MEMPHIS — The Memphis Grizzlies celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday, but the New Orleans Pelicans celebrated breaking their eight-game losing streak with a 95-92 win.
Memphis (20-20) had won five straight, but are now 0-10 against the Southwest Division and 0-3 against the Pelicans (16-24).
In its 12th year, the Grizzlies’ MLK Celebration Day has become the poster for the NBA’s celebration of the late civil and human rights hero.
King, murdered on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, was honored prior to the game by Memphis’ Sports Legacy Symposium.
At the symposium, the Grizzlies honored three NBA legends, including former Celtics star Jo Jo White, a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP in 1976; Hall of Famer Bernard King and the NBA’s second all-time blocks leader, Dikembe Mutombo.
The trio shared stories of race relations and their contributions to civil and human rights.
White’s stories — like those of Mutombo and King — were captivating. But one quote stood out. White played 12 seasons in the 1960s and 70s. He said the fight against the racism he faced from building to building then, isn’t over today.
"I encountered it then, and I encounter it now," said White, now the Director of Special Projects and Community Relations with the Celtics. "What we have to understand is we have to be better than that if you are to get past it and around it."
White is also a motivational speaker to civic groups and youth and known for famously stepping out of bounds in a loss that sent Texas Western to the 1966 Final Four.
Mutombo, whose civil rights work took him to a meeting with the late Nelson Mandela, developed a reputation over his 18-year NBA career as one of the nice guys. But he told a story of a different side of him, from a game in Orlando where he tried to chase a fan into the stands, after being called a "monkey".
Before the tip, they were awarded the 9th Annual National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Awards — Mutombo was awarded the honor in 2007, but was unable to attend.
King, a three-time All-SEC player at Tennessee before a 14-year, All-Star NBA career, and White, championed Dr. King’s Christian values, on which he based the civil rights movement.
"Jo Jo White mentioned that his father was a minister. My father was a porter. Every day after work, he would come home, eat his dinner and go to church, seven days a week," King said. "I think the church has served as a very important foundation in terms of, not only culturally, but spiritually, the black community."
Memphis had been playing well, even before the five-game win streak, winners of four of their last six.
Center Marc Gasol was in his fourth game back Monday from a 23-game absence with a Grade 2 MCL sprain.
Coach Dave Joerger said there are still adjustments to be made.
"Absolutely. We’re a different team," Joerger said. "Mike Conley’s space to play in is a lot less and the pace is slower. It takes a little bit of time, but certainly we’ll get it figured out."
Gasol struggled Monday, despite 19 points. He had five turnovers.
"Those are just not plays he normally makes," Joerger said. "He never misses. He’s trying to adjust to us, too, as much as we’re trying to adjust to him."
New Orleans — without double-digit scorers Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, as well as center Jason Smith, got 27 points and 10 rebounds from Anthony Davis, who gave Memphis fits inside.
Conley had taken over the leader role in Gasol’s absence. Bigs were rolling to the rim, playing off their point guard, as opposed to the traditional inside-out game. Do the Grizzlies now have two styles to choose from?
At one point Monday, there was a communication turnover between pre-injury, in-sync Conley and Gasol but then a nicely-set pick-and-roll.
"We’re working. With him out, we started playing a different kind of way," Conley said. "He’s getting used to kind of almost playing off of me a little bit. I’m playing off of him, but we’re trying to get back to the old Mike and Marc. But it’s obviously going to take time, him getting comfortable each game."
Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph had his 25th double-double, with 23 points and a season-high 20 boards, 17 of the points in the third quarter.
"To be honest, I just don’t think he got as many touches," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. "I’d love to say we formulated this great plan against him …"
Gasol wasn’t the only one losing the ball. The Grizzlies had 18 turnovers and managed only two steals. The 18 turnovers were the most since a Dec. 30 loss to the Bulls.
"Our turnovers just tortured us," Joerger said. "That’s just the bottom line. For us to get two steals in a game tells the whole story."
Turnovers were a problem when Memphis was falling below .500. Joerger said part of the turnover problem Monday was a lack of focus and passed-up shots.
He also said energy has lacked, despite the five-game streak. James Johnson, what is it going to take to get the energy up?
"I think that just did the trick," Johnson said. "We can’t come in slow, playing to the level of our opponents."
The schedule doesn’t let up. After a three-day break, the Grizzlies will play Houston back-to-back, at Portland, at Oklahoma City and against Dallas.