Blazers take time to learn from the King

ATLANTA -- Greg Oden ducked his head and stepped through a doorway, back through time.

His Portland Trail Blazers teammates followed and gazed around the old gymnasium with its darkened floor. This was what they came to see, the basketball court at the Butler Street YMCA. There isn't much to it. About 75 feet long, 20 feet shorter than NBA size, with the half-court line about where the 3-point line would be in the league. It is one of those old Eastern gyms, the kind with a track ringing the upper level, similar to the Y in Springfield, Mass., where James Naismith hung peach baskets in 1891.

This YMCA was founded three years later and moved to this site in 1918. Around the middle of the 20th century, this court was where Martin Luther King Jr. played basketball for the Butler Street YMCA's team, the Rebels.

"I thought it was going to be remodeled and everything, but it was the actual wood," Brandon Roy said. "I'm trying to almost go back to that time and picture him running around."

Channing Frye took it one step further. He added the audio, conjuring a modern-day soundtrack to the visions of the future civil rights leader playing in his canvas sneakers.

"I was imagining Martin Luther King talking smack to everybody," Frye said.

Then he turned serious.

"I think it's good to see how basketball brings people together," he said. "It probably taught him a lot of things about being unselfish, about being competitive, and even though there are some things in your way, the main goal is to not only put the ball in the hoop but to achieve what you need to achieve. Sometimes you've got to go around, but you'll make your way there."

History can work two ways if you let it. I'd like to think what Frye said was true, that he and the Blazers could take everything they have learned from the game that has become their lucrative livelihood, go back and apply it to King's formative years. Because history sure flowed the other way Sunday, when the Trail Blazers visited notable sites in King's hometown on the eve of playing the Atlanta Hawks on the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The NBA schedule just happened to put the Blazers here at this time. Without knowing it, the league picked the right team. Chris Bowles, Portland's director of player programs, tries to schedule educational field trips when the team is on the road, adding a dose of black history to the usual NBA itinerary of arena-airport-hotel-mall-club. On this road trip, in Boston, they stopped by the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, which featured an exhibit on Massachusetts blacks in the Civil War. On their next stop, in New Orleans, they are scheduled to meet with Mayor Ray Nagin. Past visits have included the civil rights museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was assassinated.

"You've got to feed 'em," Bowles said.

Mental nourishment. These days, you don't have to leave your laptop to read the "Letter From Birmingham Jail" or watch the "I Have a Dream" speech. But there's a powerful connection that comes from visiting the locations, seeing the places that shaped a man who changed the course of our country. Sometimes, it takes a little prodding. Jarrett Jack went to Georgia Tech for three years but never made it to the historic venues he visited Sunday, when his appreciation for King grew even more.

"It's an amazing thing that one man helped change so much," Jack said. "Of course, he didn't do it alone, but it was mainly his vision. Giving up his life, which he did, just for us to even have these possibilities is an amazing sacrifice.

"Most of us probably would have been like, 'Let's just keep it the way it is and ride it on out.' But he was a dude that stood for change, went about it the right way in a peaceful manner, and it's great that they keep him in remembrance."

Bowles, a black history buff, also played the role of tour guide along the way. He pointed out the first African American-owned bank. When the bus made a left onto Auburn Avenue, he said it was "The Rodeo Drive of Black America" for much of the 20th century. He noted the Royal Peacock, where James Brown played one of his earliest gigs.

The bus pulled up to the YMCA, where president Stewart Williams greeted them and showed them the way to the gym. Steve Blake grabbed a basketball and shot a couple of layups. Then Oden, showing the rust from the knee surgery that wiped out his season, fired up a couple of jumpers that knocked the dust off the backboard (he blamed the poor lighting).

The players -- James Jones, Taurean Green, Blake, Roy, Jack, Frye and Oden -- were introduced to staffers, members and kids in the gym.

"Are you the No. 1 draft pick?" chairman Sonny Walker asked Oden.

