Memphis: Birthplace of dreams for Trail Blazers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- This afternoon, two young Trail Blazers are taking a trip back in time. LaMarcus Aldridge stands in the lobby of their Memphis hotel, waiting on teammate Ime Udoka to come downstairs.

They are going to load into a shuttle bus and travel a mile down Main Street to the old Lorraine Motel. It's now the National Civil Rights Museum.

"You know what it is?" asks Portland's director of player development Chris Bowles.

Aldridge nods.

"It's where he got killed," Bowles continues. "It's the balcony where they offed him. That's holy ground, for real, for real."

"Yeah," Aldridge says unconvincingly.

Bowles searches for a way to make a player truly understand.

How do you explain Dr. Martin Luther King's relevance to an NBA rookie worth millions?

"You wouldn't be balling like that," he says.

Ah-ha. A light. Aldridge smiles.

"Balling at all," Aldridge says. "We wouldn't have anything."

Black History Month has arrived, and with it, another opportunity for Bowles to teach.

He's in charge of the Portland Trail Blazers off the court, which, given their recent history, is a difficult but vital job. He's new to this position, and he wants his guys to understand where they fit in a daisy chain of great men and women who sacrificed everything to give them a chance to chase dreams.

He wants the NBA players to understand what they are.

"They are the fulfillment and the promise of praying grandmothers and grandfathers who swept floors," he says. "And with that comes a sense of responsibility. You should carry yourself with a sense of dignity and nobility."

At Fisk University, Bowles studied his history. When he lived in Atlanta, early some mornings he'd walk down from his loft, taking his own trip back in time to the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It's where Dr. King preached.

"There's junkies on the street, broken glass and it reeks like urine up and down Auburn Avenue," he says. "You can smell the Church's Chicken, but when you go in the old Ebenezer and you sit there, you feel it. You feel the essence."

That's a feeling he will never forget. It was a feeling of togetherness, a connection between himself and the fathers of the civil rights movement. In that room, the man who made millions rise with his words still floats above the pews, his spirit asking the question: What are you doing to carry on my legacy? It made Bowles appreciate what so many others had sacrificed.

As part of his new job, he's trying to make the players feel what he felt in Ebenezer. Just a week or so ago, he had some of them, including Darius Miles and Travis Outlaw, make family trees. They traced their roots all the way back to pre-Civil War. He made them look on paper and see a relative who'd been a slave.

"For all of us," Bowles says, "our great-great-grandparents were born in bondage. It was thoughtful and it was reverent and it was shocking to some of them. Some of them even had an issue articulating that or getting that out."

It worked. Those who completed the assignment realized that one bad decision on their part could undo all that had been done. They realized how far their families had come in just a handful of generations.

"Progress is being made," Outlaw says. "What they did for us didn't go to waste."

It's important. There is no more upwardly mobile group of young African-American males in the country than NBA players, and Trail Blazers radio announcer Antonio Harvey, a former NBA forward, thinks every player should study his history.

"It makes them stronger," he says. "It gives them a better understanding. I look at these young guys making millions of dollars, and they don't recognize the struggle that had to happen for them to get there."

With that in mind, Bowles, Harvey, Aldridge and Udoka step out of the shuttle bus and into the parking lot of the Lorraine.

Both players are here because of dreams.

Udoka is a Portland kid who latched on without a guaranteed contract. Now, he's a starter. He's never visited this sacred spot and, despite arriving with the team late last night after a 30-point loss in Houston, wanted to come.

"The fact that I've been to Memphis before and never went is something you're embarrassed about," he says. "You know it happened here, but you didn't take advantage of it."

Aldridge was raised by his mother, went to Texas and became a lottery pick. His life is different now, but he doesn't forget his mama's struggles. Even today, Aldridge won't eat chicken; it reminds him of a time when it was all they could afford.

Walking toward the famous balcony, the Sidekicks are put away, cell phones ignored. A light rain falls. The old cars still are parked out front. The room still looks the same. The years slip away until it's April 4, 1968.

The players stare up the wreath of white flowers, and across the street at the window where the gunman waited.

"That's crazy," Udoka says.

"That's where they shot him from," Aldridge says.

They linger a moment in the rain. Across the street, words from King's last speech are carved into an iron gate. The players step through the doors into their past.

