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41 & counting: MLK Invitational tourney still showcasing hoops

Tradition and change will be on display when Middle school and high school hoopsters square off during the 41st version of the Martin Luther King Invitational Basketball Tournament. by Andre Mitchell
Special to the Tri-State Defender

Tradition and change will be on display when Middle school and high school hoopsters square off next week during the 41st version of the Martin Luther King Invitational Basketball Tournament.

Since its inception back in 1971, the MLK Invitational Basketball Tournament, usually held during the week of Thanksgiving, has highlighted some of the most prolific high school hoopsters to lace sneakers. Players from past and present, near and far, speak volumes of the memories and fantastic finishes that the event has delivered for the last 41 seasons.

The teams, players, coaches and the excitement of it all have helped this annual event become one that has caught the hearts, minds and attention of basketball fans across the Mid-south region. Now it’s in the process of going not only regional, but is looking to expand and burst onto the national tournament scene.

Originally, the MLK served as a beacon of hope and equality for several Memphis city teams that were denied the opportunity to compete in citywide tournaments before desegregation and integration. Before the 1970’s, many Memphis-area, inner city high school teams were limited to the places they could play and compete.

 “There were some really good teams that were unable to display their talent and skills because of segregation. Many black schools simply would not be invited to come and play against white schools,” said MLK Tournament Director Robert Newman.

“It was unfortunate too because there were some really good teams during that time. I played for a team that was 33-1 and we were good, but we never had the chance to see how we would have fared against some of the other white teams in town.”  

Several visionary coaches – Lloyd Williams at Hamilton High School, Marion Brewer at Northside High School and a few others – lent their efforts to help start a tournament and the MLK tournament was born!

The intentions then are essentially the same as they are today. The primary goal is to offer Memphis high school basketball teams an opportunity to compete for the illustrious MLK championship trophy and bragging rights.

In addition, the tournament development committee seeks to build character in young boys and girls as well. Three years ago, the decision was made to include middle school teams.

“Our young people need to see themselves in positions of leadership before they come to the bridge,” said Newman. “Once they get there, it may be too late to develop those skills then.”

Many people, said Newman, take for granted that kids already know how to conduct themselves when they enter and/or exit the building, sit down to eat lunch, converse with others, etc.

Said Newman: “Our kids have to be taught to do better and once you give them proper instruction and they buy into it, then they can handle the responsibility and challenges much better.”

So middle school students are exposed to the tradition-laden, talent-rich event early with the idea of enhancing the odds that they will be better students, better athletes and better citizens overall down the line.

And that’s in keeping with the overarching MLK commitment to expose youth to the benefits of competitive sports while learning and displaying good sportsmanship, love and camaraderie.

This year’s tourney begins Monday (Nov. 21) and runs through Saturday (Nov. 26), with a break in action on Thanksgiving Day. The high school boys will tip-off Monday at 3 p.m. at Melrose High School, and the girls will head over to The LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC) for their start.

Also new to this year’s format is the alternate host sites: LOC for the high school girl’s, with Kirby High School and Kirby Middle School serving as host sites for the middle school for both the girls and boys in grades sixth thorough eighth. The middle school boys’ and girls’ contests are to start on Tuesday (Nov. 22) at 4 p.m. at Kirby High and Kirby Middle School.

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