The King is gone, but his greatness will live on forever.
Waking up last Saturday mo(u)rning to the news that Muhammad Ali transitioned to paradise was a hard pill for me to swallow. Ali was the champion’s champion, and will forever be the barometer athletes are measured against when it comes to speaking out on social issues.
During the 1960s Jim Crow South — when one’s life was the price paid for rebelling against the ills of racism — Ali was unapologetically black, Muslim, loud and proud; and used his boxing spotlight as a platform for activism; calling America out on its hypocrisies and ugly truths.
As sports commentator Michael Smith eloquently pointed out earlier this week to his co-host Jemele Hill on their His & Hers show on ESPN, “The World’s Greatest,” a moniker The Champ dubbed himself, “seemed too modest a title for such a great man.” (If you ask me, no one can even hold the hem of King Ali’s boxing robe. He was one of a kind.)
All week, I’ve been trying to find the right words to give a proper honor to our global icon; and every time I started to write…delete. Re-write. Feeling like I’d fallen short; debilitated by the fear that what I’d written wasn’t enough.
Ali was so great.
The man born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. before his conversion to Islam, captivated me as a child in elementary school during the annual Black History Month curriculum at Peshine Elementary School in Newark, NJ. Watching civil rights videos of him in class showed everyone how charismatic he was. And, just like he told folks, he was “pretty”; he was also black like me, and sacrificed so much for his beliefs: his legacy swelled me with pride. And, for those in Newark who needed a reminder of his excellence, there’s even a street named in his honor.
(Muhammad Ali Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King BLVD intersection in Newark, NJ)
As a ’90s teen with a burgeoning desire to gain knowledge of self, the charming pugilist re-entered my world as I read about his brotherhood with Malcolm X; a time when I was curious about the Islamic faith, and tried to get a grasp of who I was spiritually. I marveled at how Ali was a messenger of peace, but would not hesitate to take down those who opposed him inside and outside of the ring — including the U.S. Government, who wrongly stripped him of the right to fight during his boxing prime for declining to fight in the Vietnam War. Uncle Sam ultimately became just another foe whose arms were too short to box with Ali, and the King won his boxing crown back.
In college, as a student falling short on graduation credits and taking summer courses to get my degree on-time, King Ali re-appeared in my life. I was (and still am) an avid sports enthusiast, and enrolled in the course, ‘Sports in American Life,’ which examined the cultural and economic role sports plays in our society; and how it’s shaped by race, class, and gender. My professor, Dr. Barry Truchil, a Sociology instructor, considered Ali his personal hero, and used the legend from Louisville’s life events as our syllabus. Additionally, we were instructed to read, ‘King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of An American Hero,’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, David Remnick; and just like the 8-year-old grade school girl I’d been before, I was enamored with the GOAT once more.
Quite frankly, if it weren’t for Muhammad Ali, I don’t know what I would want to do with my life. His legacy is the reason this site even exists: which celebrates professional athletes who are committed to service-based work; it’s also the reason why I’m enrolled in the United Way’s board of directors training to aid a non-profit organization in enriching the lives of children.
Ali once famously stated, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Many of us will never serve a tennis ball like Serena, splash for three like Steph and Klay on the NBA hardwood, or even “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” like Ali did in the ring, we all still have a duty to harness our personal greatness to improve our society.
Yesterday, our American hero was memorialized in an interfaith service in his beloved Louisville, where a host of global dignitaries, celebrities, friends, fans, and family paid their respects to the legend. And, in true Ali fashion, he had the whole world watching.
Photos: NY Mag/Amazon/Wiki