The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley


Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.


“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”


“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas


Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ9WdCunvy8

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”


“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

What does it mean to be black and play sports? It’s a question that demands you consider athletes in full, starting with their intellect

Two years ago, I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the main stage at the National Book Festival before an appreciative crowd in the nation’s capital. We were backstage waiting to go on, and Kareem, an introspective man not known for small talk, -surprised me by asking where I was from.

Reflexively, thinking he meant my professional home, I began to tell him what I did at The Undefeated and before that at The Washington Post. He cut me off.

“No, where are you from? Where are your people from?”

I explained my Wichita, Kansas, roots and my dad’s decision to move the family to Washington, D.C., during the early 1960s to pursue a career in geology. This piqued Kareem’s curiosity, as he understood the barriers countless African-Americans have faced in so many professions and how often sports and entertainment have defined our achievement.

Kareem is well-read, the author of 14 books and numerous insightful columns, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient whose interests range from World War II to the Harlem Renaissance. He is an exemplar of the most unexplored and underreported dimension of black athletes: their intellect.

Interviewing Kareem on The Daily Show recently, Trevor Noah remarked: “It’s almost like NBA all-time leading scorer is No. 6 on your résumé. You have lived quite an accomplished life.”

We are proud at The Undefeated to collaborate with ESPN The Magazine on this special issue, State of the Black Athlete, a glimpse into the creativity, struggles and brilliance of African-Americans in sports. We understand these athletes’ quest to be seen and comprehended beyond high-flying dunks and celebratory end zone dances, to have their minds considered fully.

Consider John Urschel, with expertise in spectral graph theory and high dimensional data compression, deciding to retire from the Baltimore Ravens at age 26 to complete his doctorate in math at MIT. Or Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who taught himself to play piano, learned the Arabic alphabet and quotes parables from David Foster Wallace to reference Martin Luther King Jr., as he recently did in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian. Look at Venus Williams, who hasn’t just won 49 singles titles but fought for pay equity in her sport, including lobbying the British Parliament for equal prize money for male and female players at Wimbledon.

We are witnessing an extraordinary period of activism in sports, one driven by black athletes, but we also are watching some of the greatest sports stars on the planet show off their most undervalued asset: their minds. They’re tackling public policy issues, trekking to Capitol Hill, producing documentaries and books, and otherwise engaging in thoughtful contemplation about how best to use their influence.

Sometimes size or height, athleticism, poverty or just the limitations of your dreams propel you into a life of sports. The thrill of competition enlivens you, the cred you generate in your community empowers you. Athletic success opens doors that never seem to close—and you become defined by your physical skills. The world engages you through highlights and sound bites, and your Twitter feed. The rest of your genius—your tastes, passions, eclectic interests—the world sometimes misses. Or, sadly, just ignores.

I love the photos that French-born basketball veteran Boris Diaw posted on Instagram from the Grand Canyon, with his personal espresso machine resting on rock, the sun rising across the darkened sky. The lives of today’s black athletes are filled with experiences hard to imagine when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was coming of age, or when Paul Robeson was excelling as an actor/singer/scholar/athlete/20th-century Renaissance man while being hounded by racism.

One of the most unheralded tales of black athletic triumph is the story of the 18 black Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936, captured in Deborah Riley Draper’s brilliant documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. Everyone has heard about Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin during the height of Nazism. But there were 17 others on that team, including Ralph Metcalfe, who later was elected to Congress, and two women, sprinters Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes.

Both black women also had made the 1932 U.S. Olympic team but were treated harshly by American teammates and never competed in the Los Angeles Games. They were replaced by whites on a relay team that won the gold—a rebuke that devastated them. Pickett went on to become an elementary school principal, and Stokes founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League—both saddened but unbeaten by the prejudice they encountered.

But what more could they have become?

I couldn’t help but think, as I was interviewing Kareem, that black athletes are having a great moment—on the rise in power, influence and confidence.

Had he been a foot shorter, Kareem says, he might have been a history teacher trying to figure out life after retirement. Instead, he has spent the three decades since he stopped dropping skyhooks on centers who couldn’t guard him crafting a vital second career: as an intellectual, an activist and an inspiring role model to black athletes interested in exploiting their brilliance. We’re all better off that Kareem grew that extra foot.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

John Carlos, John Wooten know Kaepernick’s road is a long one After 50 years of fighting for change, these old warriors are unbowed but tired

Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.

