Montana men's basketball guard Walter Wright was named MVP on Monday — of reading to kids at Hellgate Elementary.
The University of Montana men's basketball team headed to the school on Monday afternoon for MLK Read for Peace, the seventh annual service event organized by Montana Campus Compact to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
By the end of the hour, the team was in the lobby waiting on Wright; he didn't want to leave the classroom. That's when assistant coach Rachi Wortham named Wright MVP.
An hour earlier, there were whispers among the snowpants-clad children trickling through the hallways that the team was coming. They appeared, and all of the kids' heads tilted back as they watched the players — most taller than the lockers — stride through the front doors.
"We just wanted any volunteers to come in today," grades 3-5 principal Chris Clevenger said of reaching out to Montana Campus Compact. "We didn't hear and we didn't hear, and then Sam Garetson (MCC VISTA member) came in and said he had a nice surprise, that we were getting the basketball team."
Players were each sent to different classrooms, and teacher Renee Isono's third-grade class got Wright. He read them a book about King's life, stopping every once in awhile to explain the civil rights movement and other important figures, such as Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. He didn't sugar-coat it too much, explaining the bombing at King's home in 1956 and eventually the sniper who assassinated King on April 4, 1968.
"Why would they treat black people like that?" third-grader Nevaeh Duhamel asked, wide-eyed.
It was a different time, Wright explained, but people eventually came around.
"They understood that everyone deserves to be equal," he said. "Martin Luther King was hated by a lot of people, but he was loved by a lot of people, too."
Hellgate was one of the few schools open on Monday.
As it's a federal holiday, most schools are not in session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"We feel like we should have school on this day because we can share Dr. King's message with the kids," Clevenger said. "Every grade has a project they do today, and we hope they go home and share it with their parents.
"Having the team over is icing on the cake."
How many of you know about MLK? Wright asked. Every hand shot up.
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"That's when white and black people weren't able to sit in the same classroom together," Wright said. "They weren't able to have white friends. Now we can all be friends and play together. It's why I can sit here today reading to you guys."
Wortham and associate head coach Chris Cobb popped into each classroom to see how it was going. Wright couldn't help himself, pointing to Cobb.
"He's about the same size as you guys!" Wright said.
He explained the word "boycott," and how the kids could do it today: "That would be like if you all banded together and asked for 15 minutes' more recess."
The day holds special meaning for Wright, who told the class about his trip to Memphis where he got to visit the National Civil Rights Museum, including where King was killed at the Lorraine Motel.
He talked about how the room King stayed in is the same — every detail.
The kids were in awe that Wright had been there; Duhamel even misunderstood and thought Wright, a senior in college, was at the hotel when King was shot, 49 years ago.
"You were there? When it happened?" she said, and Wright laughed.
He wrapped up the story and talked to the kids about his path to UM, and why education was his No. 1 priority — even above basketball.
"Any one of you guys could be where I am, but you have to stay in school," he said. "Be respectful and responsible, and you can do whatever you want to do."
MLK Read for Peace fit in well with work the kids were already doing in class, Isono said. Each child is playing someone famous — or infamous — from history in a live statue project on Friday.
One of her students, Rhyme Bradford, is playing Rosa Parks.
Bradford sat right in front of Wright as he was reading, constantly getting high-fives.
"I'm never going to forget you, ever," she told him.