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Utah Jazz honored to play on special holiday

Published: Sunday, Jan. 16 2011 11:48 p.m. MST

Utah's Deron Williams gives teammate Raja Bell a slap as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks at Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

WASHINGTON — It's just one of 82 games, and it's against one of the worst teams in the NBA.

But with an early 11 a.m. start because of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, today's matinee matchup against the Washington Wizards holds a special significance for many members, if not all, of the Utah Jazz.

"Most definitely," Jazz center Al Jefferson said. "Dr. King was a legend. He did a lot for this country, and it's an honor to play on his birthday."

Or at least close to it.

The late and legendary civil-rights leader was actually born on Jan. 15 — back in 1929, even before 68-year-old Jerry Sloan — but the third Monday of January has been considered a federal holiday in his honor for 25 years.

The reverend's contributions to society are deeply appreciated by Jazz players, even though they were all born long after Dr. King was assassinated at the age of 39 in 1968.

"I'm just honored to be a part of playing on his day," Jazz guard Raja Bell said. "And the fact that the NBA would do (afternoon) games — just a little something out of the ordinary, out of respect — I think is pretty cool."

The Jazz-Wizards game is one of 10 NBA contests that will be held in the afternoon, local time.

ESPN will broadcast the Bulls-Grizzlies game (another 11 a.m. MDT start) from Memphis, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner was killed almost 43 years ago.

Bell also thinks it's neat the Jazz will play in the nation's capital.

"D.C. was one of the first stops for black people coming out of the South and the first stop once they got to the North when they were migrating out of there," Bell said, recalling post-slavery U.S. history circa the 19th century. "So, it holds some kind of meaning."

Jazz guard Ronnie Price is also looking forward to being in a special spot for the holiday.

"You can't say enough about what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has done," Price said. "But to have an opportunity to be in Washington actually on that day, it'll be a time to where during the day you'll just have to sit and just soak it all in, like, man.

"The world," he continued, "is such a different place but better in so many ways, but there's still a lot we can learn from him."

Added Deron Williams: "Definitely, definitely a special day. (This is) a good way to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King and play on his day. It'll be fun."

Despite people's perceptions of the Beehive State population, you'd have to imagine King might get a smile on his face when contemplating the makeup of the Jazz.

Segregation?

Not with this Utah team, which boasts 13 players who have a wide range of skin colors, cultures and races.

With multiple athletes coming from interracial families and backgrounds ranging from the U.S. Virgin Islands, to Mississippi, Indiana, the Netherlands and parts of the old Soviet Union, to name a handful, the Jazz just might be the most diversely integrated team in the league.

As for the game itself, the pairing ranks on the less-than-special side.

The visiting Jazz have won three games in a row, sport a 27-13 record and are tied atop the Northwest Division.

The host Wizards, meanwhile, find themselves at the bottom of the Southeast Division with an 11-27 record. But Washington has won one game in a row and has a decent 11-8 mark at the Verizon Center (compared to 0-19 on the road).

Bell said the Jazz, who are 15-7 out of Utah, aren't taking anything for granted on this four-game East Coast road trip, which also includes stops in New Jersey, Boston and Philadelphia.

"We need to focus," Bell said. "Keep that focus, and go out there and play hard. You don't want to give their crowd any reason to get them energized and make runs."

Speaking of the Wizards' crowd, Jazz players said they'd love it if the most famous man in town — President Barack Obama, of course — spent the afternoon watching hoops instead of hanging out at the White House.

"That would be awesome. That would be great," Bell said. "I think that's pretty much what (Dr. King) was fighting for. (Obama) embodies it, getting an opportunity to hold the highest position in the land. That's what he stood for."

e-mail: jody@desnews.com Twitter: DJJazzyJody

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