He was the original.

He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.

Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.

“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”

“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”

You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.


A group of top African-American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”

He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.

It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.

“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”

Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.

“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”


These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.

“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”

“It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.” – John Carlos

Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.

Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”

The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.

Just like … now.

“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.

“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”

Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”

Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.

“Those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.” – John Wooten

Former Cleveland Browns great John Wooten watches during an NFL football game between the Browns and New York Jets on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.

“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”

Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.


Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.

Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.

“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.

“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”

Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.

It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.

But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.

John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.

Who should replace Jerry West on a new NBA logo? The choice is yours

Jim Brown has no time for games Fifty years after standing with Muhammad Ali, the aging warrior is still working on his legacy of responsibility and economic empowerment

Jim Brown forgot his cane. A piece of breakfast is stuck to the front of his shirt. He has let his beard grow out, woolly and gray. It’s 7:39 a.m. outside the Cleveland Browns headquarters, across the street from Ohio Nut & Bolt Co. A backhoe has torn up the parking lot. Time to get to work.

The 81-year-old legend retrieves his walking stick from a black SUV, flanked by his wife, Monique, and loyal soldiers Rudolph “Rock Head” Johnson, James Box and Rob Wood. Everyone wears black except for Rock Head, a former Original Compton Crip, who is dressed in blue. They unload two rolling suitcases, one old-school valise without wheels and a raggedy cardboard box. Navigating past chunks of broken pavement, they enter the offices of the once-proud franchise.

Brown will not impart much football wisdom to his former team on this muggy day in May. No rah-rah to rouse the athletes after last season’s 1-15 debacle. His purpose here is as far removed from football as Cleveland is from its last NFL championship, in 1964, when Brown led the league in rushing for the seventh time, with 5.2 yards per carry.

Independent, intelligent and sometimes angry, Brown walked away from football at the peak of his abilities, for a movie career and to preach a gospel of economic empowerment, self-reliance and social justice. His thinking on those latter subjects is contained inside the suitcases: dozens of 142-page manuals titled The Amer-I-Can Program — The Responsibility of Self-Determination.

These are the textbooks for a 60-hour self-help course. They contain the heart and soul of Brown’s life and legacy. They illustrate both the greatness of Brown’s gifts and, after a half-century, their inevitable decline.

Thousands of people on three continents have benefited from Amer-I-Can since Brown founded it in 1988, an outgrowth of his earlier work with the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. Lives have been changed, even saved. But the Amer-I-Can foundation’s revenues have plunged 80 percent in the past few years, and far fewer people are studying the manual. Prominent staffers have been convicted of crimes. The curriculum is unavailable online and out of step with younger activists’ focus on structural racism and social media. Brown is hoping an infusion of cash from President Donald Trump’s slashed domestic budget can revive the program.

Still, he plows forward, dragging Amer-I-Can manuals from city to city with the determination that used to gain him as many yards after contact as before it. He says the program is far more meaningful than anything he did in the NFL.

This trip to Cleveland also shows that Amer-I-Can is fading away, along with the greatest football player of all time.

“The common concern of the group is that each of us helps the other become a better person.” – Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 2

“The youngsters now have to catch up and become more involved in making this a better world,” Brown tells me, referring to the Browns players and coaches, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who are gathered inside the auditorium-style team meeting room. An Amer-I-Can manual rests on each of the 126 chairs.

Brown, who is employed by the team as a senior adviser, steps to the front, clutching his cane with huge, gnarled hands. He wears a faded baseball cap, not the famous red, black and green kufi. You need to strain to hear his voice.

“Communities across the country need us to take more interest in what’s going on,” Brown says. He takes a moment to decry African-Americans killing each other. “But you are football players here this morning,” he continues, “so we’re gonna concentrate on giving you a philosophy that you might already have, but we’re also going to include community work in what we hope will be your motivation to be the greatest players you can be.”

The players give Brown their full attention. His football résumé demands it. In nine dominant NFL seasons, all with Cleveland, Brown never missed a game or practice. Playing the 1963 campaign with a broken big toe, he set a record of 1,863 rushing yards — in a 14-game season. He delivered so much punishment, many defenders feared tackling him. He still holds the career record of 104.3 rushing yards per game. He retired at age 29, coming off his fourth MVP season.

