The Memphis Grizzlies battled the Indiana Pacers on Monday as the nation celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a noon tip-off at FedExForum in front of 17,508 fans.
The Grizzlies fell to the Pacers 81-82 on a day with significance well beyond the game. Three sports legends – NBA Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Patrick Ewing and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown – were honored by the Grizzlies during the 11th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Day.
Baylor, Ewing and Brown were recipients of the Eighth Annual National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Awards presented by FedEx. The award pays tribute to athletes who have made significant contributions to civil and human rights and who have laid the foundation for future leaders through their careers in sports in the spirit of Dr. King.
Before players even arrived for work, fans were lined up for the Sports Legacy Symposium presented by the Hyde Family Foundation. The symposium featured the honorees. They shared personal stories and experiences about their contributions to civil and human rights in the spirit of Dr. King.
Before taking the stage, each spoke at a media session. Brown, 76, said he knew the importance of being in Memphis.
"Memphis is going to always be known based on Dr. King and consciousness of the Civil Rights movement," said Brown, who many consider the greatest runner of all time.
"You have media that is here today because corporate America and the Memphis Grizzlies have the consciousness of recognizing this particular day and doing something about it, which is fantastic. It's great to be here and to be recognized for some of my work."
In the 60's, Brown helped create the Negro Industrial Economic Union to support black-owned businesses. In the 80's, he started the Amer-I-Can program, a national program and movement to empower individuals to take charge of their lives and achieve their full potential. He envisioned Amer-I-Can Foundation as a way to not only stop the violence, but to teach troubled people self-pride and personal responsibility.
Ewing explained that he'd left the presidential inauguration to fly to Memphis for the King Day ceremony.
"I'm blessed to be here and I'm honored to receive this award," said Ewing, named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
"All the things that Dr. King fought for is here. We've come a long way but we still have a long way to go."
Baylor, one of the best all-around players in basketball history, played 13 seasons as a forward for the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers). As an African-American player who lived and played during the time of segregation, Baylor has seen and overcome his share of injustices and he drew upon those experiences in his reflections.
During the pregame conference, Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins took time to speak about the honorees, MLK day and the experiences he encountered during his time in the NBA in the 1970s.
The halftime show presented by MLGW featured recording artist Aaron Neville, who belted out "A Change is Gonna Come" by the late Sam Cooke.
The loss left the Grizzlies at 11-4 when facing Eastern Conference teams.
The Pacers' defense was a force – with 11 blocked shots and tough play in the paint – even though Memphis outscored them in the paint, 44-32. Indiana entered the contest ranked third in the league in blocks per game.
Grizz forward Rudy Gay shot what would have been the winning jumper as the final seconds wound down, but the ball left his hands too late and officials called the basket no good.
"Well, we labored to score during the whole game," said Hollins. "When you set up against a good defensive team and don't get easy buckets, it's tough. They (Pacers) have great length and they blocked shots. "
Grizzlies guard Wayne Ellington led all scorers, coming off the bench with a game-high 17 points. Gay followed with 14 points, with Mike Conley and Randolph both scoring 13.
"I think we just got too complacent," said Conley. "I think we start the game one way, up tempo and in the flow, and as soon as that happens we try to get the ball inside and try to slow it down. We're playing two ways. We just have to find one easy flow and keep the momentum."
Pacers forward David West led the team with a team-high 14 points and a season-high five blocks. George Hill followed with 13 points. Paul George pitched in 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
"We knew it was going to be a tough and fun game," West said. "I just thought we made more plays than they did down the stretch and were able to come out on top."
The Grizzlies will face the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday at FedExForum.