The King’s Speech

At a time when halftime is full of fluff, MLK's words can still captivate thousands

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CLEVELAND — We expect NBA halftime shows to be silly and funny things. Over the years, I’ve seen people jumping rope, artists painting to music (really) and dogs catching Frisbees. I’ve seen kids breakdancing, adults breakdancing, jugglers, mascots fighting, a guy spinning six or seven basketballs at once (can’t remember how many), all sorts of marching drum teams and dance teams, a collection of Elvis impersonators performing “Jailhouse Rock,” a human pyramid, a hundred local women Jazzercising and, of course, many times, people jumping off trampolines and dunking basketballs.

Unfortunately, I never did see The Red Panda unicycle balance dinnerware on her head. But I did see a fat guy eating beer cans. That’s not pejorative. He called himself “Fat Guy Eating Beer Cans.”

After seeing so many pointless, goofy, ridiculous little shows, there’s a Pavlov’s dog effect. The halftime buzzer goes off, and the body automatically steels itself for some loud music, for some crazy talent, for some weirdness.

That’s part of what made this halftime show the most remarkable one I’ve ever seen in any sport.

The crowd was pretty riled up. They had come to see how the hometown Cavaliers would fare against the all-too-awesome Golden State Warriors, and after only 24 minutes of basketball, the game was lost. Some people were probably thinking about just calling it a night and heading home to beat some of the bad weather.

Then the lights went down. Some stirring music began to play.

And then, the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed throughout Quicken Loans Arena.

“How very delighted I am to be here this morning and to have the great privilege and opportunity of sharing with you and being with you here in the city of Cleveland,” MLK said in that beautiful voice of his. “I never feel like a stranger when I come to Cleveland.”

King gave this speech at Cleveland’s Glenville High in 1967, the year I was born, 49 years ago. The speech was preserved on a reel-to-reel tape and was then lost, presumably forever. A couple of years ago, an art teacher and a student were searching through some old things to build an art project. They came across a box marked “Martin Luther King, April 1967.” Inside was a tape.

It’s not a famous speech. Biographers have not mentioned it. In a way, that’s what makes it so remarkable. This was Martin Luther King as he was on any given day, as he was when speaking at a high school in Cleveland.

“Set out to do a good job and do that job so well that nobody can do it any better,” King said, through the years and over the loudspeaker. “Set out to do a good job and do that job so well that nobody can do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.

“Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.

“Sweet streets like Beethoven composed music.

“Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’”

The arena was utterly silent, except for his voice and the music. The Cavaliers had edited the speech for time and, I suppose, to make it feel more universal. Almost fifty years have gone by. Gone was King’s story of riding segregated buses, and his determination never to give in to the hatred. “Every time I got on the bus, even though I found myself having to take my body to the back of the bus, I always left my mind on the front seat. And I said to myself, one of these days I’m going to put my body up where my mind is.”

Gone was his plea to push for change because change only comes with a push. “Let nobody fool you about this,” he said. “Freedom is never voluntarily given to the oppressed by the oppressor. It must be demanded.”

Still, this was Martin Luther King’s voice, with all its power, with all its passion and optimism and determination. And as his voice reverberated around the arena, people sat and listened. Not everybody, of course — there was beer to buy and bathroom breaks to take and so on. But most people sat and listened and were moved, especially when MLK reminded everyone that it is important never to stop.

“We must keep moving,” he said. “And so:

If you can’t fly, run.

If you can’t run, walk.

If you can’t walk, crawl.

But by all means, keep moving.”

And with that, the lights came up, and the crowd cheered, and the basketball game resumed. It was remarkable. Sure, there will always be room in our lives for mascots and dancers and T-shirts being thrown into the crowd. But every now and again, maybe when so many of us come together, it would be nice for something a little bit more. If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving. Seriously: How often have you felt chills watching people jump off trampolines and dunk?