But one of Brown’s most significant accomplishments occurred two years after he left football. Fifty years ago, on June 4, 1967, Brown organized the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of star black athletes who came to quiz and ultimately support heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. The athletes Brown convened included Lew Alcindor, who would soon change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Celtics great Bill Russell; Carl Stokes, soon to be elected Cleveland’s mayor and the first African-American to lead a major U.S. city; and football stars who would become bankers, radio station owners and a U.S. ambassador.

A group of top African American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis mcClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

After meeting with Ali, the 12 men stood in front of the cameras in downtown Cleveland, a united front of negritude that altered the course of the war, the civil rights movement and the nature of athlete activism.

“Can you imagine LeBron, Serena, Durant, Tiger, Simone Biles, Mayweather and Odell Beckham Jr. meeting to discuss the role of black athletes in the age of Trump?” says Leonard Moore, a University of Texas history professor. “That’s how powerful and impactful this meeting was.”

That meeting took place a few miles from the current Browns team meeting room, where the session is now being led by Box and Rock Head. The two facilitators will review two of the 15 chapters in the Amer-I-Can manual, which cover topics ranging from motivation and focus to family relationships and emotional control, plus details on how to behave in job interviews, set financial goals and avoid drugs. At every step, the program insists there are no excuses for failure: “Individual responsibility and determination are key factors,” it says. “Your success ultimately rests with you.”

Box steps to the front. “I grew up here in Cleveland, I’m 55 years old. I’ll just cut to the chase, we all men here. I spent 9 1/2 years of my life in the penitentiary, used to sell dope, gangbang, rob, steal, all that craziness.”

He discusses the “conditioning” he received as a child with no father and a mother addicted to heroin. Box speaks smoothly, without notes. He’s been working with Amer-I-Can for 27 years. He passes the mic to Rock Head, another Amer-I-Can veteran, who tells his own story of a misguided life, of the attitude change and motivation needed to succeed. Both facilitators use language straight from the manual. Both refer to Brown as their father.

At first, it seems like the presentation has little relevance for a team of highly paid athletes who must have had plenty of motivation and focus just to reach this room.

Then Box reaches Page 5, which he calls “the most intimate part of the training program.” It’s a list of 231 “feeling words.” Box tells the players he’s going to provide a topic, and they should say how it makes them feel.

“Father,” Box says.

The players start to open up. “I didn’t have a father,” one says. “He was a good guy,” says another. “Role model.” “Leader.” “Protector.” “I didn’t know him.”

“My father wasn’t there for the early part of my life. God was my father,” says linebacker Demario Davis (who was recently traded to the New York Jets). “But I was able to forgive, and now we’re best friends.”

Brown tells the players he saw his father only four times in his life. He asks for all the players without a good relationship with their fathers to raise their hand. About a dozen of the 100-plus men respond.

“The main ingredient to a lot of the problems we have in these streets is based on the fact that a lot of these young men do not have a father,” Brown says. “You’re an elite group of individuals. If you work together with other like-minded individuals, we can make a dent, a great dent, in the violence in our community. There are young people who need our help.”

Afterward, I ask Brown why he brought Amer-I-Can to the team.

“I know I could help them,” Brown says.

But Brown also needs help from the team — to keep Amer-I-Can going.

“We alone are responsible for the degree of financial stability that we create; we must not depend on, blame, or hold others responsible for our lack of monetary security. ” – Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 86

After giving the players a two-hour taste of Amer-I-Can, Brown and his crew met with Dee Haslam, who owns the team with her husband, Jimmy. Brown wants the team to take the full 60-hour curriculum and to help expand the program in the Cleveland community. Peter John-Baptiste, vice president of communications, said the team is trying to determine the best way to support Brown’s efforts.

In 2010, the nonprofit Amer-I-Can Foundation for Social Change had $1.15 million in revenue from grants, donations and contracts with local and state governments, according to public tax records. In 2014, the most recent year for which tax forms are available, the foundation had $182,489 in revenue — a drop of almost $1 million.

What happened? A decades-long contract worth six figures annually to teach the curriculum in Los Angeles County correctional facilities dried up. A major annual donor, shopping mall developer Mace Siegel, died in 2011. The former president of Amer-I-Can, Oregon State Police Lt. Col. Dean Renfrow, retired in 2011 and has yet to be replaced.

