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Hoops and MLK: The Great Springfield College Legacies

By Marty Dobrow

In Coretta Scott King’s biography, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.—published in 1969, just one year after his assassination—she shares a lot of powerful information.

She recounts sweet stories of their courtship when they were both graduate students in Boston—how he “radiated charm” and “became increasingly better-looking as he talked.”

She provides personal perspectives on some of the signpost moments of the civil rights movement, such as the relentless stream of hateful phone calls they received in Montgomery during the bus boycott.

She shows us Dr. King’s enormous courage in summoning nonviolence amid such hatred, and she shows us glimpses into a private man filled with conflict. (“My husband was what psychologists might call a guilt-ridden man.”)

She also lets us in on a little secret: Martin Luther King “loved to play basketball.” Even as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “he used to play basketball with the staff…and he delighted in teaching our sons.” 

Today, January 20, 2020, marks the observance of the holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as well as the culmination of the Spalding Hoophall Classic. 

Even as Hoophall markets the days ahead (the tournament’s program is entitled “Stars of the Future”), today harks back to the past at Springfield College. It’s the perfect fit on a campus whose grandest history involves both basketball and MLK, who would have turned 91 this month.

The basketball part is pretty well known, of course. Back in ’91 (we’re talking 1891, of course), Dr. James Naismith—the original Dr. J—hung up a couple of peach baskets. The rest is hoop history: from Naismith, to Rebecca Lobo (who grew up just a few miles from here in Southwick), to LeBron James, whose son plays here today.

Side note to LeBron: we know you play against the Celtics tonight across the Commonwealth, so we just wanted to let you know that the door is always open. Moreover, since you care so much about the connection between basketball and social justice, we figured you would want to know a little bit about Martin Luther King’s connection to Springfield College. So here we go.

Back in 1964, right at the height of the civil rights movement, Dr. King came to campus to be the commencement speaker. It was an amazing story in a couple of ways.

First, there was significant pressure brought to bear on former Springfield College President Glenn Olds to renege on his invitation to Dr. King. The pressure came from a number of places, including the FBI. Olds, to his great credit, did not yield. But that did not end the drama.

On June 11, just three days before King’s scheduled commencement speech, he was arrested in St. Augustine, Fla., for having the audacity to order food from a whites-only restaurant. King was in jail in Florida on the 11th, the 12th, and the 13th—with graduation pending the next day. There was great uncertainty as to whether he would make it.

But make it he did. He delivered a stirring commencement address that day. He said that he “felt a deep sense of appreciation for all that this college has meant to the cultural and humanitarian life of our nation and the world.” He challenged graduates to cultivate a “world perspective.” He reminded people that “we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.” 

He was only on campus for a few hours, but it was an unforgettable experience for the graduating class. There is no account of him shooting hoops while he was here, but that sure would make a nice story. Regardless, Dr. King’s appearance on June 14, 1964, stands with the day Dr. Naismith hung up the peach baskets in 1891 as perhaps the two greatest days in the history of Springfield College.

Today, though, looks to be a pretty good one, too.

Photo Courtesy of Britannica

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