At the time, as I entered the temporary exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, there was little idea how the moment, by turning to the room to the left, would so tie in with the reason I was in Memphis.
Coverage of the NBA was the purpose of the trip, for the most meaningless of October exhibitions, on the second night of a back-to-back set, with all of the Miami Heat’s regulars to be held out.
Attempting to turn the early-morning flight from LaGuardia into something of substance, after, ironically, an exhibition the night before in Brooklyn where Kyrie Irving was in attendance, I decided to head to the South Main District, paid admission to the memorial on the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and took stock of an ongoing part of our culture that never can be left to history.
So, as I was guided to the left by the docent, my enlightenment over the next few hours began with an exhibit titled, “A Better Life for Their Children.”
The subject matter admittedly was unfamiliar.
But in light of Irving’s recent promotion of a film filled with dangerous, harmful, hateful, shameful anti-Semitic tropes (and then belated apology in the wake of a team suspension), it is a moment that has caused sobering reflection in recent days.
Per the Museum, the synopsis of that exhibit, which is scheduled to be in place through Jan. 2:
“In the early decades of the twentieth century, a visionary partnership between a Black educator and a white business leader launched transformational change across the segregated South. A new book of photographs and stories brings readers into the impactful, yet largely unknown, story of Rosenwald schools. A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America is the latest book from photographer and author Andrew Feiler. The late Congressman John Lewis, a Rosenwald school alum, contributed the book’s foreword.
“Born to Jewish immigrants, Julius Rosenwald rose to lead Sears, Roebuck & Company and turn it into the world’s largest retailer. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington became the founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute.
“In 1912 the two men launched an ambitious program to partner with Black communities to build public schools for African American children. From 1912 to 1937, when few such schools existed, the program built 4,978 schools across fifteen southern and border states. Rosenwald schools – one of the earliest collaborations between Jews and African Americans – drove dramatic improvement in Black educational attainment and educated the generation who became leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.”
Yes, this typically is not the space for history, nor was it what was planned for this week’s NBA discourse.
But, please, allow for just a bit more from the exhibit’s synopsis.
“Julius Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to manage his growing school-building program. The fund moved to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1920. The new Rosenwald Fund employees at the Nashville office set new standards for schools. The grants now required matching funds from the communities that wanted schools. The local Black community and its white school district had to match the amount of the grant. Rosenwald asked for a match to encourage communities to work together in building the schools. Some community members contributed building materials and labor as their match. Black communities also held fish frys, bake sales, and other events to raise money. Rosenwald hoped his money would jumpstart a school and then not need his support.
“Of the original 4,978 schools, only about 500 survive. To tell this story visually, Feiler drove more than twenty-five thousand miles, photographed 105 schools, and interviewed dozens of former students, teachers, preservationists, and community leaders. Brief narratives written by Feiler accompany each photograph, telling the stories of Rosenwald schools’ connections to the Trail of Tears, Great Migration, Tuskegee Syphilis Study, embezzlement, and murder.”
This, not Irving’s bile, which he personally declined to repudiate for days, is what deserves study, reflection, the type of unified moment of those persecuted persevering in common concern.
Not the spewing. Not the promotion. Not the self importance and self indulgence of the talented All-Star who balked only when his livelihood was placed in peril.
And since this is a basketball space, tying it together from a Heat perspective is the awful anti-Semitic slur from former Heat center Meyers Leonard that went viral in March 2021 and the actions that followed.
Leonard did not know. He was ignorant. He was wrong. He was fined. He was suspended. He has not played an NBA game since.
But he also was contrite, immediately contrite, set out to make amends, immersed himself in Jewish communities, came out a better person. To emphasize . . . immediately.
To speak the word that Leonard spoke when streaming his on-line video-game play was vile. To offer immediate heartfelt remorse through ensuing words and actions was human.
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With the Nets having already made their lone regular-season visit to Memphis, “A Better Life for Their Children” won’t be on Brooklyn’s schedule.
If only Irving had promoted that exhibit across his vast social-media network.
SPEAKING OF: With Irving now in the midst of at least a five-game suspension by the Nets, it again raises question of whether the Heat acted too hastily in extending Tyler Herro and effectively removing him from this season’s trade market, because of the poison-pill element of Herro’s $130 million, four-year extension. No, not in a trade for Irving, but when it inevitably dawns again on Kevin Durant about why he wanted out of Brooklyn in the first place. Granted, any Heat deal with the Nets is complicated by the presence of Ben Simmons in Brooklyn and the inability to take on another player via trade with a designated rookie-scale extension, such as Bam Adebayo. Still, if some of the maneuvering by the Heat at the start of free agency — such as declining the full mid-level exception to P.J. Tucker — was predicated on the possibility of dealing for Durant, that trade door may open yet again for the NBA.
IRVING INSTABILITY: Another element of the Irving fallout was the Nets’ parting with Steve Nash as coach. During Tuesday night’s visit to FTX Arena, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said it made him even more appreciative for the working conditions he and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra enjoy. “It’s a good reminder to me, and I think all coaches, that we are at the whim of players, front offices, ownership [and] you really need a solid situation in which to thrive as a coach in this league,” Kerr said. “Erik’s got one here, I’ve got one in Golden State. We’re really lucky. You throw either one of us in that situation, we wouldn’t have done any better than Steve. And that’s the truth. So as a really good friend of mine, I feel bad for Steve. But I also know if he ever wants to get back in this thing, he can be great. He just needs a more stable environment.”
STILL A FAN: Before he went off into the Miami night angered, correctly, by the blown traveling non-call on Herro that ended the Kings’ night with a loss Wednesday at FTX Arena, Sacramento coach Mike Brown made note of his respect for the Heat as an organization. “It doesn’t matter that particular month, that week, that day, that game, everybody’s all in. They don’t have anybody that’s trying to stray or go out on their own,” Brown said. “They’re all in and they’re all in together, no matter who starts, no matter who comes off the bench, no matter who plays. When you have that buy-in from a group with the belief — not just the buy-in, but with the belief — that it can help you succeed, knowing that the foundation of it is hard work, great things can happen for a long, long time. And that’s what that culture is about.”
AND AN ADMIRER: Brown also had praise for Heat guard Gabe Vincent, who he coached on the Nigerian national team at the Tokyo Olympics two summers ago. “First of all,” Brown said, “he’s a phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal person. I don’t know if you get any better than Gabe. But on top of that, his skillset is at a level that most people don’t give him credit for. He’s working his tail off to get where he is.”
3. Times the Heat will play the same team in consecutive games in the same venue over the next month. The Heat host the Charlotte Hornets this coming Thursday and Saturday, host the Washington Wizards before and after Thanksgiving on Nov. 23 and Nov. 25, and then play the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2.
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