In Cleveland, the Amer-I-Can program lost support when Box was charged with inappropriate sexual contact with two women participating in a court-ordered program that he facilitated. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to attempted abduction, assault and unlawful restraint and was sentenced to three years of probation. In 2016, Cleveland Amer-I-Can staffer and former Browns receiver Reggie Rucker was sentenced to 21 months in prison for embezzling money from Amer-I-Can and other nonprofits.

The engine of Amer-I-Can has always been Brown. He raised a family of facilitators in cities across the country and improvised ways to fit his curriculum into existing endeavors at schools, prisons, community centers, even FBI training centers. Amer-I-Can’s only formal structure seems to be the curriculum itself. Dozens of Boxes and Rock Heads, from all walks of life, were drawn to Brown’s passion and empathy. His message of self-responsibility appealed to conservatives; his attacks on injustice excited liberals. Brown’s family and friends say he’s too proud to ask for money, but when the Hall of Famer showed up in a troubled city and talked up Amer-I-Can, rich folks found their checkbooks and politicians found room in their budgets.

From left, Pastor Darrell Scott, former professional football player Jim Brown and Omarosa Manigault arrive at Trump Tower, Dec. 13, 2016, in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high-level positions for the new administration.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But the magic is wearing off. His fierce intelligence remains, but facts can slip and he is starting to forget things. He tells the Cleveland Browns that Amer-I-Can is 15 years old, instead of 29. He tells me that former President Barack Obama has never explained his feelings about his mixed racial background, which was the subject of Obama’s best-selling book, Dreams From My Father.

Rock Head used to be paid $6,000 per month as a facilitator. Now he’s driving an Uber and running a youth basketball foundation in California. Box’s salary has dried up too.

Most of Brown’s income comes from speaking engagements, memorabilia signings and his Cleveland Browns salary. Through Amer-I-Can, he and his wife paid themselves modest annual salaries of $18,000 to $50,000 from 2010-12. Brown’s salary was $120,000 in 2011, when revenues were $1.1 million. He was paid nothing in 2013, when revenues were $310,000, and nothing in 2014. Unless the Browns are paying, Brown often flies coach. On the trip for the team seminar, he stayed at the airport Sheraton.

Many members of the extended Amer-I-Can family told me there was money in Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget for the program. Brown voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but after the election he accepted an invitation to Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. He hosted an Amer-I-Can fundraiser in Washington, D.C., during the inauguration.

But specifics are scarce on the Trump budget promise. Monique Brown says Amer-I-Can has “basically been approved,” but she won’t elaborate. Messages left with HUD and the House committee overseeing the budget were not returned.

When I ask Brown how he thinks Trump is doing as president, a flash of his famous fight emerges. “What kind of question is that?” he growls.

“Trump is the president sitting in the seat of power … so my way of looking at my contribution or our contribution is that we can’t ignore that seat and just call names of the person that’s sitting in it,” he says. “Calling names won’t do anything.”

It’s right there in the manual: Your success ultimately rests with you.

“If I analyze myself, what am I doing?” Brown continues. “Not what Donald Trump is doing, what am I doing to make this a better country?”

“Some people who are conditioned at childhood never break through the blanket of suppression in order to achieve their full potential.”– Amer-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 10

Swinton “Sweet Sue” Brown, a boxer, gambler and womanizer, left a few weeks after James Nathaniel Brown was born Feb. 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Two years later, Theresa Brown left baby Jim with her mother and grandmother to work as a maid on Long Island, New York. Jim didn’t rejoin his mother until he was 8.

Sweet Sue lived down the street from Theresa with his new family. On the rare occasions that Sweet Sue visited, he argued bitterly with Theresa. “They would fight in one part of the room, and Jim would just sit there in another part of the room and not say a peep,” Ed Walsh, Brown’s high school football coach, said in Mike Freeman’s unauthorized biography of Brown.

After becoming a football star in the 1950s, Brown hit the sexual revolution and indulged to the fullest, including while he was married to his first wife, Sue, from 1958 to 1972. He appeared in his first film, Rio Conchos, in 1964, and became a movie star with 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. Brown filmed some of Hollywood’s earliest interracial love scenes. He bought a home in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard, with a commanding view from his rear deck of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, where he still lives today.

