Television allowed iconic figure to maximize his gifts both as an athlete and as a person
POSTED: Jun 6, 2016 12:05 PM ET
GameTime: Remembering Ali
The GameTime crew give their thoughts on Muhammad Ali who passed away at the age of 74 on Friday.
In This Week's Morning Tip:
Who had a more consequential life in the second half of the 20th century than Muhammad Ali?
It is ridiculous to somehow try and tie the death of Ali on Friday from septic shock at age 74 to the NBA. Yes, lots of current and former players met with Ali and had their pictures taken with him. So did a million or so other people. Ali was not just, in all likelihood, the most famous person in the world, he was almost certainly the most photographed, by camera digital and otherwise.
No, Ali's life stood on its own, bigger than any sport, even his own sport of boxing, a towering testament to a man blessed with once in a lifetime physical gifts, who didn't just maximize them, but forced the world to accept the person that had mastered them.
One could make the argument about how Ali has empowered today's athletes to speak their minds freely about today's issues without fear of reprisal. Except, they don't.
Ali Pregame Tribute
The NBA honors Muhammad Ali with a pregame moment of silence.
You keep waiting for an athlete of Ali's stature today to take a principled stand on an issue of equal gravity -- war or famine or inequality, wherever it may be. And you hear next to nothing. There is the occasional Tweet or Instagram from LeBron James about Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, and that is encouraging. But then you hear Carmelo Anthony say that today's athletes are reluctant to make "Muhammad Ali-type statements," and your heart sinks.
Of course athletes are free to stay silent if they haven't studied an issue, especially in today's social media environment, where almost everyone is found wanting in 140 words or less by anonymous non-entities with eggs for avis. But compared to the world in which Ali lived, there's so much less risk today in standing tall.
My generation did not fight in Vietnam and was not asked to. We are the children of those who had to go, the children of those who got on Freedom Rides throughout the South, the children of those protestors who were clubbed and sprayed and bitten, the children of those who were killed. People like Ali cleared the way for people like me to live calmer, less dangerous and debilitating lives -- even though athletic achievement is not only not in my tool box, it's not in the garage in which I keep my tool box. We are the beneficiaries of his generation's sacrifices.
Ali won the 1960 gold medal in Rome, but he became famous at 22, when he upset Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964. The next day, he confirmed rumors that he had joined the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad -- a group whose chief spokesman at the time was Malcolm X, and which was viewed by almost all white people as a hate group.
Less than three years later, at 25, Ali refused induction into the Army, and was summarily stripped of the title he'd won by beating Liston and had defended without peril nine times since then.
He had barely graduated from high school -- 376th out of 391 students at Central High in Louisville. But few people -- forget athletes -- have had a greater impact on the world's culture with the words they uttered during their lives, their meaning and imagery crystal clear.
I shook up the world! I shook up the world!
I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.
I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble!
GameTime: Warriors and Cavaliers Remember Ali
Various members of the Warriors and Cavaliers speak to the media about Muhammad Ali.
Yet it is not possible to consider Ali's impact in an era without television, where he could be heard and seen on an almost weekly basis with his chronicler, ABC's Howard Cosell -- the first (and, 40 years later, there still aren't many) television broadcaster to actually practice journalism on the air, asking real questions about real topics.
For all of his own bluster and braggadocio about "telling it like it is," Cosell's courage in publicly defending the legality of Ali's anti-war stance, at the time when millions of Americans despised him (and came to despise Cosell), cannot be marginalized. It took a lot of guts for Cosell to use the medium and the network for which he worked to support Ali in the '60s. Cosell was one of the first reporters to refer to Ali as Ali, unlike most newspaper writers, who would use the odious "aka Cassius Clay" as an appendage, almost a taunt.
And television, the new and increasingly dominant medium, was tailor made for the new heavyweight champion.
First, Ali was a devastatingly handsome man -- 6-foot-3, a professional athlete, in prime physical condition. He got and held your attention from the moment he appeared on the screen. Second, he had a way with words, an intelligence that went well beyond his formal education. There was, in his voice, a wink. It wasn't what Ali said as much as how he said it, how he knew to charm the impressionable and prick the fatuous.
GameTime: Ali's Impact
Figures from around the world remember Muhammad Ali on social media.
Take this exchange between Cosell and Ali from much later in their careers, in 1975, when Cosell was desperately trying to move beyond his role as the gadfly/provocateur on Monday Night Football, and had been given his own prime time hour on Saturday nights as host of "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell." Ultimately, it was an ill-conceived mishmash of ideas and concepts that never coalesced, but at the time, riding high on the runaway success of MNF, Cosell was as big a television star as anyone, and the idea of him hosting his own variety show was not ridiculous.
So here was Cosell, having dragooned Ali into making an appearance. (Were they friends? Many have written about their relationship, most perceptively by the brilliant Dave Kindred, who knew both men very well, in his book "Sound and Fury." But no one seems to really know. Each understood the importance of the other to their frequent clashes on TV, and had a respect for the other that went beyond their athlete-interviewer framework. But were they friends? It doesn't appear so, at least not in the traditional sense.)
