Before his Nobel Peace Prize and “I Have a Dream” speech, and before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was a teenager who used to shoot baskets at a YMCA in Atlanta. He was the same height as Spud Webb, and although he’d never be able to dunk, he sure knew how to let it fly.

Growing up as a young man on Auburn Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr loved basketball.

Of course, he was no ‘Doctor’ then. Family called him ‘ML’, and one close childhood friend, Emmett Proctor, nicknamed ML ‘Tweed’, because of the tweed suit ML wore just about every day, a gift for graduating middle school.

On lazy sunny days, young ML “bounced a rubber ball off the side of his house” along Auburn Avenue, in Atlanta, GA. To make a bit of loose change, ML also opened up a soda stand in front of his house, but between himself, his older sister Christine and younger brother AD, they drank most of the soda themselves.

ML first gave baseball a try. Once, ML put himself as the catcher, and AD—always a bit rebellious—was up to bat. AD swung and missed on the third pitch, but the bat slipped out of his hands and thwacked ML in the head. ML hit the ground, then gathered himself enough to say to his younger brother, “You’re out! You missed that third strike!”[1]

As for football, ML’s position was fullback. Short but stocky for his age (ML would end up topping out at 5-7 with his shoes on), ML and childhood friend Emmett Proctor headed over to the local YMCA, where they set up a rough-and-tumble game called Pulverize. Besides the obvious physical implications of the game, there were very few, if any rules. According to Proctor, “If you accomplished anything, you had to run into the bushes to score.”[2]

ML had one clever trick that he often played against his opponents. Proctor remembered it, and you can picture in his words a shake-of-the-head smile: “[ML] used to have [this] habit. If you were running after him, and you started gaining on him, he’d fall down in front of you. Right in front of you. And you’d fall right over him and wind up skinning yourself, and he’d be up and gone.”[3]

But it was basketball where most of his friends remembered ML. In the early 1940s, ML used to shoot hoops in Atlanta’s Butler Street YMCA for local championship teams nicknamed the Royals and Rebels. A childhood buddy remembered ML clearly when asked by Ted Poston of the New York Post back in 1957. His description makes it easy to visualize JR Smith during his sixth man days with the Knicks.

“[King] was one of the subs on our team,” his friend remembered, “and we kept him as a sub because he didn’t know what teamwork was then…he was a ‘will-shoot.’ If he got his hands on the ball, no matter what teammates were free under the basket, he’d shoot, and it didn’t make it any better that he often sank the ball. But when we’d give him hell about it later, he’d just shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I just felt like shooting.’ And what more could you say if the guy had actually made the basket.”[4]

In college, ML moved on to play guard for the Morehouse City Slickers, an intramural team, turning more into a facilitator than scorer. “He was a better passer than shooter,” said Proctor.[5]

When excited, perhaps after a play, ML at times shouted out, “Oh yes!” But when it came to hearing ideas from other friends or teammates, ideas that seemed to have “little intellectual content,” ML would shake his head, unimpressed, and say, “That’s pretty light.”[6]

So, if Dr. King were alive today watching the 2016 NBA Finals (he’d be 87), there is a very real chance that he would point at JR Smith shooting a 27-foot three and say, “That wasn’t a bad shot. He just felt like shooting.”

Go ahead, JR. Fire away. Dr. King would have.

***

[1] From The Peaceful Warrior, by Ed Clayton. Published in 1970. Pg. 22

[2] Proctor’s interview is dated April 15, 1970, the original held in Atlanta, GA, as a part of the Oral History Collection, King Library Archives. I used a copy provided through the Taylor Branch Archives at the University of North Carolina.

[3] Ibid. Proctor was a good friend of King’s and even traveled with ML to Simsbury, CT, to work on a tobacco farm.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr.: He Never Liked to Fight! By Ted Poston, first printed in the New York Post. This quote came from the 1957 reprint of the article by The Baltimore Afro-American.

[5] Better passer than shooter. morehouse.edu/communications/archives/001298.html

[6] That’s pretty light. From the book ‘Crusader Without Violence, published in 1959 by L.D. Reddick. Pg. 7.

Patrick Parr grew up playing pick-up basketball at Oak Park in Cuyahoga Falls, OH, and is now a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s International Academy. He is currently completing a book about Martin Luther King Jr’s life at Crozer Theological Seminary. His work has appeared in The Japan Times, USA Today and The Humanist, among others. Visit his website at patrickparr.com.