Publicity still portrait of American actors Jim Brown and actress Raquel Welch in the western drama ‘100 Rifles’ (20th Century Fox), 1969.

John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

In his 1989 autobiography, Out of Bounds, Brown devotes an 18-page chapter to his seduction methods, orgies he hosted at his home and his preference for petite women — the younger the better.

Near the end of Out of Bounds, Brown says he has “slapped women. … In a perfect world, I don’t think any man should slap anyone, and I don’t consider slapping people a sign of strength. In my case, it’s related to a weakness. If I’m dealing with someone, and they do something I feel is wrong, I’ll tell them that, and that I don’t like it. If they continue to provoke me, I’ll say, ‘Okay, you leave now, or leave me alone.’ That means we’re at an impasse, and I’m about to lose my temper. At that point, in that situation, I have slapped women, and put my hands on men. … I regret those times, I should have been more in control of myself.”

Authorities have accused Brown of violent acts seven times, five of them against women. Two accusations remained tattooed on his reputation.

One involves the model Eva Bohn-Chin, whom Brown met while filming The Dirty Dozen. In 1968, Bohn-Chin moved in with Brown when he also was dating Gloria Steinem. As Brown recounts in Out of Bounds, at home one night in L.A., “I slapped Eva and she slapped me back.”

Police found Bohn-Chin beneath the rear deck of Brown’s home. Authorities said Brown threw her over the railing. Brown maintains that after police arrived, Bohn-Chin jumped off the balcony trying to escape the situation.

Bohn-Chin gives a cryptic explanation in Spike Lee’s documentary Jim Brown: All-American. “He came toward me, and I found myself in the hospital the next day,” she said. “I was not able to jump. … I was a young, good-looking person who loved life. Why would I jump?” Brown was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, but charges were dropped after Bohn-Chin would not name Brown as her assailant.

The second incident came in 1999, when Monique Brown called 911 after her husband smashed the window of her unoccupied car with a shovel during an argument over whether he was having an affair. Brown was convicted of vandalism and served several months in jail rather than accept the sentence of counseling and community service.

By phone from Los Angeles, Monique Brown tells me that questions about domestic violence make her angry.

“The people that know Jim, obviously we’ve had our ups and downs like any other marriage, we’ve been together for 22 years, but more ups than downs. There’s no marriage of that length that hasn’t gone through things, but I’m far from abused.”

Jim and Monique met in 1995, when she was 21 and he was 59. Monique was a model making an appearance at a TV station in her native Buffalo, New York, that was interviewing Brown. The day after meeting Brown, she went to an Amer-I-Can meeting.

Monique Brown, now 43, majored in liberal arts at Denison University in Ohio. She speaks as passionately about Amer-I-Can as her husband does. They live in the Hollywood Hills home with their 15-year-old son, Aris; a 13-year-old daughter, Morgan; and two pit bulls adopted from a shelter. Brown has a mostly distant relationship with his three children with his first wife, as well as three children with three other women.

He’s no longer the same man who wanted to fight teammates over locker room debates or assaulted a golf partner over the placement of a ball. “He’s way more tolerant of differences and opinions,” Monique says. “He doesn’t have to have the last word or, things don’t always have to be a personal offense just because you disagree on certain things.”

Hall of Fame fullback Jim Brown poses with his wife Monique during the unveiling of his statue outside FirstEnergy Stadium prior to game the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns on September 18, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

“Having that purity in our hearts for what our purpose is that’s bigger than us has really been a unifying factor,” she says. “No matter what we’re upset at each other about, we’re still committed to what we’re doing. Like, yeah, you know what? You pissed me off, but that’s not gonna stop the work.”

As long as people are suffering, the work remains. The work will outlive Brown.

Will Amer-I-Can?

“It’s like understanding the secret of life that we’re all going to die,” Brown tells me. “Old age is a challenge, but when you’re fortunate enough to have your business in order, your family will be all right, you’ll leave something that can be built upon, and you go away.”

“I’m very happy because I think that my wife and the babies will be all right. I think my friends can build upon what we set up. I think the country can benefit, and consequently the world. When I say benefit, I’m not talking about changing the world or changing everything. I’m talking about just contributing to something positive.

“What age tells you is that it’s not complicated. It boils down to being the best person you can be and helping others wherever you can. What else can you do?”

