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How MLK's assassination changed an NBA player's destiny
Philadelphia 76er star Wali "Wonder" Jones had a big decision to make the day after MLK's assassination.

How MLK's assassination changed an NBA player's destiny

Speaker in Diversity in Hospitality series tells students to remember the past

March 1, 2021 at 12:00am

It was Nov.4, 1968—the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A thousand miles away, NBA player Wali "Wonder" Jones, his teammate and NBA legend Wilt Chamberlin, the entire reigning NBA Championship team and the Philadelphia 76ers had a huge decision to make: play the game or sit out in protest. Jones and Chamberlin voted not to play.

Turns out, unlike the NBA players of today and former NFL San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016, they didn't have a choice.

The league at the time had only 16 teams. In the 1960s, most players like Jones made just $25,000 and team owners and politicians, where the game was being played, made the decisions.

"We could be fired anytime. I mean, just to say you're not going to play," Jones said. "You see a ballplayer nowadays they have the power because they have the money. We're the legends that set the table for them to make this type of money. But, at the time, they (team owners) had control of where you play," he added.

Jones played the game and eventually lost the championship that year to the Boston Celtics. But, as he told an attentive audience of Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management students, that decision led to an awakening and his lifelong fight for civil rights.

"After Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a lot of burning and rioting," he said as he shared that he regrets having played the game to this day.

Jones became a civil rights activist that year starting a nonprofit called African American Athletes in Action. He also got fired because of it.

"I spoke out about police brutality," Jones said. "I was called a militant. The team wouldn't pay me or play me and in December. I didn't have a job." 

Jones eventually got hired by another NBA team and finally retired in 1976. His discussion about the struggle with America's racial divide is part of the Chaplin School's ongoing series: Diversity in Hospitality & Mega Events Influencer Series, focused on Black History for February.

Other speakers that night included: Valerie Gammon, president of Amethyst Entertainment; Jason Jenkins, senior vice president of Communications & Community Affairs at the Miami Dolphins; Stephanie Perez, general manager at Compass Group; Derrick Turton, World Famous House of Mac founder; Vitus Spehar, executive director of Impact Everything Food, Inc.

"This chapter in my life is about purpose. That's what drives me now. When you talk about legacy, my legacy is purpose," said Turton, who is known as Chef Teach. Turton transitioned from a top music promoter for artists like Pitbull, Yo Gotti and A$AP Rocky to opening restaurants in some of South Florida's struggling neighborhoods. 

"It was important to me, to make sure that my people, who had been working for me for years, didn't have to go on the unemployment line. By me creating jobs, creating businesses and putting them in a community, it allows me to hire people," Turton added.

From an NBA player turned activist to a record producer turned celebrity chef, speakers shared advice to students is to pursue their passion and remember the lessons of the past.

"If you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going. I'm not going to stop this ministry. I'm just glad to be able to speak to your students," Jones concluded.

Listen to the entire recording of the Diversity in Hospitality & Mega Events Influencer panel