"Something like that," Oden sheepishly replied.

They listened to speeches from Williams and other board members, heard the history of the building. It's where King played ball and learned to swim -- the YMCA has a pair of his swimming trunks in its possession. It's where Walt Frazier first bounced a basketball.

It also played an important role in the community. When Atlanta's first black police officers joined the force in 1948, they changed into their uniforms at the Butler Street YMCA, because "coloreds" weren't allowed to use the police station. And in the early days of the civil rights movement, the YMCA provided meeting space.

Asher Benator, a YMCA director emeritus who has been around the neighborhood since he worked at a local deli as a 10-year-old in 1941, told the players, "Many of the men and women who were responsible for getting rid of segregation [in Georgia] came through the Butler YMCA. Down the road, I'm sure some of you are going to have the same responsibility to do things that are right for the community."

On this day, the players made the locals happy just by playing and taking pictures with the youngsters. One, 11-year-old Anthony Hendricks, measured himself against the 7-foot Oden. Hendricks came up to his elbow. But Hendricks showed he could dunk the ball -- thanks to a lift from Oden.

Before the players left, Jack, who lives in Atlanta in the offseason, told Williams he would be back this summer. Community involvement works both ways, too.

"That's the most precious thing when you look at a little kid: The possibilities are endless," Jack said. "He could be the president, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan … you know what I'm saying? I think it's all in how you raise them."

And if the players learned anything new this day, it was how King was raised. The next stop was his home, right in the black middle class, at pretty much the dividing line between the larger and smaller houses in the black neighborhood. The King household mandated responsibility, with the children required to recite long Bible verses at the dinner table. But the kids also were encouraged to speak up, at a time most children were expected to be quiet.

What struck the players the most were the success of the family and its accomplishments, the middle-class background, the emphasis on education. One picture hanging on the wall shows King, his brother and sister, their parents and their grandmother. Everyone in the photograph graduated from college. The grandmother stood out the most -- a black woman, born in the 1900s, with a degree.

That hit home with Roy, the first member of his family to go to college. He had seen the adult phases of King's life, the ministry and the speeches and the protests. Now, he gained a greater appreciation for the early years. He thought of the way he wants to raise his 9-month-old son. He envisioned bringing his family here so they can experience the historic sites themselves.

"Coming from the Northwest, I don't get to experience that heritage," the Seattle native said. "To be able to be a part of it, it was incredible to me."

Upstairs is King's birth room. So ordinary -- a medium-sized bed, a large crib, a dresser, a bureau -- and yet, so powerful. It's where one of the most important people in our country's history entered the world on Jan. 15, 1929. A clock on the mantel above the fireplace has its hands frozen on the time of his birth: 12:01 p.m.

The players absorbed the words of the tour guide. For me, it was a number that stuck in my head. Twenty-five cents. That was King's weekly allowance. To think, a boy who made a quarter a week could go on to create the opportunities that include a National Basketball Association made up mostly of blacks, in which the average salary is more than $5.3 million.

"Not only that," Roy said, "just being able to go to school and drink from water fountains. Those are luxuries we overlook, but at one point, we didn't have. Just because he fought for those things.

"I've got good friends that are all different races, and it's all because he fought for those things. He didn't fight for one race to be more than another. He fought for everybody to be equal. That's the thing that I really respect."

They left through the rear of the house, gazing at the big backyard as they returned to the bus. Frye reached for Bowles' hand.

"Good looking out today," Frye told him. "Much appreciated."

Come Monday, Frye would have to work. The Blazers would play the Hawks. His focus would be on the game. But he knew, at some point in the day, he would think about what he learned. There's a family connection to the King story, he found out Saturday. His father told him about his grandfather's trip from New York for the March on Washington. Now, 45 years later, Frye has had a bit of the King experience as well.

"It's a time to be appreciative," Frye said Sunday. "It's a time to sit down for five minutes and thank God for our blessings."

"Even though we're not in school anymore, it's still OK to learn."

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.