OAKLAND, Calif. – As the Warriors and Cavaliers gathered at Oracle Arena for practice on Saturday, a recurring subject wasn’t Cleveland’s adjustments or J.R. Smith’s shot output. It wasn’t Stephen Curry’s subpar performance or the ongoing importance of Golden State’s bench. It was Muhammad Ali, the icon who passed away on Friday at 74.
On one side of the floor was Jerry West, who was at the 1960 Olympics with Ali and described him as having a “God-like presence.” On the other end was Klay Thompson, too young to remember much about Ali but able to recount the stories his father, Mychal, an ex-Lakers center, would tell. Ali, Klay said, was his father’s favorite athlete, and tales of Ali fights were routine at the dinner table. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue declared Ali to be his first idol while Curry called Ali “the example of how you use your platform.”
Last to face the cameras was LeBron James, and he drew the biggest crowd. There were many things Ali was known for. There was his outlandish personality, which manifested itself in some of the greatest trash talk in sports history. There were his preternatural skills. No heavyweight possessed his combination of speed and skill. At his best, he was invincible, though everyone wanted to test him. Bob Arum, Ali’s longtime promoter, loves to tell the story of how in the mid-1960s, Jim Brown, the legendary running back, wanted to fight a young Ali.
"So I went to talk to Ali," Arum recalls. "He says, 'Jim wants to do what? Bring him here.' So I took him to Hyde Park in London, where Ali used to run. Ali said, 'Jimmy, here is what we're going to do: You hit me as hard as you can.' So Brown starts swinging and swinging, and he can't hit him. He's swinging wildly and not even coming close. This goes on for, like, 30 seconds. Then Ali hits him with this quick one-two to his face. Jimmy just stops and says, 'OK, I get the point.'"
Ali’s lasting legacy, though, was as a vehicle for social change. Ali was fearless, most notably in his opposition of the Vietnam war, a public battle that cost Ali years in the prime of his career. He had no filter; what he thought, he said, no matter how many criticized him for it. Today, Ali has no contemporary; elite athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have often shied away from polarizing issues.
James has not. Whether through public comments or social media, James has rarely refused to address polarizing issues. In response to the death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was shot in 2012, James helped organize a Miami Heat team photo with players wearing hooded sweatshirts – Martin was killed while wearing one – and tweeted it with the hashtag #WeWantJustice. In the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner, a New York man who died from a chokehold during an altercation with police, James was one of the first to don a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on the front.
“What he stood for, I mean, it's a guy who basically had to give up a belt and [relinquish] everything that he had done because of what he believed in,” James said of Ali. “It's a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk in the streets.
“For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn't be sitting up here talking in front of you guys. I wouldn't be able to walk in restaurants. I wouldn't be able to go anywhere where blacks weren't allowed back in those days [if it weren’t for] guys like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on.”
Ali set an impossible standard. He lived in a time in which the country could not have been more divided. His status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war – and his refusal to serve – cost him 3 ½ years of the prime of his career. Imagine, today, an elite athlete believing so strongly in something that he or she would be willing to walk away from a sport – and the millions that came with it.
James is not Ali, but there are few athletes today whose words carry as much weight. James has known poverty, has known racism, has known the challenges of succeeding in a life no one expected him to. If Ali paved the way for athletes to become global stars, James is the latest to walk down it.
“I would never compare myself to Muhammad Ali because I never had to go through what those guys had to go through back in those times,” James said. “But in my own daily struggles, as I continue to say, growing up in the inner city, being a statistic that was supposed to go the other way and I'm able to sit up here today and knowing that I was a guy who beat the odds, it's just you never take for granted the path and the guys who just every single day just struggled in their individual lives and everything they had to go through on a daily basis for us, for a guy like myself.
“Yes, I've had some adverse moments in my life and, yes, I've had to deal with a lot of things as a professional, and I've spoken up on a lot of issues that other athletes may not speak upon, but I feel it's my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me.”
There will never be another Ali, and that’s a good thing. No athlete will ever face the kind of anger Ali did, will never deal with a country as divided. But there will always be a need for athletes to address polarizing issues, to speak to an audience only they can influence. James has steadfastly accepted that role in the past, and seems more than willing to accept it in the future. Late Friday night, James found himself joining millions of Americans, watching a replay of Ali-Joe Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975, one of Ali’s defining fights – and one of the best in boxing history.
“It’s just very emotional,” James said. “It's also gratifying to know that that guy, one man, would sacrifice so much of his individual life knowing that it would better the next generation of men and women after him.”