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Muhammad Ali gone but not forgotten by league

POSTED: Jun 5, 2016 12:44 PM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali poses for a picture with the Eastern Conference prior to the 58th NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix.

— The most iconic photo of Muhammad Ali, and maybe of any sports figure in history, was captured at his second fight with Sonny Liston. With little tweety birds swirling inside the head of his dazed and fallen foe, Ali screamed "git up" and stood defiantly over the ex-champ.

It was a seminal moment in sports because of the elements the image captured: strength, bravado, victory and charisma, all rolled into one flexing fighter, everything we demand from our very biggest athletic heroes. And nearly 50 years later, here at the NBA Finals, hours after his death, that's where we find the ghost of The Greatest. He is towering above the Warriors and Cavaliers as he did Liston, the only difference is he isn't menacing; he's motivating and inspiring.

GameTime: Remembering Ali

The GameTime crew give their thoughts on Muhammad Ali who passed away at the age of 74 on Friday.

It speaks to the transcendent powers of Ali that he remains revered by most, even athletes two or three generations removed from his boxing career. That's truly amazing, considering today's generation is regularly accused of retaining only a thimble-sized sense of history. And within the NBA, the professional league with the largest concentration of African Americans, he's truly a sports God who sadly can no longer be touched, only remembered. LeBron James and Steph Curry, winners of six of the last eight MVP awards, bow to Ali. That's respect.

But that's just a small sampling, for Ali had that reach of Yao Ming, able to stretch and extend his legacy to every pocket of the globe, connecting with people who appreciated excellence, loved to laugh and stood for something. That's why it was interesting yesterday to weigh the perspective of Andrew Bogut, a white man from Australia, as much as LeBron, a black man from Akron.

"A cult figure world-wide," said Bogut. "It's very rare you have a sportsman, especially a boxer, who inspired people who knew nothing about boxing."

In 1960, when he was 18 and largely unknown and answered to Cassius Clay, Ali was sprung onto the world at the Rome Olympics by his public relations company, which consisted of him. He announced his arrival, as only he could, quite emphatically. In the Olympic Village, there was a catwalk that joined all the buildings and served as an artery for athletes of all sports, and one day the star of the U.S. men's basketball team stumbled upon a commotion. Some American was screaming at the top of his lungs, well before self-promotion became common, at a time when athletes were seen and not heard.

"It was Ali," said Jerry West, currently an adviser for the Warriors. "You could hear him coming. He was so boisterous and fun. We all learned later that he was a great fighter, and of course he had that magnetic personality. That's what we saw initially."

We are crying today in our country because he put our country on the map and are sad to see a great man gone

– Dikembe Mutombo, who saw Ali fight in the 'Rumble In the Jungle"

Several years later, unsatisfied with the sloth-like progress of racial equality, and with urban areas of Newark and Detroit and Chicago smoldering from smoke and anger, Ali forged an alliance with Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to speak out against injustice. It was a powerful, forceful message delivered by black athletes who didn't care about any fallout from their white fan base.

"What he did can never really be fully explained, understood or comprehended because of the society we live in right now and the way our world works," said Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. "We're fighting for nothing now, compared to what our few leaders fought for back then. He was willing to stand his ground and not sell out, which is very rare. In the history of our country, especially for my people, for a guy to go away from what he does to make a living and sacrifice for his people to let them know that we have a power and we can stand for something, but we have to be willing to make a sacrifice so we can move forward ... that's very rare."

Social consciousness spreads

After he missed 3 1/2 years of his prime, his sentence for opposing the Vietnam War and refusing to sign up for battle, Ali returned to the ring and jump-started a golden age for boxing. By this point, his reputation and persona went full-blown international, and the depth his popularity was demonstrated when he and George Foreman fought in Zaire in 1974. The heavyweight championship was a first for Africa, and the developing country and continent were abuzz. The attendance was 60,000, a staggering number considering it was held at 4 a.m. local time to appease American TV.

One of the concessionaires was a Kinshasa woman named Marie Mutombo, who sold beer and cigarettes at the fight. She brought along her young boy, Dikembe, who was eight, because she sensed history was in the making. Ali endeared himself to the locals in the days leading up to the bout by holding his training camp in the country, and so the people flocked to him, adopting him as a national hero.

GameTime: Warriors and Cavaliers Remember Ali

Various members of the Warriors and Cavaliers speak to the media about Muhammad Ali.

Marie Mutombo's boy was swept up by the emotion and the moment and chanted with millions of others: "Ali boma ye!" Which means, Ali Kill Him. It sounded violent, but mother let her son express himself.

