MLK's legacy felt throughout Nuggets organization
Assistant coach Melvin Hunt among those who draw hope from civil rights leader
Melvin Hunt lived on the wrong side of the tracks. He just didn’t know it.
Growing up in Tallulah, La., near the Mississippi border, Hunt and his friends often hung out at the local McDonald’s, talking and listening to music. They never thought twice when their fellow students would join the social scene.
“My little hometown was split white side, black side across the tracks, just like in the movies,” Hunt said. “White people didn’t come across and black people didn’t go across. But the kids, we were a new generation. We were so naïve and pure, we would go across the tracks and hang out. Some of the crosstown kids, the white kids, would hang out. We got so cool with them.
“We were like, ‘What? Are we doing something wrong?' We started that transition away from the separation. Growing up in the South, things were stuck. My generation, we were starting to unstick it.”
As America honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Hunt isn’t telling a story from the 1950s or 1960s, when the civil rights movement and racial tensions were at their peak. He’s a 42-year-old man talking life as a high-school basketball player in the 1980s.
Now in his second year as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, Hunt marvels at the progress made even in the past three decades.
“Over time, each generation is getting a little bit further away from (racism),” he said. “It’s still there. You can’t be crazy, but you’re getting a little bit further away. I think about the things that I experienced growing up in the South. If I moved back to the South now, my kids wouldn’t have to experience some of the things I experienced. That’s progress.”
The Nuggets don’t have to look any farther than their front office to see the impact that King had when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., nearly 50 years ago. Executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is the first African-American to lead the front office of an American professional sports team.
“Every race has competent folks,” Hunt said. “It goes back to Dr. King. His whole deal is based on the content of who you are, not just the color of your skin. When you see Masai Ujiri as a GM, it gives hope to people. To be honest, it gives hope to me. People are doing it based on their competence. It’s a cool deal.”
That message of hope was delivered to 1,800 elementary school students last week during the 7th Annual YMCA Kids Martin Luther King Celebration at the Paramount Theatre. The event is organized by the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver, Kroenke Sports Charities and Denver Public Schools.
Nuggets ambassador Mark Randall and public-address announcer Kyle Speller were co-emcees for the 90-minute celebration, and Carlotta Walls LaNier was the featured speaker. LaNier was the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
“She is an integral part of the program,” said Jim Hiner, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metro Denver. “Her participation brings history alive.”
After becoming the first black woman to graduate from Central High School, LaNier later attended Colorado State College (now Northern Colorado University) and founded her own real estate brokerage company. She still lives in the Denver area.
“To be just nine kids in the whole school at a time when they weren’t socially accepted was huge,” Nuggets forward Al Harrington said. “All the things that they had to go through, they went through for us.”
Several fifth-graders from DPS attended Sunday night’s Nuggets-Jazz game at Pepsi Center, and they were recognized during the second quarter as the winners of a district-wide art and essay contest.
Before the game, Nuggets rookie Julyan Stone delivered a heartfelt speech asking the crowd to honor and remember Dr. King, not only on Monday, but throughout the year. As Stone spoke, his teammates nodded their heads in agreement.
“The things that Dr. King stood for allows us to live the lives that we live today,” Harrington said. “When I hear his name, I’m grateful. I’m just so happy that he was who he was and stood for what he stood for.”
And for that, Americans of all races can be thankful.
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...