MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Most of us know what Black History Month is. It is a celebration of what the African-American culture has added to the fabric of America, however, answering the question of whom do we celebrate can be more difficult.
We all know the names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama—to name a few. Those, though, are the easy answers. Now, we shine the spotlight on a Memphis man whose ties to this city run as deep as the river that frames it. He is a hero to so many, but his own heroes likely are known to only a select few.
Elliot Perry made his name on the basketball court. He grew up in North Memphis, went to the University of Memphis, and played 11 seasons in the NBA, his final few for the Grizzlies, but Perry doesn’t want to talk about basketball anymore.
“If I only think of myself as a basketball player, and others see me as only a basketball player, I’ve failed,” said Perry who is now part-owner of the Grizzlies.
He instead wants to talk about the future of a much bigger team: the young men and women of Memphis and his role as a mentor with the Grizzlies Foundation.
“I feel like I have an obligation to try and make an impact in my own community,” he said.
That sentiment is heartfelt. Elliot will gladly tell you about his mentors. One was a neighbor who took the time to see something special in a kid whose mom was only 15 when he was born and whose dad died when Perry was only a baby.
“Ultimately, he just wrapped his arms around me, exposed me to many different things I’d never been exposed to coming out of North Memphis. Pushed me. Challenged me,” Perry said.
His other mentor was his grandfather, who was part of Memphis’s civil rights movement during the 1960s. No, he wasn’t a reverend or protester at the front of the march. He was a worker for the sewerage and water board. He made his voice heard during the struggle. His was a voice that lingered in Perry’s ears, and one he said he hears every time he is asked what Black History Month means to him.
“The will that it took, growing up in an environment, having a fifth-grade education, having nine kids. And he still was able to make it. That’s what I think about, the equity that my culture is able to bring ... that will—that fight. That’s what I think about,” Perry said.
With those men in mind, Perry carries the torch forward, hoping to help shape young people’s lives in the Grizzlies Foundation Mentorship program, learning something about himself all the while.
“How do we get our young people to think beyond their environment? The only way you can do that is we have to pour into them, and on top of that, they have to see it,” he said.
You almost certainly will never have Perry’s skills with a basketball. And chances are very slim you could ever be a part-owner of an NBA franchise, but you can be just like Perry by getting involved with the Grizzlies Foundation mentorship program and make an impact on young lives.
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