By JONATHAN SCHOLLES
The Budget Sports Editor

Each year, the powerful and poignant words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reverberate throughout the packed Perry Reese Jr. Community Center during the Classic in the Country weekend, held in Berlin over the MLK holiday weekend.

And each year, those words are pulled from an audio file of Dr. King’s greatest speeches.

This year, however, as the Classic in the Country (CitC) preps for its seventh installment, coordinators decided to shake things up a bit, adding a Dr. King reenactor to deliver the infamous 18-minute “I Have a Dream” speech.

Marvin Blanks, coined the “Orator of the Century,” will perform the speech immediately after Game 6 (Hathaway Brown versus Mount Notre Dame) on Saturday, Jan. 16 and before Game 7 (Potter’s House, Fla. versus Hiland).

“For the last two years, we have been looking for new ideas to enhance the tribute to Dr. King,” CitC director Tom Jenkins said. “When first we started, we did the life-size cutouts of Dr. King and coach Reese and the soundbites from Dr. King. We are always looking for change so that things do not get stale.”

After reviewing four potential candidates, Jenkins quickly found that CitC couldn’t handle what they were charging financially.

“The fees we were quoted were $8,000 – we’re talking for an 18-minute speech – $5,500, $5,500 and $5000, plus first-class airfare, plus ground transportation, plus hotel accommodations, plus meals,” Jenkins said. “I told them, we cannot do that because it would negatively impact what we could do for the Reese Foundation.”

Blanks quickly responded in an e-mail, criticizing Jenkins for quitting so early.

“He said ‘How dare you throw the towel in on this,'” Jenkins said, reading the e-mail. “So I called him. And he said ‘I want to make this work… I want to do this. How can we make this work?'”

Blanks researched Reese, the CitC and how the event uses basketball as a vehicle to perpetuate the memory of both Dr. King and Reese, a legendary coach at Hiland who died from a malignant brain tumor in 2000.

Blanks was committed to making an appearance at CitC work. And in order to do so, he reduced his fees by over 50 percent.

“I like to be associated with people that care about people,” Blanks said. “… It’s a humanitarian effort in my eyes, and I like being a part of that.

Already, Jenkins said he has received positive feedback from participating schools upon hearing of Blanks’ speech. Even 14 participating teams that won’t see action on Saturday will be in attendance to catch the performance.

The 53 year-old Blanks said he is passionate about performing the “I Have a Dream” speech, calling it a “masterpiece.”

“When I listen to the speech, I realize what a masterpiece it really is and how it was geared towards the rights of people,” he said. “Even though we have a Constitution and Declaration of Independence, it wasn’t being applied fairly and evenly.

“King’s message made a plea to the country to indeed honor humanity and mankind as it was promised in the architecture of our great republic,” he added.

Growing up in Covert, Mich., Dr. King didn’t have an impact on Blanks until his assassination in 1968. Blanks was 12, and the adults in his family, as well as the country, were rocked by the news.

As information about Dr. King’s life and subsequent death ambushed the airwaves, Blanks soaked it all in, sparking a life-long interest in the man he would later create a career reenacting.

While in a record store in South Haven, Mich., looking for the latest Aretha Franklin or James Brown 45, he came across a recording of the “I Have a Dream” speech, recorded by Berry Gordy. Needless to say, he passed up the R&B heavyweights.

He went home and played “I Have a Dream” over and over and over.

“The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was first done in Detroit – the great March on Detroit in 1963,” Blanks said. “So Berry Gordy did a 45 recording on that speech. It was only the last half of the speech, the part where he starts saying “I have a dream.”

“I knew I wanted it after I heard it on television. I loved hearing him do that speech. So I paid $1 for it, took it home and played it on my family’s phonograph over and over and over again until I learned the words.”

He studied that speech. And privately, he perfected it.

It wasn’t until 1995, at 39, when Blanks first performed “I Have a Dream,” at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist in Sacramento. Blanks, at the time, sold Medicare HMO plans for a Fortune 500 company.

“In a little black community in Sacramento called Del Paso Heights, there was a local barber shop, and the owner was the pastor of a local church. I had so much business in that community that I wanted to give something back,” Blanks said. “I heard that they were having a Martin Luther King celebration at the church. And that was the very first time I stood in front of a crowd and did the speech.

“And when I did… they rose to their feet. Some of the seniors in the audience had tears in their eyes. When I was done, they gave such a strong standing ovation, it took about 15 minutes for the buzz to settle down in that church.”

From that moment, Blanks was hooked – MLK reenacting was what he was made to do.

And pretty soon, his calendar was booked solid.

“For the remainder of the season… from the middle of January to the end of February, they were calling me from all over Sacramento to come and do ‘I Have a Dream,’ said Blanks, who has also lived in Atlanta, Dallas, Winston-Salem, N.C. and Cincinnati.

“I would do junior high schools, high schools, prisons and community events. And that’s how I got started.”

One day, while speaking to over 800 middle school students, Blanks said he realized that “I Have a Dream” is more of a sermon than a speech.

“There is something about that speech that just captures the audience,” he said. “… Dr. King was a preacher. That speech was anointed. It has a mysterious, profound effect on its audience. It draws them to a silence. It’s incredible.”

Throughout his career, Blanks has performed at some high-profile events. The CitC, however, is perhaps the biggest.

“Classic in the Country is ranked by USA Today as the No. 1 girls’ high school basketball event in the nation. That’s significant,”

Blanks said. “And I don’t know of any one event that will draw coaches from colleges from around the nation, as well as popular sports media entities… Classic in the Country is pretty much at the top of my list.”

Jenkins – a former civil rights attorney – said Blanks is a dead-ringer for Dr. King.

“If I didn’t know it was Marvin Blanks, I would have thought that Dr. King was speaking from the grave when he did his audition over the phone,” the CitC director said. “He’s lived it. And that’s important to me.”

Blanks said it wasn’t just the Dr. King element that played a role in drawing him to CitC, but the tie to Reese as well.

“Perry Reese was not just a coach, a black coach, that broke the racial divide, but he was somebody they loved, respected and somebody that cared about people,” Blanks said. “I think that it ties right into the whole civil rights movement and philosophy.”

Bringing in Blanks, Jenkins said “reiterates that this is a weekend of remembrance.”

“When we first started, we caught a lot of people by surprise when we would play the excerpts from Dr. King. And that resonated with them about what the weekend was about,” he said. “Now after six years, it’s sort of ‘OK, let’s stand because we’re going to listen to something from Dr. King.”

“This reiterates that it is a weekend of remembrance and a tribute to Dr. King, as well as coach Reese. Basketball is merely the vehicle in which we are doing those two things.