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Both were arguably the best in their sport's history. They had nicknames that suggested arrogance – "Mr. Hockey" and "The Greatest" – and yet, when affixed to them, drew only respect and approval. They each wore these identities with honor, and lifted their sports by doing so.
It is not without irony that the loss of these men brings such sadness. During their careers, which overlapped in the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 1970s, they could be rather unpleasant. Ali became famous by punching people, disfiguring faces and sometimes images. He patronized and demeaned Joe Frazier, calling him a "gorilla" and worse. Howe lorded over his opponents with size and strength that must have felt downright unfair to those he skated against. The "Gordie Howe hat trick," a goal, assist and a fight, is attached to his reputation but the harsher toll was surely taken by all the untold elbows, shoulders and other indelicacies. The first anecdote in Sports Illustrated's obituary of Howe depicts him hovering over Bobby Baun, wielding a stick like a sword. "As a supine Baun gasped for breath," Michael Farber wrote, "the Red Wings' star straddled him and growled, 'Now we're even, you s.o.b.' "
It's also notable that many sports fans lack a clear memory of each athlete's playing days. Both men were active only into the early 1980s, and you have to be over 40 to remember watching them more than once or twice. You have to be much older to recall Howe winning one of his four Stanley Cups or Ali first winning a title. Even President Obama, in his statement on Ali's passing, acknowledges he was too young at the time of the second Sonny Liston fight "to understand who he was."
But the time between their sports achievements and their deaths say perhaps more about their memory than anything. Ali stood for civil rights, for anti-war protest, and for the Muslim faith. He stood for the entire nation in 1996 when he lit the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta. Howe was perhaps the best ambassador his sport has ever known. Those who loved hockey's beauty could identify with the way he skated. Those who identified with hockey's toughness admired his grit. Stars who followed in his wake all carved their own legends – Wayne Gretzky's dazzling skill, Mark Messier's leadership, Maurice Richard's speed, Bobby Orr's two-way dominance – but they all seemed to be pieces of what Howe created before. And Howe stood for hockey with his openness and kindness whether in the company of elders or children. He was unfailingly polite, truly a testament to his roots on the Canadian prairie, and also comfortable as a celebrity in a way many hockey players are not. Even in his later years, he could be found in the echoing hallways of Joe Louis Arena, outside the Red Wings' locker room, grinning and posing for photos. His grin was radiant, and his gray hair and dignified manner made him both avuncular and imposing at the same time.
Many of today's hockey fans remember Howe for his relationship with Wayne Gretzky, another legend who wore a pompous nickname ("The Great One") with tremendous class. This was a situation that could have been thorny, as Gretzky chased Howe's 801 goals the way Tiger Woods chases Jack Nicklaus. Gretzky wore No. 99 in part as a tribute to Howe's 9, and eventually Gretzky caught and passed Howe in the record books. Howe was welcoming and supportive rather than petty and bitter, and the hockey world saw them as upholders of their sport rather than egomaniacs in a tug-of-war. On Friday, upon learning of Howe's death, Gretzky called his old friend, "the greatest hockey player ever … but, more importantly, the nicest man I have ever met."
Ali also understood his responsibility to his sport and all sports. He too posed for photos and put up his dukes even when his mind and body continued to fail him in old age. There are many people in America and elsewhere who have a photo with Ali or Howe, still uplifted by a brief encounter. Both boxing and hockey have faced various existential challenges since they retired, but Howe and Ali made the glory days feel as permanent as their championships.
Both men endured frustration we can't imagine. Ali nearly lost his livelihood and his freedom because of the anti-war stand he took; Howe grew up in the throes of the Depression, with his father earning only 40 cents an hour, and he himself was vastly underpaid for a lot of his career. But the most painful moments were in private. Ali had to endure the ravages of Parkinson's, as the disease mercilessly took many of his physical and mental gifts away. Howe had to face something even worse, the decline of his wife of 55 years, Colleen. "Mrs. Hockey" suffered from Pick's disease, a form of dementia, and a man who once knew the fabled life of a hockey player spent his days as her caregiver: cooking meals, cleaning and providing emotional support even when it was no longer returned.
"This love," Howe told the National Post in 2008, a year before Colleen died, "it goes a lot farther than playing a stupid game and fighting people."
That might be the truest way to describe both Howe and Ali. Their devotion, whether to faith or causes or people, went so much deeper than the sports they played. It gave them ballast and it gave the rest of us inspiration. Their physical toughness was forged by a spiritual resilience that best defines who they really were. And in an era where we constantly evaluate sports heroes, criticizing them for turnovers and tweets, it's good to remember the kind of dignity that stands over time.
They were winners and fighters, icons and heroes. Ultimately, though, they were more than that. They were gentlemen.
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