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Celtics to honor King with minute

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 17, 2011

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The moment will only be worth as much as the thoughts that go into it.

Hubie Jones has 55 years’ worth of thoughts — what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. means to him, and what his legacy could mean to everyone else if they stopped to think about it.

Jones studied social work at Boston University in 1955, three months after King completed his theology studies there. During the height of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., King gave a speech at BU. His words inspired Jones from then on.

Jones eventually became the first black dean of BU’s school of social work and one of the city’s prominent civil right activists with King’s dream in mind.

How many people, he asked himself, can he get to stop and think all at once? He’s done it the past seven years, calling it the King Minute, a moment of silent reflection. But the Celtics — one of the city’s most racially complex franchises — would get at the city’s core.

What if, Jones wondered, for one minute before the Celtics tip off against the Magic tonight, everyone in TD Garden stopped to think about what King meant and how much progress had been made since he was assassinated.

When the idea made its way to Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca, he listened.

“He was excited about the idea of reaffirming the importance of the holiday,’’ Pagliuca said. “He was very excited. I thought it was a noble cause, and I think we should pay those respects and recognize that we should work together.’’

Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn’t need to be sold.

“The one thing is, it’s an American holiday,’’ Rivers said. “It’s not just an African-American holiday. And I think the significance of Dr. Martin Luther King is American significance, not just an African-American significance. It’s just nice that we recognize it. It’s nice that the players understand it, and it’s nice that we take a minute.’’

Tom “Satch’’ Sanders is like a walking time capsule of the era. Over his 13 seasons (1960-73), the Celtics won eight NBA titles.

“It was easy to play in Boston,’’ Sanders said. “We were the Celtics, and we were a winning team. You’d be appreciated wherever you were.’’

But Boston had a racial stigma that Sanders said wasn’t entirely fair.

“Not being able to get a cab because you’re a black guy, not being able to live where you wanted to live, those things were occurring in New York,’’ Sanders said. “Players were talking about it in St. Louis and in LA. If you took a look around and talked to players, those incidences were happening all over the country.’’

The Celtics were no exception to the tension of the times, even though they were the first team to draft a black player: Chuck Cooper in 1950. Sanders, along with Sam and KC Jones, Willie Naulls, and Bill Russell, were the league’s first all-black starting five. Russell became the league’s first black head coach in 1966.

“For years, it was interesting when you talked to young players and they were telling you how they feel about Boston,’’ Sanders said. “You ask them, ‘Do you know that Boston had the first all-black starting five?’ ‘Get out of here! No!’ ’’

Coach Red Auerbach was by no means color blind, Sanders said, but he ran a meritocracy.

“We had a coach who was interested in winning,’’ Sanders said. “It didn’t matter whether you had one, two blacks on the team or whether we blossomed to seven, eight, nine, 10. It was a matter of getting the best talent to win the games.

“Folks tried to make Boston the prime example for everything, [but] in our travels, racism was alive and well in America. There weren’t any cities that we went to that we didn’t encounter problems. It didn’t matter. Large cities. Small cities. All over the country.’’

Boston’s racial climate is unique, though.

In 1975, Jones spoke to black law students at BU and asked how many would stay in Boston and become part of the community after graduation.

The response? Overwhelming laughter.

“You don’t see a place for you here,’’ Jones said. “You don’t see a place where you can have the kind of social life, professional life, and civic life where you and your future family can prosper. So you’re out of here.’’

When the Celtics were trying to lure Kevin Garnett in 2007, Garnett was reluctant — primarily because the Celtics had just won 24 games, but people also assumed he was repelled by the racial climate.

But Ray Allen was traded to Boston from Seattle, and suddenly the scent of a championship ring outweighed even the perceived stigma of racial discomfort. Rivers chose “ubuntu,’’ the South African philosophy of togetherness, as the team’s mantra, and it became to the 2007-08 Celtics what “Cowboy Up’’ was to the 2004 Red Sox. The team won the franchise’s 17th title.

“I think you can find some bit of racism or bigotry in any city in America,’’ Allen said. “I know a lot of people have talked about Boston, but what I have seen in Boston, I haven’t seen any different from any other place.’’

So, how much can a moment mean?

Jones won’t be there to see the moment play out. He’ll be at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall directing the Boston Children’s Chorus’s eighth annual tribute concert to King. But he’s already played the scene out in his mind, an entire building pausing for just a moment to remember.

“It’s a national holiday of great significance,’’ Jones said. “It’s important enough for people to know that and remember that and to spend some time, even for a minute. A minute doesn’t sound like a long time, but it’s a very long time. It’s enough time to get people to think.’’

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