Bill Simmons clumsily links Martin Luther King’s assassination with Memphis tensions over the Grizzlies

In a podcast on, following a smart and revealing anecdote from Jalen Rose about his trip to the Lorraine Motel /National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., Bill Simmons decided to link MLK’s 1968 assassination with crowd uneasiness at a Memphis Grizzlies contest during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

We don’t get it either. The audio can be found here, starting around the eight minute mark. Here’s Simmons’ connection:

I didn’t realize the effect [the MLK assassination] had on that city.


I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of set the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind, and the whole crowd got tense. It was like, 'Oh no, something bad's gonna happen.' And I think it starts from that shooting.

No, it didn’t start with that shooting. It starts with the San Antonio Spurs, the top seed in Memphis’ particular bracket in a basketball tournament, being very good at basketball, and the knowledge that a 0-3 deficit has yet to be overcome in the history of the NBA.

It doesn’t come from lingering chaos theory regarding the Martin Luther King assassination. Hurt and fallout from that tragic event, while significant, are way, way down the list when it comes to body blows suffered by the city of Memphis in the 45 years since.

Simmons also noted the city of Dallas, and how it took both the Dallas Cowboys and the TV show ‘Dallas’ to help the team forge its own identity in the wake of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, which took place on the streets of Dallas. He’s not wrong here, and I recall an interview with actress Susan Howard (a Texas native, and cast member on ‘Dallas’) referencing both the sports team and the television program as helping the city’s inhabitants reshape its identity past something that she called “president killers.”

Memphis needs no such reshaping, though, and you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the city and its people to understand this.

Much less try to relate the incident to something as stupid as sports. The Martin Luther King assassination reference is both infuriating and inappropriate. An 80-year old grandfather or eight-year old fan of the Grizzlies could tell you that it had absolutely nothing to do with what happened in a basketball game 45 years on.

That end of the story almost isn’t wasting words on. James Earl Ray’s assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. has little to no sports relevance, outside of perhaps pictures of the balcony scene being shown during an MLK montage at an NBA game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or possibly a moment of silence prior to a Grizzlies game should one take place on April 4th. Even those are pushing it, and possibly out of place.

Beyond that, there is absolutely no connection between the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, and anything having to do with the Memphis Grizzlies, its fans, and the team’s potential either in or out of a game. None.

What’s frustrating beyond the reference is Simmons’ clumsy attempts at making things so needlessly simple. Deadspin’s Drew Magery dove into that earlier on Tuesday:

In Bill Simmons's world, there must always be a unified theory that explains how and why everything happens. And that theory must be something dreamed up by Simmons, and Simmons alone. And that theory is NEVER wrong. And if it includes a grand theory about why a star actor isn't a star actor anymore, then all the better.

It wraps up the entire sociology and psychology of a fanbase or a team in a tidy little package designed for stupid people to accept unconditionally. Deep down, beneath all the pop culture references and trips to secret Chinese restaurants with his friends (my friend can eat a plate and a half of food! He's hungrier than your friends!), Simmons is just like the Lupicas and the Mariottis—someone who fancies himself an oracle for reducing sports to a series of linear equations and who's here to bestow his breathtaking knowledge upon you, the little people.

It’s true, for years, Bill Simmons was the voice of the fan. And a lot of fans say a lot of idiotic, offensive things. Not sure why I’m surprised at this, as this is bound to happen when fans start to believe that every half-cooked thought or idea has to be documented and on record, be it in a column, tweet, television appearance, or podcast.

It’s been a long season, Bill. Maybe take a few plays off.