SPORTS

Utah Women’s Basketball Shares Special Experience On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Jan 19, 2023, 2:08 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah women’s basketball shared a special experience they had earlier in their season while commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.

Fans may have missed it due to being in the middle of a jammed-packed football season for the Utes, but the women had the opportunity to really spend time with Mississippi Valley State (a historically black college or university) ahead of their game on December 1 while traveling to some important historical sites in the area after.

This was all made possible through the Pac-12 who announced a partnership earlier in the year with the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference)- a first of its kind educational and scheduling partnership between a Power Five Conference and an HBCU Conference. 

The Utes spoke after practice this week about the meaningfulness of the experience, how it helped them be a stronger team, and added a little extra reverence for what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is all about.

‘You Don’t Have To See The Whole Staircase, Just Take The First Step’

Utah guard Ginna Kneepkens detailed the Utes’ trip that included a sit-down lunch with MVS to talk about each other’s life experiences and love for basketball. The Utes also took a trip up to Memphis, Tennessee to see the infamous Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and killed outside of and has since been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.

Both experiences were powerful for Kneepkens and an example of how your circumstances can be different, but your passion can be the same.

“We were able to explore there and what I learned was obviously growing up in different parts of the country with different history from both parts of the country, you just learn a lot about the past and how we can come together as one,” Kneepkens said. “Our commonalities with Mississippi Valley State are that we love basketball. We might have different experiences off the court but when we come together, we can do something that we love. Just finding commonalities with others that maybe have different backgrounds than you, different stories than you and finding joy in that.”

 

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Forward Dasia Young was moved by the experience of seeing some of her teammates gain a better understanding of what it’s like to walk in her shoes as a Black woman who grew up not too far away in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

“I grew up an hour away from the memorial place and have been there several times for field trips,” Young said. “When we went, some of my teammates had never been before and they’d never seen it. Like, they knew about the things because we all learned it in high school, but they just didn’t really dive that deep into it. When they got to the memorial it was like their eyes opened up a little bit more and I got a little teary-eyed because they didn’t know but were seeing it. It meant a lot.”

For Young, seeing her teammates so touched by what they were all learning and experiencing together only furthered the trust and love she says she already had for her team. It was truly a moment that united everyone together.

“It’s a learning experience both ways,” Young continued. “I’ve already seen it. I’ve already been through the museum many times, but just to see how they took it. They felt bad, of course it’s not their fault. They didn’t do anything, but just to see how they felt remorse for my people back then, it just makes me love them even more. I already loved them to begin with and now it makes me love them even more because it’s clear they have a good heart.”

Kneepkens says that experience, along with already being on a fairly diverse team has opened her up to other possibilities that are outside her own personal scope of knowledge. It’s been the ultimate opportunity to learn and grow as a person both on and off the court.

“I’d say what is so special about our Utah team is we have people from different countries, different states- you just never know someone’s story so when you’re able to have first-hand experience with others who are different than you, you’re able to grow so much. If you just stay in your bubble, you only know what you can know and what you’ve experienced. When you go and are able to ask others how they grew up and can learn from them, it makes you more open to hearing others.”

‘If You Can’t Be A Sun, Be A Star. For It Isn’t The Size That You Win Or Fail. Be The Best Of Whatever You Are.’

Aside from simply coming together for a common team goal, Utah women’s basketball has taken another page out of Martin Luther King Jr.’s playbook: service. Last week, the Utes announced their “Beyond The Paint” community outreach initiative and it’s been just as impactful for the athletes as working with the SWAC earlier in the season.

“If we don’t do it, who will? I’m not saying we have the biggest platform in the world, but we do have a platform,” Young said of the initiative. “I feel like we have to utilize that and if we don’t then we are just letting people down. Like, if we aren’t carrying on a legacy of doing or trying to become better than what are we doing? If I didn’t say anything, then I would be letting down so many people, so many little kids coming up behind me. I think it’s so important we use our platform to continue to spread the kindness and love.”

 

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Kneepkens echoed Young’s sentiments. It doesn’t take much to make someone’s day and when you give people your time, love is able to grow and spread. Where love grows and spreads, peace and understanding follow.

“I think it’s great that we are able to have the opportunity to work with the community,” Kneepkens said. “Where we are? We couldn’t do it without the community. Reaching out to others is just a simple thing. Going to play bingo with the Hope Lodge- that’s just something simple that can make someone’s day. Just being open to others and being there to help other try and find joy has been cool. It’s just cool we have this opportunity to do that.”

‘Show Me How To Take Who I Am, Who I Want To Be, And What I Can Do, And Use It For A Purpose Greater Than Myself.’

Positive action requires strong leadership and Utah head coach Lynne Roberts has been coming into her own in that regard.

As part of the Utes’ new efforts in the community, Roberts has pledged to donate $100 for every three-point shot her team makes during the home games for the organizations they host those weeks. Against Arizona on Sunday, the Utes raised $1,400 for the Hope Lodge, their first organization they helped.

However, it goes beyond throwing money at a problem, for Roberts it’s about helping her team recognize their blessings and being the example of the change, they want to see in their communities.

“I think it’s great to use our platform to shine some light on- this community is incredible,” Roberts said. “I love this place, but there is an underbelly to everyplace and needs everywhere. To use the platform, we have to shed some light on organizations that could use support, but the other side of the coin is it provides our student-athletes and staff with some perspective. I think that is part of college is getting a dose of perspective outside of your little bubble so that’s a big part of why we are doing it too.”

A Dream Partially Realized

There is still a lot of work to be done as a collective community, but signs do exist of Dr. King’s visions of living in a united, peaceful world nearly 55 years after his assassination.

Roberts pointed out an observation Keith Embray (Utah’s Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) made after her team concluded their tour of the National Civil Rights Museum as evidence some progress has been made toward that ultimate dream.

 

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“To sum it up, the museum takes you through and it culminates at the end and you are in the hotel room that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot outside of,” Roberts explained. “It’s just an emotional thing, people are crying and we go outside and huddle up. Keith Embray, our DEI Director who used to play football here said, ‘y’all need to know, if you look around, THIS- this circle of White, Black- different religions, different countries. This is actually what Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was. This is it.’ It was super powerful and I think everybody had a moment of ‘wow’.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports

 

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Utah Women’s Basketball Shares Special Experience On Martin Luther King Jr. Day