Since 2003, the Memphis Grizzlies have hosted the MLK Day game because of the city’s storied history with the Civil Rights movement as well as its tragic connection to Martin Luther King, who was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. And every single year since its inception, the game has honored the legacy of Dr. King while also placing the city of Memphis in all of its storied history on a national stage.
Or at least it did consistently, until recent years.
When the schedule for the 2016-2017 NBA season was released, Memphis’ annual MLK Day game was conspicuously missing from it. The Grizzlies did, however, have a game against the Chicago Bulls the Sunday night before MLK game on national television, which of course did nothing to appease those offended by the missing game. It later became public knowledge that the NBA had simply not prioritized giving the Grizzlies their annual MLK Day game and had given the organization a choice: Either they could accept the nationally televised game the Sunday before, or they could play on MLK Day but not have a nationally televised game. The organization chose the former.
And then to add further insult to injury, the NBA did not initially give the Grizzlies a MLK game of any kind in the summer before the 2017-2018. But this time, the backlash was too overwhelming for the NBA to overcome, so they changed the schedule so that the Grizzlies would play the Los Angeles Lakers on MLK Day in 2018.
Make no mistake about it: The NBA’s recent “mistakes” with the Memphis Grizzlies’ annual MLK Day game is just symptomatic of the fact that the NBA simply does not care about the league’s smaller markets as much as they do the larger ones. Oh of course, they will pay lip service to the idea of parity and introduce legislation to supposedly help the league’s smaller markets like the “supermax” contract that has generally proven to be ineffective. But when it comes to actively trying to build the brands of the NBA’s smaller franchises, the league could not care less at times it would seem.
A few examples: the Milwaukee Bucks are currently 37-6 and are on pace for a 70-win season, yet the NBA is more than content to allow the narrative of “which big market will Giannis Antetokounmpo go to in 2021” to be the top story related to that team. While the San Antonio Spurs were a dynasty for nearly a 20-year period, they were never boring—the NBA simply failed to market them like many other great dynasties.
And even the Memphis Grizzlies themselves were almost always near the very bottom of the league in nationally televised games during the Grit ‘n’ Grind era, while teams that were mostly inept over the last decade like the Lakers and New York Knicks constantly appeared before a national audience.
To be sure, the small markets of the NBA will not receive the respect and adulation that many of them deserve until they demand it outright. Which is why the Memphis Grizzlies are currently the most captivating and compelling team in the NBA this season.
The 2019-20 Memphis Grizzlies do not demand your respect, they demand your attention. In just 40 games, Ja Morant alone has become worth the price of admission, a window into a mesmerizing performance that will leave you breathless and speechless. He has changed the way not only that the Memphis Grizzlies play, but also the way that they are viewed now as a national brand.
That is why the MLK Day game between the Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans is so important. And you should buy tickets now, if you haven’t already. As the Grizzlies come into this game with the league’s longest winning streak at seven games, they will have a chance to showcase their compelling and captivating brand on a national scale against another young and talented team in the New Orleans Pelicans.
And for fans of all the league’ smaller markets, that is worth celebrating.
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