WASHINGTON — It is meaningful for Doc Rivers that his 76ers are playing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the nation’s capital, where the March on Washington was staged in 1963.
Rivers has spent time with George Raveling, the former Villanova star, college basketball coach, and Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member who came to own the original copy of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Rivers has invited Raveling to share the story of how the speech came into his possession with his team.
“It’s really cool being here,” Rivers said before the Sixers’ matchup against the Wizards.
Monday’s game featured two Black head coaches, as Washington assistant Joseph Blair abruptly became acting head coach with Wes Unseld Jr. and Pat Delany in COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Blair, however, did not want to tie the significance of the holiday to the game.
“We benefit, for sure, from the strides, the sacrifices, the impact that Dr. King made,” said Blair, a former Sixers assistant. “And for that I am most humbly grateful. I think that if we all could, in our own way, find ways to emulate those wonderful things that he possessed in his character, in his way of handling other people, the treatment of other people, our society as a whole would benefit greatly.”
Rivers has used his platform to address social-justice topics, including the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and Julius Jones clemency in Oklahoma this season. And though one of King’s famous quotes is “the time is always right to do what’s right,” Rivers said we are “still waiting” for more progress toward equality in 2022.
“The one part of it [that people misunderstood], it wasn’t just for Blacks,” Rivers said. “It was for equality for all, no matter what race you were. That’s what he fought for all. That’s why we have a national holiday for him.”
Rivers an ‘expert’ on day games
Playing during the Martin Luther King Day slate also meant an early tipoff in Washington. Rivers calls himself an “expert” on his teams playing day games because of his tenure with the Clippers, who shared Crypto.com Arena with the Lakers and the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and typically played double-digit afternoon home games each season.
“I love it as a coach. I hated it as a player,” Rivers said. “… In the evening, when your game’s not going right, you feel like you have enough time to get out of it. Afternoon games, the next thing you know it’s over and you’re on a bus going home.”
Another factor that perhaps applies more to Los Angeles than Washington, where a winter storm occurred Sunday night? The nightlife scene.
“I always thought if it was a Saturday [afternoon game in Los Angeles], then it’d hurt the opposing team,” Rivers said. “Because Friday nights in L.A., the city of L.A. is phenomenal with big wins.”
The Sixers have three more afternoon games scheduled during the regular season: Feb. 6 at Chicago, Feb. 27 at New York and April 2 vs. Charlotte.
Impressed by Embiid’s fitness
Blair got an up-close look at Embiid during the 2019-20 season, when he was an assistant on Brett Brown’s final Sixers staff.
When asked before Monday’s game where Embiid has most improved in the two seasons since then, Blair highlighted the All-Star big man’s improved physical fitness.
“A few years back, he was a guy you questioned if he could play as many minutes as you needed him to play,” Blair said. “And even down the line, maybe he was a little too tired. He’s just kind of reshaped and redeveloped himself as an athlete. He’s more explosive, I think. He’s a little bit leaner, stronger, faster. He still has his skills.
“He’s just an amazing player. I have nothing but great things to say about Joel. He’s one of the pillars of this league.”
Embiid entered Monday putting up MVP-caliber numbers, averaging 27.2 points, 10.6, rebounds and a career-best 4.3 assists per game. He entered Monday scoring 30 or more points in 10 of his last 11 games, and in 10 consecutive road games dating back to Dec. 6.