Back in February 2000, Muhammad Ali showed up at a Michigan State basketball game. He was living at the time in the southwest corner of Michigan and had become enamored with Tom Izzo and his then rising program. ("His people called and said, 'Can we get a couple tickets for Muhammad Ali?' " Izzo said at the time. "I was like, 'Is this a prank call?' ")
It really was the Champ and now he was out in the postgame hallway of the Breslin Center, waiting to congratulate the Spartans after a victory over a good Connecticut team.
Ali, dubbed the Louisville Lip for practically inventing modern sports trash talk and perhaps even the concept of rap music, didn't speak much then. He didn't float like a butterfly anymore either. Parkinson's had ravaged him. He shuffled. He looked people in the eye. He feigned a boxing stance. That was it. That was all he could do.
It didn't matter.
Word that Ali was in the hall brought a crowd, including Michigan State players out of the celebratory locker room. They'd met him before that season, but this never got old. They just wanted to see him, greet him, thank him, experience him. And soon news reached the UConn locker room too, and now here came the Huskies.
Forty-minutes of hard-fought college basketball didn't matter, there they were, side-by-side, every player awe struck, star struck, struck at the sheer moment in front of this man who despite not having won a single boxing match in most of their lives (his last triumph was in 1978) saw him for exactly what he was.
The Greatest passed away Friday at the age of 74 in Phoenix area hospital. He wasn't merely the only three-time linear heavyweight champion ever and arguably the finest boxers of all-time.
He was, if you will, the most influential athlete ever, one of the first and still few global celebrities and a man whose impact extended long after he stopped speaking and will long, long after his death.
[Slideshow: Muhammad Ali's life in photos]
There is no simple way to list all of his accomplishments. You can stack his career with anyone as a boxer – 56-5, with epic victories over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Forman and others.
You can do the same as a sheer entertainer, building and then thriving in a spotlight of promotion that turned things like the "Rumble in the Jungle" into global events.
That is but a pittance of it though. Ali the Man was like no other. He saw the world clearly and then articulated it. He was the ultimate communicator; a skill that belied what he often joked was a lack of a natural intelligence coupled with a substandard education. Perhaps, but when it came to street smarts, he was but a genius.
He broke the mold when it came to trash talk. He would colorfully and brashly predict victories – "I'll beat him so bad, he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on," he said before a 1965 fight against Floyd Patterson. His prefight routine was to so insult his opponent, rage would affect his strategy – "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head."
It was all good fun for Ali fans, and enraging behavior from the old-school, Puritanical establishment that had seen nothing else like him.
The smack talk was nothing though. There have been a million imitations of that, on the playgrounds, in the ring, even through popular music. Ali wasn't shallow. He was real, authentic, wise, incredible.
His birth name of Cassius Clay was changed to Muhammad Ali as he became a Muslim, a concept that few Americans could even understand. In fact, many in the media kept referring to him as Clay.
"Cassius Clay is a slave name," Ali said. "I didn't choose it, and I didn't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me."
Citing his faith, he refused to report for the draft board when his number came up to serve in Vietnam. This was principle he said, citing conscientious objector status. He then tore apart then entire fallacy of that war, and the state of racial affairs in America, with two succinct sentences that the finest political speechwriter could only dream to have thought up.
"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," Ali said. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."
His refusal to fight for the United States got him arrested (it was eventually cleared after lengthy legal battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court) and cost him three years of his prime as a boxer. It also meant he returned as the ultimate anti-hero, beloved in some segments of the country, despised by others that were threatened by the presence of a black man who refused to back down, yet was truly everything America is supposed to be.
"I am America," Ali said. "I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me."
Later, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, perpetrated by Muslims, Ali mustered all the energy and voice he still had to try to explain to an enraged America that his religion, his beliefs, were not represented that day. "Islam means peace," he said. With waning strength, he was still fighting for tolerance and thought and understanding. In fact, he surmised, Parkinson's may have help sharpen the message – Ali finding a positive in anything.
"Maybe my Parkinson's is God's way of reminding me what is important," he said. "It slowed me down and caused me to listen rather than talk. Actually, people pay more attention to me now because I don't talk as much."
There is nothing like him these days. There is nothing like him any days. That's what hauled all those college kids out of their locker room in 2000, that's what drew in the biggest sports heroes, celebrities, politicians and fans on earth until his final breath.
So much of sports and society these days is protected, scripted, about making a buck, not changing the world. That isn't all of it though. To ask any current athlete, any current anyone, to be Muhammad Ali, to possess that courage, that conviction, that sheer talent is unfair.
Only one can be the Greatest … long live the Champ.
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