The tradition of NBA basketball on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day dates back to when the national holiday was first established in 1986 to honor the civil rights leader and continues in 2022 with a 12-game slate of games, including four broadcast on NBA TV and TNT, on Jan. 17.
Here is a closer look at six MLK Day classics as well as a few other notable performances and statistics from MLK Day games of the past.
Jan. 17, 1994: Ewing’s 34 powers Knick past Wolves
Box Score: Knicks 106, Timberwolves 94
The New York Knicks got double-doubles from Patrick Ewing (34 points, 11 rebounds) and John Starks (27 points, 11 assists) as they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves 106-94 at Madison Square Garden. During the game, Ewing became the first Knicks player to reach the 15,000 career points milestone. He remains the franchise leader in scoring at 23,665 points and no other player has scored 15,000 points in a Knicks uniform.
Jan. 15, 2007: Arenas scores 51, nails game-winner vs. Jazz
Box Score: Wizards 114, Jazz 111
Gibert Arenas scored what was then an MLK Day record 51 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds remaining to lead the Washington Wizards to a 114-111 home win over the Utah Jazz. This was the second 50+ point game of the season for Arenas and third of his career as he would finish third in the scoring title race at 28.4 ppg. Arenas shot 14-29 from the field, 7-12 from three and 16-17 from the free throw line to get his 51 points — an MLK Day record that would hold for nine years.
Jan. 18, 2016: Kemba goes for 52, sets trio of scoring marks
Box Score: Hornets 124, Jazz, 119 (2OT)
Kemba Walker celebrated the MLK holiday by having the best game of his young career. In his fifth season, Walker scored a career-high and franchise-record 52 points to lead the Charlotte Hornets to a 124-119 double overtime win over the Utah Jazz. Walker shot 16-34 from the field, 6-11 from beyond the arc and 14-15 from the free throw line to set the NBA’s new MLK Day scoring record, while also adding nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals. Walker would top this scoring performance two seasons later, but his MLK Day mark stood for four years.
Jan. 16, 2017: ‘Splash Bros.’ power Warriors past Cavs
Box Score: Warriors 126, Cavaliers 91
After an epic seven-game series in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors and Cavaliers would meet on each of the NBA’s top holiday showcases — Christmas Day and MLK Day — the following season. The defending champion Cavs struck first on Christmas Day as they rallied in the fourth quarter for a one-point win. MLK Day was a different story as the Warriors jumped on the Cavs from the opening tip and never let up. Klay Thompson led all scorers with 26 points, Stephen Curry added 20, Kevin Durant added 21, and Draymond Green earned a triple-double for Golden State. Thompson and Curry each made five 3-pointers, combining to shoot 10-23 from distance — topping the Cavs entire team as they shot 9-34 from 3.
Jan. 15, 2018: Durant outduels LeBron in MLK Day showdown
Box Score: Warriors 118, Cavaliers 108
Another year, another star-studded Warriors-Cavaliers matchup on MLK Day. The Cavs entered the game having won 13 straight home games, while the Warriors had won 12 straight road games. The Warriors were the ones that kept their streak alive thanks for a 32-point effort by Kevin Durant en route to a 118-108 win. With the Cavs leading by seven points at the half, Durant erupted for 16 points in the third quarter on 4-7 shooting from the field, 2-3 from deep and 6-6 from the line as the Warriors erased the lead and took control. LeBron James had 32 points for the Cavs, but the team went ice cold in the fourth quarter (6-23 FG, 1-5 3P, 4-9 FT) to seal their fate.
Jan. 20, 2020: Lillard sets MLK Day record with 61 points
Box Score: Blazers 129, Warriors 124 (OT)
Franchise record in points ✔️
Francise record in 3-pointers ✔️
Most points scored in the NBA this season ✔️
Most points ever on #MLKDay ✔️@dame_lillard is SPECIAL pic.twitter.com/gdlSz6ASNP
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 21, 2020
Damian Lillard turned last season’s MLK Day into Dame Time when he scored 61 points to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 129-124 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors. The 61 points not only marked a career high for Lillard and a franchise record for the Blazers, it also topped Kemba Walker’s mark for the most points ever scored on MLK Day. Lillard became the first (and remains the only) player in NBA history to score at least 60 points and make at least 10 3-pointers in a game — and the Blazers needed every one of them as they trailed by as many as 12 points in the third quarter before rallying to force OT and secure the win.
6 more standout MLK Day performances
There have been 20 MLK Day games in which a player scored at least 40 points, including three over 50 points, which are all highlighted above. Here are some of the notable 40+ point games:
Blake Griffin (Jan. 17, 2011, Box Score): The Clippers’ rookie phenom scored a then career-high 47 points on 19-24 shooting from the field, and grabbed 14 boards, to lead the Clippers to a 114-107 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Michael Jordan (Jan. 15 1996, Box Score): Jordan had the highest-scoring game in MLK Day history for over a decade when he scored 46 points in Chicago’s 116-109 win over Washington. Jordan’s mark held from 1996 until 2007 when Gilbert Arenas scored 51 points.
James Harden (Jan. 19, 2015, Box Score): Harden needed only 18 shot attempts to score 45 points in Houston’s 110-98 win over Indiana. Harden shot 12-18 from the field, 7-12 from three and 14-15 from the free throw line.
Of course, it’s not all about scoring on MLK Day; here are few more standout performances from MLK Day history.
Mark Jackson (Jan. 20, 1997, Box Score): Mark Jackson dished out a career-best 22 assists to go with 21 points to lead Denver to a 132-123 win over New Jersey and in doing so tallied the most assists in the history of MLK Day.
Dwight Howard (Jan. 18, 2016, Box Score): Howard holds the record for most rebounds collected on MLK Day with 26 to go with 36 points in Houston’s 140-132 overtime loss to the LA Clippers. Since the 1983-84 season, there have been only three performances where a player tallied at least 36 points and 26 rebounds as Howard joined Chris Webber (2001) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1988).
Shaquille O’Neal (Jan. 18, 1993, Box Score): Shaq and Patrick Ewing (1990) are tied for the most blocks in a game on MLK Day with eight. For Shaq, his eight blocks came as part of a monster game as he added 38 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in Orlando’s 124-118 overtime loss to Philadelphia. The only other player to reach those marks in a game since 1983-84 is Hakeem Olajuwon in 1987.