Ron Adams can tell you exactly where he was at the moment Muhammad Ali (who still went by Cassius Clay) “shook up the world” by knocking out Sonny Liston in the first round to become world heavyweight champion.
It was Feb. 25, 1964, and Adams and a couple buddies were strolling into the Laton High School gym to play pick-up basketball while listening to the fight on his transistor radio.
“I remember just as I walked into the gym, he knocked out Sonny Liston,” the Warriors assistant coach recalled Saturday afternoon. “At the time, that was a major feat.”
For all of Ali’s boxing accomplishments – and there were many – they are not the reason his death Friday night at 74 cast a long shadow over both teams’ preparations for Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
As Cavs star LeBron James put it, “He’s the greatest of all time because of what he did outside the ring.”
What Ali did outside the ring is the reason he became a global icon as well as the most important and influential athlete of the 20th century.
Yes, Ali’s colorful personality and braggadocious tongue played a big part. He was the original trash-talker who backed up his words and in doing so became the first true modern athlete. So we can credit (or blame) him for today’s monster egos and athletes who speak about themselves in the third person.
But as powerful as Ali’s words were, they were puny compared to his actions. Remember, we are talking about a man who gave up the heavyweight title belt and risked a five-year jail sentence, during the prime of his career, for standing up for his convictions.
Here’s what Ali said in 1967, outside a federal courtroom, unrehearsed and off the cuff, after being stripped of his boxing license for refusing to be inducted into the Army because of his opposition to the Vietnam War:
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom.
“You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”
Can you imagine any modern athlete making such a statement today? Forget the 140-character limit. Twitter would explode.
That said, it’s not like today’s America is free of injustices, racial and otherwise. Which raises the question of why the overwhelming majority of modern athletes are reluctant, or even timid, to publicly voice their social and political beliefs.
“The people who spoke up during that time period had to be tremendously courageous,” Adams said. “Nowadays, so many of these athletes are shaped by the cadre of people around them, people who shape their message. And they bend over backward to try and not hurt the message or the brand. It’s economic.”
Warriors sixth man Andre Iguodala is one of the few who doesn’t mind touching touchy subjects. The reason there aren’t more, he said, comes down to money: too much at stake, too many sponsors to please.
“It’s just the society we live in,” Iguodala said. “It’s really tough, because guys might think they’re going to lose their situation. The way society says, if you follow these guidelines and walk a straight line, you’ll be taken care of financially.
“You’re a product of your environment. A lot of us come from nothing, and when you have the chance to get out …”
I asked Warriors forward Harrison Barnes, one of the more thoughtful 24-year-olds you’ll ever meet, if he could imagine missing three years of his NBA career for a conviction.
“Man, I don’t know if I could – maybe if the belief was strong enough,” Barnes said. “But what (Ali) stood up for, man. It wasn’t like he had multiple examples. He just went out there and did it, and there wasn’t any fear of God in his heart. He just did it. That’s what made him so powerful.”
Today’s athletes have Ali as an example, but they also have Michael Jordan. And it was Jordan, in many ways, who ushered in the athlete-as-corporate-pitchman era.
Even now, 13 years after his retirement, we still don’t know what Jordan believes in. Or if he believes in anything besides selling more shoes for Nike.
James, in many ways the NBA’s successor to Jordan, only occasionally dips his sneakers into the broader world.
Four years ago, James tweeted his support of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer, and inscribed a message honoring Martin on his high tops. In 2014, James and others wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to honor Eric Garner, who died after police put him in what has been described as a chokehold while trying to arrest him for selling unlicensed cigarettes.
James took some flak for those stances but also earned much praise. Since then, when it comes to social issues, he’s been largely silent.
“I think it’s in you,” James replied when asked if more athletes should speak up for their beliefs. “If it’s in you, it’ll be brought to light. If it’s not, then it won’t.”
At the time, mainstream America vilified Ali for his beliefs. History, however, proved him in the right. Ali pulled back the curtain on our nation’s injustices and opened our eyes to the truth, regardless of the personal cost. That’s why he’s The Greatest of All Time.
It’s a shame today’s athletes let the almighty dollar come before their convictions.