Anyway, on Cosell's show, they banter and kitsch as they did so often, really saying nothing of significance. Then, suddenly, Cosell breaks into an impersonation of Ali, trying both to curry favor with him and point out his foibles. Then, he sets up that he, Cosell, is in charge, that he will talk to Ali and then to Joe Frazier (presumably, via satellite). "These people will then," Cosell intones, like the lawyer he once was, "have a chance to evaluate your courage, or lack thereof."
GameTime: Ali's Legacy
Adam Silver, Charles Barkley and LeBron James discuss the legacy Muhammad Ali and his impact on their lives.
When he is done, Ali, wordlessly, takes his hand and flips up the top of Cosell's toupee. He doesn't take it off. He just flips up the top. (He did this a lot.) The warning is unmistakable, the good-natured aspect of it equally so. And he says to Cosell:
"Howard Cosell, I promise you this: I promise the world. People want to see me slap you, they want to see me do something to you, and that's against the law. But I tell you what: one of these days, I promise you: the next time you get in the ring, agitatin' with me -- I hope you're there at my last fight -- I swear, I'm gonna pull it off!"
And he fake-yanks Cosell's toupee off.
Then, just for emphasis: "Howard Cosell, show the people that you're not the man you were a few years ago!"
And he fake-yanks the toupee off again.
Order is restored: I'm the champ, and you are not.
Finals Media Availability: LeBron James on Ali
LeBron James addresses the media heading into Game 2 of the NBA Finals and pays tribute to Muhammad Ali.
But that was the vaudeville side of Ali's public persona, the carnival barker who was trying to gain attention and sell tickets. He was entertaining -- though he was, also, incredibly cruel to Joe Frazier when hawking their fights, clubbing Frazier, who could not joust verbally with him (who could?) with taunts of "gorilla" and "Uncle Tom." But that was not what made Ali so special to so many.
The Other Ali was, first and foremost, a black man. A black man who was not only comfortable with black people, but preferred their company, especially the poor and downtrodden, who had no voice in American society in the 1960s. His joining the Nation of Islam provided a context for his beliefs at the time that the races should, in the main, be separate. But that didn't create his comfort with his own people. He liked black people and liked being around black people, and that made him a hero to so many.
That Ali was stern, unblinking, uncompromising in his insistence of pursuing justice not just for African-Americans, but oppressed people all over the world. That Ali wasn't a "draft dodger," as those who hated him and his stance claimed. Ali didn't run to Canada or to Europe to avoid service. He simply refused to take part at all in the process. He wouldn't take the stop forward to volunteer for the Army, standard practice for the young men conscripted into war. He said, clearly and consistently, that he was ready to accept the five years in jail that people who refused induction into the service received.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?," he asked in '67.
Finals Media Availability: Marv Albert on Ali
Marv Albert joins the NBA TV to pay tribute to Muhammed Ali's legacy.
"No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality ... if I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."
He never actually went to jail, awaiting the ultimate call from the Supreme Court. And, as Kindred wrote in his book, the Supreme Court decision in 1970 that tossed out Ali's conviction and allowed him to fight again was, truly, six parts luck and six parts string and wires. It was, as Bush v. Gore a generation later, a decision that applied to one person only -- Ali. There were not dozens of conscientious objectors set free by the Ali precedent. There was no precedent.
Which was probably the right way to go, as there was only one Ali.
Ali eventually changed his views on race relations after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, as he became aligned with the Sunni faith and came to understand that millions of blue-eyed, blond people practiced Islam as well as black and brown people. Ali also learned to believe that true Islam was a religion of inclusion and peace, not exclusion and war.
He was no saint. He sinned, often. He gave away much of his fortune in any number of silly ways over the years. He tried at times to be a diplomat, without much success. And he fought way too long, the great talent of being able to absorb punishment surely the jumping off point for the Parkinson's Disease that muted him publicly for most of the last 20 years of his life. The disease's merciless march humanized Ali to millions who never saw a single fight of his. Who couldn't or wasn't moved to see Ali holding the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, not ashamed to let billions of people around the world see his tremors and masked countenance?
That Ali was beloved, understandably so.
But the Ali of words and motion, speaking truth to power when power held sway over his livelihood, and took its penalty, and when it was dangerous to speak truth even among friends, that Ali, the Ali that indeed shook up the world, was the Ali that was my hero.
Glenn Close has been nominated for six Academy Awards. Glenn Close has never won an Academy Award. Therefore, Glenn Close stinks. From James Izquierdo:
Regarding LeBron's legacy and Finals record.
Do you think that this NBA Finals will solidly LeBron's legacy in NBA history win or lose? Because if he loses again he'll be known as the greatest loser ever and if he wins he delivers on his promise.
