MLK Assassination: To Play or Not to Play? 1968

[On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Philadelphia awoke feeling pretty-darn good about their defending-champion 76ers and the team’s prospects in the Eastern Conference championship series, set to commence tomorrow against the hated Boston Celtics. Al Domenico, the 76ers’ trainer, publicly stated that the defending-champion 76ers would sweep Boston in four. “It says here,” countered Jack Kiser, the Philadelphia Daily News’ ranking basketball scribe, “Bill Russell will retire as Boston coach sometime after the fifth game . . . sorry, Al, but we see the Celtics winning at least one.” 

Later that day, 76ers’ coach Alex Hannum predicted the magic number would be six. “I realize that Boston will be as fanatical in trying to regain the championship as we were last year in taking it away from them. But we still should win in six games. “

Hannum delivered his matter-of-fact prediction during an off-day practice for Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet the Jet, Wally Wonder, and the rest of the formidable 76ers’ crew, with one major exception. Billy Cunningham, the team’s sixth man, was out with a fractured right wrist. Without Billy C’s 19 points and seven rebounds per game, all these predictions of Boston’s early playoff demise would prove premature. 

After the perfunctory afternoon workout, really a shootaround, Hannum and the players headed home for dinner and to begin preparing themselves mentally for Friday night’s game two against the Celtics in the Spectrum. But before the dinner dishes were washed and dried, telephones started ringing with urgent pleas to “turn on the news”:

What follows is a recap the NBA’s ensuing discussions on whether to play-or-not-play Friday’s game. I’ve combined reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Camden Courier-Post into one super story. Something to think about on this MLK Day, 2022.]  


There was a basketball game at the Spectrum Friday night—a big game, the start of what is possibly professional sport’s most-heated rivalry: the Boston Celtics vs. the Philadelphia 76ers. 

And there were 920 empty seats. Wilt Chamberlain knew why. So did Bill Russell, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and the other players. 

It may surprise people that athletes care about more things than jump shots and trap plays and hanging curveballs. They do, however. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King greatly affected many of the players in Friday night’s game, won by the Celtics, 127-118. 

“I would like to have seen the games postponed, especially this one,” said Russell, Boston’s player-coach. “I’ve been in a state of shock. I didn’t sleep last night.”

Neither did Walker. 

Em Bryant (left) defends Hal Greer during the game that had everyone’s thoughts mostly elsewhere.

“Usually, before a Boston game, I get myself up for the game, but, when I heard that Dr. King had been shot, I forgot all about the game,” the 76ers’ forward said. “It just doesn’t seem important to me anymore. This whole thing is really affecting me.”

“I personally would not like to play tonight,” Chamberlain said before the game. “But I can only go along with what the majority of the team feels.”

Russell said he phoned Chamberlain about 5 o’clock Friday night. “I just felt like discussing it with someone,” Russell said.

“I knew Dr. King,” said Chamberlain, “not as well as I would have liked to had known him. I respected the man, and I believe in what he believed in. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I heard about what happened. Numb like, you know. I just couldn’t get up mentally for this game. It did go away some when I got engrossed in what was happening out on the court, but I couldn’t play my best. Not at all.”

Shortly after 7 p.m., Philadelphia general manager Jack Ramsay met in his office with Celtics president Marvin Kratter and general manager Red Auerbach to discuss the possibility of postponement. Both Ramsay and Auerbach left the office, and Kratter talked to league commissioner Walter Kennedy on the phone. 

Kennedy, Kratter said, told him “it was up to the owners as a matter of league policy. They will subscribe to whatever the team decide to do.”

Down the hall, Chamberlain closed the dressing room door and conducted a ballot. He and Wally Jones voted against playing. Greer said he didn’t want to, either. “The mood was obvious,” he said. “Nobody’s mind was on the game.” But Greer felt it was too late to call the game off. 

So the vote was 7-2 to play. But if it had been held at 2:30 when Chamberlain told Jack Ramsay he didn’t feel like playing, instead of 7:30, it would have been closer, possibly the other way. Ramsay later said no players had talked to him about postponement, but added, “I got the feeling Russell spoke to Red about it.”

Bill Russell said a similar vote was taken in the Celtics dressing room. “We didn’t want to play, either,” he said. “But we felt that if people came out expecting to see a game and, not seeing one, that we would increase the danger of something happening.

Russell, who worked with Dr. King, was especially upset. “He’s the last buffer, you know. Stuff that I said 10 years ago, did everybody dismissed as an angry Negro talking, is coming out today,” said Russell. “And that’s what is so sad; nothing constructive ever comes out of violence. And here’s a man that believed in nonviolence, and someone cuts him down. And then you ask, ‘That’s what nonviolence gets you?’

“I had a great deal of respect for Dr. King. And, now, somehow I feel kinda funny because I disagreed with him on some things. It’s a real tragedy.”

Russell paused, then continued:

“I think about the day I visited Auschwitz; this kind of stuff is what it’s leading up to. They came up with the (Kerner) report that 90 percent of the Negroes could have told you 10 years ago, and the first thing that is said about it is how much it will cost. 

“But we’ll go to the moon, we’ll fight in Vietnam. They don’t know how much it will cost. And then there is a problem at home, and they ask how much is it going to cost. Where is the perspective or sense of values?

“The average black man then figures that going to the moon and Vietnam is more important than me living here. I have to think people are the most valuable resource.”

Wally Jones, sad and silent, tried to offer apologies for his 4-for-16 shooting night. “I tried. I wanted to play well, but I played way below par,” he said. “Physically, I was fine, but mentally, I just wasn’t here.

“I know a lot of people connected with Dr. King’s work, and I was sick and stunned when I heard what happened. It was just like when I was a student at Villanova. I was going to the gym, and a priest told me that President Kennedy has been shot. We didn’t play a basketball game then, and I don’t think we should have played one tonight. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”

Jones had no reason to apologize. The club owners apologized somewhat by postponing Sunday’s game in Boston, going along with President Johnson’s request for a national day of mourning. 

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