Two of the top names in the NBA are facing off in the championship series this week, but they might not be the brands they are today if not for the courage of one man years before their time.
Their actions duplicated by children and adults, the two are this generation’s Michael Jordan, and perhaps on an even larger scale. But it wasn’t Jordan who paved the way and made it possible for them.
It was Muhammad Ali, who passed away Friday evening after living with Parkinson’s disease for 32 years and still managed to make regular appearances at different events around the world. He once removed Warriors head coach Steve Kerr‘s steely nerve during a basketball game in Phoenix when Kerr was 23, being one of the few times it’s happened to the coach.
Professional athletes commonly share a bond based on the understanding of the time, effort and dedication that goes into being the best at something. For today’s NBA player, it’s an impossibility that any of them could have seen Ali fight live, or even live without a tremble or speech impediment for most.
But they know what kind of impact he had on the world, a testament in itself, since Ali’s most notable act of courage took place 50 years ago when he was fighting in his prime.
“Obviously, we knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20% of what made him as great as he was. What he stood for, I mean, it’s a guy who basically had to give up a belt and relish everything that he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. 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.”
Ali was imprisoned during the summer of 1967 for draft evasion, with his career and the Vietnam war at their peak. Ali refused “to fight that white man’s war,” a controversial stance at the time that sparked international discussion revolving around the draft and who the American government was choosing to send.
A large percentage of draftees were from under-served black neighborhoods, with upper class whites hardly, if ever, being sent over to fight on the front lines.
Curry said that he couldn’t begin to put himself in Ali’s shoes, or the time, but added:
“When you love or have a passion for what you do and boxing and playing basketball, to, for whatever reason, not be able to kind of take advantage of your prime and the time and work that you put into it, that would be tough for sure. But obviously he had to do what he needed to do, and that’s special.”
“Ali was in his prime when I was a kid, eight, ten years old, just after Vietnam, just after the civil rights movement, and he was probably the most prominent athlete of the time as it related to social issues. What he did went so far beyond the boxing ring, the sporting arena in general. What he did not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans in terms of trying to promote equality, in terms of really raising the level of consciousness about what was happening in the country. Probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country.”
Ali’s fighting style was similar to how he lived — full of movement, with the endurance to see things through, and the will to never give up. Hana Ali, one of the fighter’s nine children, tweeted that her father’s heart remained in working order for 30 minutes after every other one of his organs had failed.
Hana’s statement was emblematic of how Ali lived, while enduring one of the most debilitating diseases known to humanity. Ali would sign an autograph for any fan, so long as he had the moment to spare, and felt it as his civic duty. He would joke as much as he could, and stand for what he felt was right.
It’s now a charge for professional athletes to take a stand, and though they are role models by default, the unofficial role is inherited. For black athletes, that may have started with Ali. And it’s something that might have changed the world for the best.
Curry said that Ali’s life and example serves as credence for when tough social issues come forth:
“It is very tricky at times because you’re either on one side or the other and you’re going to offend somebody or not. But it kind of just comes with the territory. Whether you think that’s important or not, that depends on the person. So Ali was the example of how you use your platform and speak what you believe no matter what people will say, and he gives — look at him as a sense of confidence in that regard, for sure.”
And guard Shaun Livingston added that his story can help when times aren’t the smoothest:
“It was before my time, but just how he carried himself, who he aspired to be, he inspired so many people. I think he’s going to continue to inspire generations. And I think it’s important for us to teach our kids who he was, what he stood for, how he represented himself. He really helped me in times of adversity not giving up. His one-liners were the best.”
“Even besides his greatness in the ring, what he’ll forever be remembered for is what he stood up for in his life. He was at the peak of his career during a tough time in this country, and he stood up for obviously his people, civil rights, and most importantly just self love.
He told everyone to love yourself and carry yourself with a certain dignity and respect. His impact will be felt with the rest of the history of the world. It will be taught in schools. It’s a sad day. He’s not just a sports icon, but he’s a culture icon and world icon. Athletes rarely ever reach that. You could argue Muhammad Ali had the most influence of all time for an athlete. So he should be celebrated forever.”