Also would you rather have 2 or 0 rings? Because I think it's crazy that he's getting critiqued over going to The Finals X amount of times and only winning twice.
GameTime: Jerry West Interview
Jerry West joins GameTime and talks about Muhammad Ali, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and good old Shaq stories.
Of course it's crazy, James. The guy's been to six straight Finals! It's insane that he is somehow held singularly responsible for his teams' shortcomings. This is probably where the generational divide impacts perception. My guess is that younger fans who are used to a world with "hot takes" and where everything is settled (in their minds, at least) on Twitter and Instagram will have a much more negative reaction if James and the Cavaliers don't win The Finals. Older heads like me will likely be more forgiving, knowing the history of guys like Jerry West (1-8 in The Finals), who just came up against irresistible forces year after year in a smaller, less competitive league.
One of us is not coming back. From Kenny Brophy:
Out of Okafor, Noel, & Saric who do you think is most likely to get traded & is it possible two of the three Sixers big men get traded?
Good question, Kenny. I think Noel has more trade value because of his defensive abilities as a center (Noel doesn't project as a four in today's game); he's obviously not as good as Okafor in the post. But athletic shot blocking is still a valuable commodity. I'm not sure if Noel could switch out and cover point guards or two effectively if required to do so on a regular basis, but he wouldn't get embarrassed on the regular, either. So I figure more teams would have an interest in him than Okafor -- though a lot of teams would be interested in Okafor. (I'm told, by the way, that the supposed talk of Noel for Atlanta's Jeff Teague is more Philly-centric than indicative of real interest in that deal by the Hawks.)
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(last week's averages in parentheses)
1) Stephen Curry (21.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6 apg, .480 FG, 1.000 FT): Hasn't had a typical MVP-esque game in the first two games of the Finals. Hasn't seemed to matter much.
2) LeBron James (21 ppg, 10 rpg, 9 apg, .421 FG, .875 FT): I am in mind this morning of Bill Duke, playing Abdullah in "Car Wash," at the end of the movie, when Ivan Dixon talks him out of financing his "revolution" through robbing the car wash: "It's all falling apart, man. It's all falling apart."
3) Kevin Durant (27 ppg, 7 rpg, 3 apg, .526 FG, 1.000 FT): Season complete.
4) Russell Westbrook (19 ppg, 7 rpg, 13 apg, .333 FG, .750 FT): Season complete.
5) Kawhi Leonard: Season complete.
1) Here's hoping Mike D'Antoni can go full Seven Seconds or Less in Houston. But to do that, he's going to need a point guard who can make those kinds of split-second decisions with the ball in real time. Nothing against Patrick Beverley, but that's probably not his strength -- though he can certainly play in the system.
2) Can't wait to see the Allen Iverson doc on NBA TV tonight. He remains a fascinating figure well into his retirement.
Allen Iverson: The Answer
Check out NBA TV's latest documentary, ''Allen Iverson-The Answer'', on June 6 at 8 p.m. ET.
4) Congrats to Novak Djokovic for completing the career Grand Slam with his first French Open title on Sunday, after 11 previous unsuccessful tries on the clay at Roland Garros.
1) As with the droids on Mos Eisley, these are not The Finals we were looking for.
2) Sorry to hear that Monty Williams will not be returning to the Thunder as an assistant coach next season, but certainly understand that being with his kids after losing his wife, Ingrid, in a car accident last February takes precedence. You can only hope that they can all find some comfort with one another in the coming months.
4) I have no idea why the people at the Cincinnati Zoo felt they had no choice but to shoot their 17-year-old gorilla after a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla's enclosure and was dragged around for several frightening moments. But, ask yourself: these are people who knew this animal best, who knew his behavior patterns, what agitated him, etc. If they thought there was any other way to resolve the situation, don't you think they would have chosen it?
50 -- Wins at home this season by the Warriors -- 39 in the regular season and 11 so far in the playoffs. Golden State is just the second team in league history to win that many home games in a single season, joining the Celtics, who did it twice -- in 1985-86 and 1986-87.
Better Than The Showtime Lakers?
Klay Thompson says the Warriors are better than the showtime Lakers.
14 -- Number of times two teams have met in a rematch of the NBA Finals from the year before. The winners of the first matchup between the teams are 6-7 in the rematch the next year. The last time this happened, San Antonio avenged a 4-3 loss to Miami in The 2013 Finals with a 4-1 rout of the defending champions the following year.
$84 -- Current amount raised as of Saturday on a GoFundMe account by a Washington, D.C. rapper named Paperboy Prince of the Suburbs to try and lure Kevin Durant to the Wizards this summer. It's a great start. But it is approximately $19,999,916 short of Paperboy's goal of raising $20 million. PPotS had gotten seven contributors as of Saturday to give to his cause. "Once we reach our goal," PPotS wrote, "we will either donate the 20 million to the Wizards to get the Durantula or we will donate it to Kevin Durant's favorite charity since he loves our community so much!"
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