The Atlanta Hawks are feeling blessed.
When the American NBA basketball team sent their latest jersey on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to the Vatican, Pope Francis opened it, signed it, and blessed it.
The jersey, with the No. 1 on it and 'Francis' on the back, celebrates the legacy of the leader and civil rights campaigner, who was born in Atlanta.
The Hawks will wear the special edition uniform on 18 January - Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 - marking the first time that the initials of an individual will be displayed prominently on the front of a jersey in the history of the NBA.
All profits from the sale of the shirt will go "directly towards the Atlanta community," as reported on NBA.com.
Pope Francis and sport
The pope's reception and blessing of the jersey is the latest engagement with the world of sport from the global leader of the Catholic Church, who is also the sovereign of the Vatican City State.
Pope Francis has been supporting social justice efforts from NBA stars over the past year, and in November met five players to address social inequality and economic injustice.
Born Jorge Bergoglio, he grew up playing football, and earlier this month gave an interview to Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport talking about the "miracles" he and his friends would pull off with a ball in the streets of Buenos Aires.
Now 84, the Argentinean religious leader talked about how playing with a ball made of rags was enough:
"Leather cost too much and we were poor, rubber wasn't used so much yet, but for us all we needed was a ball of rags to amuse ourselves and to create miracles, almost, playing in the little square near home," Francis said.
Francis also called the Olympics "one of the highest forms of human ecumenism"
In the interview, which took place in early December at the Vatican, the pontiff said that teamwork is the great lesson of sport.
"Either you play together, or you risk crashing. That's how small groups, capable of staying united, succeed in taking down bigger teams incapable of working together," he said.
Francis called the Olympics "one of the highest forms of human ecumenism", that promotes "sharing effort for a better world."
And he also condemned doping.
"It's not only a cheat, a shortcut that revokes dignity, but it's also wanting to steal from God that spark which, through his mysterious ways, he gave to some in a special and greater form," he said.
Martin Luther King
Proud to highlight the heritage of Atlanta's most famous son, the Hawks are ready to celebrate MLK Day.
"Born and raised in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., became a global symbol of the fight for racial equality through his platform of non-violence," their website says.
"He attended his hometown’s historic Morehouse College, entering as a freshman when he was just 15 years old. While he continued to call Atlanta home, raising his family and pastoring at local churches like Ebenezer Baptist with his father, Dr. King led initiatives that caught the attention of a worldwide audience, including the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the March on Washington.
"The latter is where he made his watershed “I Have a Dream” speech, playing a significant role in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. His life and leadership were cut short with his assassination at the age of 39, as he organized for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis."
Hawks Chief Marketing Officer, Melissa Proctor, spoke of the honour and privilege of bringing Dr. King's achievements to the fore.
“It is an incredible privilege to be able to represent the legacy of Dr. King, one of Atlanta’s native sons and one of the nation’s most transformative leaders."
"His message of equality, non-violence, and justice is as relevant today as it was in the 60s and we are proud to not only help educate legions of young fans about Dr. King’s work, but empower them to pick up his mantle and embody the change they wish to see in their communities.”
“We are honored that the King Estate would entrust us with these powerful initials.”