There are jerseys, and then there are statements.
The NBA’s City jerseys have ranked among the most popular unis in sports history, in part because of the care that’s gone into connecting them to their host towns. Some have been iconic (the Miami Heat’s Miami Vice collection), some inspired (the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Prince version), and some … well, they’re distinctive, that’s for sure. (The less said about the Dallas Mavericks’ Fresh Prince unis from last year, the better.)
This year, though, the Atlanta Hawks upped the City jersey game to a new level. At a time when NBA players have leaped into a full-on embrace of progressive causes, the Hawks released jerseys honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the patron saints of America’s ongoing social justice movement and an Atlanta native.
From the moment the MLK jerseys made their debut online, response ranged from ecstatic to triumphant. Athletes, celebrities and fans have clamored for replicas of the jerseys. The symbolic resonance of the jerseys is so strong that Pope Francis blessed one earlier this month:
The fact that the MLK jersey appears so tailor-made for the present moment is even more impressive when you realize it’s been in the works for more than two years. But it’s not the first connection the Hawks have made with the King legacy.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as pastor in the last years of his life, stands less than two miles away from the Hawks’ State Farm Arena, straight down Auburn Avenue. King’s tomb is nearby, and his presence runs throughout the city. So the connection has always been there, especially when the team began playing special afternoon games on MLK Day.
“Whether it’s elevating awareness among fans or using a full gospel choir for player intros,” said Melissa Proctor, the Hawks’ chief marketing officer, “we’ve always made a point to pay homage to Dr. King in a big way.”
Honoring King is one thing, though; getting his name on a jersey is something else. The team and Nike had to work closely with the King estate to ensure that all proper respect was granted to King’s name.
“We wanted to be in alignment with how they viewed Dr. King’s legacy and name,” Proctor said. “It couldn’t be gratuitous. We really wanted it to be elevated, not just slapping ‘MLK’ on everything.”
“Both the Hawks and Nike teams felt strongly about wanting to tell the Dr. King’s story and share how integral he was to the city of Atlanta,” Nike Basketball uniform designer Cyrus Coleman said in an email. “As a Nike team we asked ourselves, ‘How do you take this story and make it into something you can wear and feel good about, play well in and pay respect to Dr. King’s legacy?’”
The result is a design that incorporates vast, disparate elements of King’s personal history. The colors — black and gold — aren’t anywhere close to the Hawks’ usual colors; instead, they’re the colors of King’s beloved Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
“The bold black, gold and white colorway showcases Black excellence,” Coleman said, “to always strive for greatness and help to give players a mental edge in the game.”
The subtle striping on the jerseys is a nod to the pattern of many of King’s suits. The 22 stars along the shorts reference the many times King was arrested in the course of his nonviolent protests, while the stars themselves are a reference to the Freedom Riders who journeyed across the South by bus during the most harrowing and dangerous times of the Civil Rights era.
Plus, the “MLK” initials on the jersey themselves have significance. It’s the first time any individual has been so honored on the front of an NBA jersey. To help honor the moment, the Hawks have launched a social media campaign — #earntheseletters — designed to show that as important as a team logo is, the initials of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are another level entirely.
The jerseys will be the centerpiece of 10 “Unity Nights,” starting with Monday’s game against the Timberwolves. The arena itself will pay tribute to King — a special stained-glass version of the Hawks’ logo, reminiscent of Ebenezer Baptist Church, will adorn center court — and each game will include efforts to educate fans about King’s works and legacy.
“One of the early conversations we had [with the estate] was about how a lot of people read about Dr. King, but very few read King himself,” Proctor said. “So within the season, we’ll be looking to incorporate his books in a reading list for fans.”
The MLK jerseys have been among the most successful initiatives the Hawks have ever launched. Players, fans and celebrities have raved about the jerseys on Twitter, and stores around Atlanta are selling to the walls.
“This is more than just a jersey,” Coleman said. “It’s a truth that people hold dear to their hearts and inspires the world to change for the better — for us to be better.”
As successful as the MLK line has been, the Hawks are already on to their City jerseys for 2022, 2023 and beyond. No hints yet, although this year’s will be tough to top.
“If it’s coming from the Hawks,” Proctor said, “you know it’s going to be fire.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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