They learn about Nat Turner, the Virginia slave whose visions led him to kill white owners. When Turner and his gang were caught, they were hanged, and then -- as the tour guide, Adrian Maclin, puts it -- brutalized. Bowles breaks in, turning to the players.

"They boiled them and made them into wallets," Bowles says. "Skinned them and turned them into wallets."

That gets everyone's attention.

"Is that true?" Bowles asks the guide.

The guide laughs.

"There are certain parts of the tour I'm not allowed to speak about," he says, nodding. "Feel free to interject."

Bowles grins.

"Just keeping it on the real, dawg."

As the tour continues to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, Udoka keeps looking in the direction of the Nat Turner photo. Next, they gather around a KKK robe, and an exhibit about W.E.B. DuBois. As they move from room to room, the players get each other's attention, pointing out things of interest. The air is somber.

Bowles and Harvey often know as much as the tour guide, who is an expert. That's common among NBA vets, Harvey says. Many guys could speak eloquently about the struggle for civil rights, if the question would be posed.

"You'd be amazed at the amount of knowledge," he says. "Problem is, they don't ask."

Around the corner, the group boards an old Montgomery, Ala., bus, taking seats up front near a statue of Rosa Parks. An insistent voice comes from the speaker, yelling at them.

Please move to the back of the bus.

Please move back.

If you don't get out of that seat, I'll have you arrested.

They jump a bit when the voice bites into the silence.

"Just imagine being told that," Harvey says, "and it's real."

As the players stand to leave the bus, Harvey gets their attention.

"One more thing," he says. " Talking about the desegregation nationally of buses, that doesn't mean you sat up front. That means it was OK to sit up front. But imagine sitting here and everybody passing by is… "

"Throwing stuff at you," Aldridge says, understanding.

"Spitting on you," Harvey continues. "You don't wanna do it. It's segregation, but it's just not on the books any more. It's changed a little."

Aldridge looks at the statue of Parks. She could be his grandmother. He appreciates her more than he did a few minutes ago. There is admiration in his voice when he speaks.

"It takes somebody who's tough to do it," he says.

"Exactly," Harvey says.

They walk past the bombed-out wreck of another bus, past photos of angry white faces at lunch counters, past metalwork from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They listen to gospel singers belt out freedom songs.

"Hip-hop was freedom songs when it first came out," Bowles tells the group.

"Now it's about how many cars you got," Aldridge says.

Finally, the tour nears its crescendo. The group winds its way up.

They arrive at room 306.

Everyone is quiet.

This is holy ground indeed.

The last place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent a night alive is enclosed in glass.

The remains of his final minutes on earth are carefully reconstructed. The salmon-colored bedspread is unmade, the pillows ruffled. There are coffee cups lying around the room and crushed-out cigarettes in the ash trays. Gospel music plays soft and low in the background.

Bowles looks out the window at the spot where King fell, not 10 feet away.

The tour guide tells the story of King's final speech, given the night before he died, about the promised land. That speech predicted a day when young black men could be millionaires and superstars.

"That promised land he was talking about was one we pretty much enjoy today," the guide says.

With his audience enthralled, the guide recounts the last words King ever spoke in public. Today, with the evidence of the awful events of April 4 all around, the words are eerie and steeped in meaning.

The speech was given just a few miles away. King built it to a climax, going over the entire civil rights movement. As he got to the end, his voice bellowing, the crowd rose to its feet. King spoke without notes, from the heart:

"And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

King was almost shouting now.

"And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

He wheeled around, disappearing into darkness behind the podium as the room shook and the microphones distorted the thunderous applause. The next day, as he stood on that balcony right there, a gunman shot King down.

Almost 39 years later, the players look out the window one last time, to the place where he collapsed.

History has come alive.

"I've taken several black history courses," Udoka says, "but to actually be there and feel the presence is something I'll definitely go home and tell people about. It's an honor to actually be in the spot where something like that happened. That's when you really understand how much he's done for our country in such a short amount of time."

Aldridge, too, has a story for his friends.

"I'll tell them how powerful it was," he says. "Just to know that without him, we wouldn't be where we are. He and some other people opened up that gate."

Then they head back to that nice hotel, where whites and blacks stay together. They head back to rest for a game they're paid handsomely to play. They head back to chase their dreams.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.