If there's one mistake we make on days such as today, when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., it is limiting our focus to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the "I Have a Dream" speech and the march on Selma. That "greatest hits" approach fails to account for King's evolution after those breakthrough events. It doesn't include the way he continued to raise the bar even during the short time remaining before his assassination in 1968.
A great example of later-life King is his "The Other America" speech at Stanford on April 14, 1967. It was after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a year after Texas Western became the first basketball team to win the NCAA tournament with an all-black starting five, and a year after Bill Russell became the NBA's first black coach. Yet King recognized that the destination had not been reached; it had shifted and become even more elusive.
"We must see that the struggle today is much more difficult," King said. "It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine quality integrated education a reality."
King was speaking on the wide gap between integration and inclusion. It's the fissure the NBA must now navigate after its advancements to the forefront of equality in sports. The NBA regularly receives A grades on The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport's racial report cards. NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum has the highest ranking of any African-American in all of the major American sports league offices. Michael Jordan and Vivek Ranadive own teams. Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman are assistant coaches. The trail blazers aren't just in Portland.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has demonstrated a sensitivity to the concerns of the league's overwhelmingly African-American player population. He quickly banished Clippers owner Donald Sterling after Sterling's racially offensive remarks came to light via TMZ. And those anti-gun violence ads featuring NBA players that debuted during the Christmas games were in part an acknowledgement that guns pose a distinct threat to African-Americans. A recent post by the Brookings Institute illustrated a stark racial dynamic in the gun debate: Eight out of 10 white deaths by guns are suicides, while eight out of 10 black deaths by guns are homicides.
The awareness is there. The intent is there. The sole remaining question is about the stamina, the determination to continue the struggle.
For example, the percentage of NBA head coaches who are African-American went from 43 percent at the start of the 2013-14 season to 33 percent at the start of the 2014-15 to 23 percent right now, after the Brooklyn Nets dismissed Lionel Hollins last week. The Nets also reassigned Billy King, meaning there are only five personnel executives who are people of color.
Since 2004, the trend has gone away from hiring former NBA players to run teams. Only four of the past 24 head of basketball operations/general manager hires have been former players: Phil Jackson with the Knicks, Vlade Divac with the Kings, Doc Rivers with the Clippers and Larry Bird with the Pacers. Five players-turned-executives were hired prior to 2004: Pat Riley with the Heat, Mitch Kupchak with the Lakers, Ernie Grunfeld with the Wizards, Danny Ainge with the Celtics and John Paxson with the Bulls. Of the nine total, only Rivers is African-American. So if there wasn't a significant percentage of African-Americans even when players made up a greater portion of the hiring pool, what's going to happen now that the trend is toward candidates with MBAs and law degrees instead of player pedigree?
There's a similar trend when it comes to ownership. Skyrocketing franchise valuations have restricted potential buyers to the only two sectors generating that type of wealth: technology and private equity, two fields notorious for their lack of racial and gender balance. The eight teams to go on the market over the past five years have been sold to tech or private-equity guys.
"It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job."Martin Luther King Jr.
What can leagues do about it? Well, we've already seen what leagues can do when they take a vested interest in the outcome of transactions. When the Maloof brothers had a deal in place to sell the Sacramento Kings to a group based in Seattle, the NBA dragged out the process to allow Sacramento enough time to cobble together an ownership group that could put up a similar financial offer. That led to the NBA's first Indian-born principle owner, Vivek Ranadive.
We just saw the NFL offer $100 million each to the Chargers and Raiders to help build stadiums if they decide to stay in San Diego and Oakland.
The NBA could offer financial rewards for teams that hit diversity benchmarks. Hire an African-American executive or a female coach? Cash bonus.
The point people often miss about diversity is that, in addition to filling sociological ideals, it makes business sense. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn't just snub deserving candidates with more all-white fields for this year's Oscars, they hampered their product. Yes, Oscar night is a way to reward good work, but it generates revenue because it's a television show. "Straight Outta Compton" sold more than 19 million tickets and featured compelling acting performances from Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube). Why wouldn't you want to give those 19 million fans of the movie a reason to watch the Oscars?
The NBA must stay diverse at all levels in order to maintain its appeal and continue to attract the broadest array of innovators to make the sport even better. We're at the hard part now, where those who have given are asked to give even more. The difficulty increases when it's no longer a matter of merely sharing space, and it's a matter of sharing resources and control.
This was the challenge King described in what turned out to be the last year of his life. He was changing with the times, as "The Other America" speech indicates. He briefly veered off topic to speak out against the Vietnam War. And near the end, he even started using the more modern "black" instead of the "Negro" of the common vernacular at the time.
"There can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white roots," King said. "There can be no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does recognize the need of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and justice. We must come to see now that integration is not really a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration needs to be seen in political terms where there is shared power, where black men and white men share power together to build a new and a great nation. In a real sense we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."
The best way to honor Martin Luther King is not to pay homage to what he accomplished, it's to rectify what he left unfulfilled.