    John Pugliese, vice president, marketing communications and broadcast, who moved to Memphis from Vancouver with the Grizzlies, recalls the opportunity to bring basketball and Martin Luther King Jr. Day together was a priority from the start. Pitt Hyde, who is on the board of the National Civil Rights Museum, was part of the original ownership group and remains a limited partner.
    “From Pitt Hyde, from day one … the importance of this day permeates through the new ownership group and (controlling owner) Robert Pera,” Pugliese said. “It’s a special day for Memphis and an extremely special day for our franchise.”
    This year’s honorees include four-time NBA All-Star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, five-time NBA All-Star Chauncey Billups and Courage Award winner and former NBA player Jason Collins. The three will be honored for their contributions to civil and human rights with the 10th Annual Sports Legacy Award presented by FedEx during the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Day events.
    “Obviously, the MLK Game Day is huge for the city, is huge for us, and we really get up for it because of what it means,” said point guard Mike Conley, who is in his eighth season with the Grizzlies. “Not just as a basketball player, but as an American living in this city.”
    The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sports Legacy Symposium will be held from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the Grizzlies Practice Court and is presented by the Hyde Family Foundation. The symposium, emceed by Grizzlies television play-by-play analyst Pete Pranica, will feature Monroe, Billups and Collins. They will share their stories, experiences and contributions to civil and human rights in the spirit of King.
    Monroe won the 1968 NBA Rookie of the Year award with the Baltimore Bullets while averaging 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Known for his smooth style, creativeness and ability to improvise on offense, he was a key member of the 1973 World Champion New York Knickerbockers, a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990.
    Monroe contributed to breaking down racial barriers in North Carolina during his college career at Winston-Salem State, where he averaged 41.5 points per game during the 1966-67 NCAA College Division season and led his team to the National Championship. Inspired by King, Monroe would later read King’s speeches as a pro before playing games.
    Billups was drafted out of the University of Colorado with the third overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics. He was with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 when the team won an NBA title. Nicknamed “Mr. Big Shot,” he made six-straight conference championship series, was a three-time All-NBA selection and made two All-Defensive Second Teams.
    Billups won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2008, the NBA Sportsmanship Award in 2009 and the NBA Teammate of the Year Award in 2013.
    Collins was recently featured as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” after he broke the social barrier in professional sports by publicly announcing he was gay at the end of the 2012-13 NBA season; he became the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues.
    Collins wore No. 98 during his final seasons in the league, honoring the late Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was tortured and killed in 1998. Collins officially retired from the NBA in November with the Brooklyn Nets. Drafted 18th overall in the 2001 NBA Draft, he held career averages of 3.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and had the reputation for being a team player.
    The MLK Game was televised nationally for several years, but wasn’t last year and won’t be this year. Instead, it will be available via NBA TV and FOX SportSouth, the latter of which also will carry the symposium.
    “Instead of just reaching 1,000 people (at FedExForum), we can reach tens of thousands – from all the way up to St. Louis to down to the coast,” Pugliese said.
    Admission is free to the symposium with the purchase of a Grizzlies vs. Mavericks ticket, but space is limited. The day’s events will begin with the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day High School Classic between Bolton High School and Southwind High School on the main court at FedExForum. The game will start at 11:30 a.m., with doors opening at 11 a.m. A ticket to the Grizzlies game is required.
    Monroe, Billups and Collins will be recognized on the main court just before the start of the Grizzlies-Mavericks game.