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Willie Mays hits home on MLK Day

  • Written by Kelley Evans
  • Published in News
Baseball legend Willie Mays and Basketball Hall of Famers Willis Reed and Lenny Wilkens came to the FedExForum Monday to collect the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,119.
Willis Reed
Lenny Wilkens
Memories from those early days before integration are quite vivid for Willis Reed. (Photos by Warren Roseborough)
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton (left) congratulates three-time Basketball Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens. Rose Flenorl of FedEx helped present Wilkens the Sports Legacy Award.

Baseball legend Willie Mays and Basketball Hall of Famers Willis Reed and Lenny Wilkens came to the FedExForum Monday to collect the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award in front of a sell-out crowd of 18,119.

Zach Randolph of the Grizzlies meets Willie Mays
The Grizzlies Zach Randolph (right) was thrilled to meet the legendary Willie Mays.

Elliot Perry
Former NBA star Elliott Perry was a source of inspiration quoting Dr. King at length during the MLK Holiday celebration event at the FedExForum.

The award pays tribute to athletes who have made significant contributions to civil and human rights. The ceremony took place at the start of the Grizzlies game against the Chicago Bulls.

At a mid-morning symposium attended by a host of dignitaries and fans, Mays, Reed and Wilkens recalled the patience and perseverance required to become a star during an era when skin color mattered as much as talent.

The witty Mays talked about his southern upbringing and explained how his father always told him to turn the other cheek in times of adversity. After the audience rewarded him with choruses of applause, he joked, “Are we through?” The audience followed with laughter.

Mays played the majority of his major league career with the New York and San Francisco Giants and finished with the New York Mets. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. A 24-time All-Star, Mays heads a foundation that supports education for underprivileged youths. He said he was happy to be in Memphis to pay tribute to Dr. King and all he did for civil rights.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he said. “I’m supposed to be at home. I just had surgery. I’m not even supposed to be traveling. But I wanted to be here when they called me,” Mays said.

On Sunday, Reed and Wilkens visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which chronicles the struggles and sacrifices of the civil rights movement. The experience brought back somber memories for both men.

Reed said he can remember listening to Dr. King, and being awed by his gift of oratory.

“I wish I had the ability to do that, but I don’t have that ability,” Reed said. “My ability was in my legs and my arms and my eyes, and hopefully that was able to translate into inspiring some young people.”

Wilkens said that his Memphis visit stirred up emotions as he retraced the paths of civil rights heroes. “Going through the museum stirred a lot of emotion because we were all aware of all the things that were happening at the time,” Wilkens said. “You kind of relive history again ... I experienced a lot of those things that happened to people back then.”

Later on, the basketball legends agreed that there are many misconceptions about professional athletes.

“We all have a certain amount of responsibilities in living our lives a certain way,” Reed said. “We are role models. We have to make sure our athletes understand our responsibility in being good role models. They are part of what the future of our country will be.”

Reed, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982, spent his entire career with the New York Knicks. He said he was inspired by his high school coach. He spent a great deal of his professional career as a coach and manager.

Wilkens, a three-time member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, now has a foundation that helps provides health care and educational services for young people. He asked the fans to embrace the dream within them.

“In a country as blessed as ours we should be dreaming all the time,” he said. “Broaden your dreams, but don’t be afraid to dream.”

Mavis Staples
singing the national anthem
Mavis Staples of the iconic Staples Singers entertained at halftime.

Performing the national anthem was a masterful celebration of the Southern quartet tradition.


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