"I was just a boy who got a chance to see greatness," Mutombo said. "We were all following him. We all fell in love with him. That man could've gone anywhere in the world to fight but he chose Congo."

That is the present-day name of the former Zaire, yet the memory of The Rumble "In The Jungle" hasn't faded from the Congo or the greatest basketball player it ever produced. Dikembe Mutombo played in the 2001 Finals and is one of the most generous and philanthropic figures in recent sports history. There is a hospital in Congo, not far from the site of the fight that he built and named after his mother. And as for Ali? Other than his parents, there are two people responsible for shaping Mutombo's outlook on humanity: Nelson Mandela and Ali.

"We are crying today in our country because he put our country on the map and are sad to see a great man gone," said Mutombo. "He was also a friend of the NBA."

Connection with the NBA

Yes, he was. Another connection between Ali and NBA players came in 1996 in Atlanta. Just days after he put a grapefruit in everybody's throat by lighting the Olympic torch, hands shaking from Parkinson's, Ali attended one of the men's basketball games. He proudly wore an honorary Olympic gold medal. The original one from '60 was lost after he heaved it into the river in disgust when he returned home to Louisville not to a hero's welcome, but to racism. That's according to legend, anyway. In Atlanta at the Georgia Dome, Ali was instantly smothered by Gary Payton, Reggie Miller and others, and posed for an impromptu "team" picture.

Almost every one of those players had already made a fortune, which raises the obvious question: Would today's athlete make the same sacrifices as Ali? Would Steph Curry shave off the next four years? Would LeBron take an unpopular stance and effectively set a blowtorch to those multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts?

"I would never compare myself to Ali because I never had to go through what those guys had to go through," said LeBron. "I've spoke up on a lot of issues, but I feel it's my duty to carry the legacy of the guys who did it before me."

It's fashionable to wear hoodies in protest and T-shirts in honor of unarmed victims who were slain by police, as LeBron and others did recently. But Ali's stances, at the time, were not popular or widely embraced or trendy. There was no public fallout for LeBron. Sponsors didn't flee or avoid him. There was no risk. Suppose a player today, for whatever reason, took a strong stance in favor of the North Carolina LGBT law, which might force the league to pull next year's All-Star Game in Charlotte? Would commissioner Adam Silver allow him to wear a defiant T-shirt as well, or demand that the player wear something league-sponsored, a requirement that was waived for LeBron? Suppose a player publicly supported Donald Trump for president and a wall around the Mexican border and wore Make America Great Again hats in televised interviews? Would he become an outcast in his own locker room? Wouldn't that "activist" player, no matter how misguided and hateful his convictions were, deserve the right to stand up for his unpopular beliefs, as Ali did?

GameTime: Ali's Legacy

Adam Silver, Charles Barkley and LeBron James discuss the legacy Muhammad Ali and his impact on their lives.

Of course, the difference is, Ali was a uniter, a man of peace. And he was also a man of the people. He could walk the streets of South Central LA and the shops in Beverley Hills the same day. He shook hands with poor Latinos and rubbed shoulders with the well-heeled from Wall Street. He embraced the media and never had a PR person standing by like a sentry and shouting, "last question." He was the first to be surrounded by an entourage but never used it to shield him from the public. The superstar athletes today either cannot match that or will not, and their fame is only a fraction of Ali's. There are a billion stories circulating today about Ali because he met a billion people. The common man could touch him. Can you touch LeBron or, for that matter, Aaron Rodgers? Even better, can they touch you?

It was encouraging to hear the gushing of praise for Ali from the participants in the NBA Finals, and it was quite expected, but also weird in a sense. Not one player ever saw Ali fight live, few were born before he retired, and none knew what it felt and sounded like in the turbulent era in which he lived and fought. They're only getting their information second hand, like the very thoughtful Harrison Barnes, the youngest starter in the Finals and therefore the furthest removed from Ali's day.

"He was the only athlete in my house who was bigger than Michael Jordan," said Barnes. "I consider myself a sponge. I don't know all the facts but I'm willing to learn. He inspired me to do research on him. And from what I've gathered, he was a full-blown activist who was willing to give up his career. I can't even imagine that nowadays. Don't know if I would do it."

Barnes is a benefactor of those who came before him: Ali, Jackie, Oscar, Russell. He'll be a free agent this summer and command millions. He's living a blessed life with few regrets, although he could nit-pick and name one in particular.

"It would've been great to sit down and have a beer with Ali and talk shop," he said.

He paused.

"That's my loss."

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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