“There is opportunity and room in the world for each one of us to make a contribution …” – Ameri-I-Can Trainee Manual, Page 34

Brown’s contribution is real. He conquered a violent game, then used that strength to help people from some of the most troubled pockets of America.

Rock Head was a hardened criminal with years of prison under his belt when he led a caravan of 60 Compton Crips to Brown’s house in 1991 as part of a peacemaking effort. But when he saw news cameras, he left in disgust. Brown kept phoning him, but the gangster wouldn’t answer. Finally, Brown got him on the phone and asked, “Are you a man, or a b—-?”

Rock Head recalls grabbing his .357 and rushing to Brown’s house. Brown answered the door.

“What did you say?” Rock Head demanded.

“I said are you a man, or a b—-? Are you gonna shoot me, or come inside and deal straight up with your problems?”

They talked for five hours and have been together ever since. When Rock Head’s daughter was shot and killed, when Rock Head himself survived being shot 11 times at point-blank range, Brown talked him off the ledge.

“He is my father,” Rock Head says. “When people ask what I do, I tell them I work for my dad.”

Erica “Tati” Carey grew up gangbanging with the Mansfield Hustlers in West Los Angeles. She was introduced to Brown through her longtime boyfriend Ronald “Loon” Barron. Around 2002, they began taking the Amer-I-Can curriculum together in a gang intervention program. It changed their lives. Their graduation ceremony was held at Brown’s home.

“Loon used to kill, steal and destroy. He ended up being one of the most effective gang intervention facilitators in all of America,” Carey says. “I was with him for 10 years. The program 1 million percent did it.”

Barron was killed in 2010 by a 16-year-old he tried to stop from writing graffiti on a wall. Carey now is a skin care specialist with her own line of products and celebrity clients such as Floyd Mayweather. “Amer-I-Can changed the way I make decisions,” she says. “It can change the perception of one’s entire life. You can change. It explains very specifically how to make a change.”

Amer-I-Can changed East Hartford High School in Connecticut, where the dropout rate plunged 50 percent after principal Steven Edwards secured a $50,000 per year state grant to offer the curriculum in the late 1990s. “We spend so much time on content and high-stakes testing, essential skills just don’t get taught that are needed not just to thrive, but survive in life. Amer-I-Can filled that void,” says Edwards, who is now an education consultant.

The program also helped keep good kids on track. “It was a head start of guiding me,” says Roy Roundtree, an assistant football coach at Indiana State University, who experienced Amer-I-Can at his middle school in Canton, Ohio. “I could have been on the wrong path. Growing up in the ’hood, you have a lot of distractions. I learned a lot of core values.”

Memories of these victories push Brown forward. He wants to duplicate as many as possible, change a few more lives before he’s gone. He wants his wife and Amer-I-Can children like Rock Head and Box to keep his legacy alive.

“If it’s not set up right, it will [fail],” admits Rock Head. “I’m worried. We all worried. We want to show that although the engine of Amer-I-Can is Jim Brown, that he does have enough guys that he respects and loves enough to run this program. I’ve been with him since ’91, ’92, never went back to jail, no trouble, never accused of anything. I’m a true example of change.”

But there is only one Jim Brown. Without his celebrity presence, without him carrying Amer-I-Can into ghettos and owners’ suites, the manual is a nice collection of inspirational quotes and pragmatic advice.

One man can only do so much. Your success, after all, ultimately rests with you.

When the players have left the meeting room, I ask Brown whether Amer-I-Can is his greatest accomplishment.

“I don’t think that way. That’s almost like standing back looking at yourself,” he says.

He gestures at the empty room. “This is the Cleveland Browns, man. That guy used to be Rock Head Johnson. We’re sitting here with Rock Head Johnson giving the Cleveland Browns a lecture. This guy was incarcerated. So was this guy,” he says, pointing at Box.

“But they’re sitting here now in a National Football League team headquarters. That’s not bad.”

The Cleveland Summit and Muhammad Ali: The true story Historic meeting organized by Jim Brown had an economic incentive

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, June 4, 1967. Some of the greatest black athletes in the country gathered in a nondescript office building in Cleveland.

According to legend — and countless media reports in subsequent years that failed to challenge that legend — the athletes had come together to decide whether to lend their support to Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges of draft dodging for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.

Ali needed support, that much is true. Ever since he’d changed his name from Cassius Clay, joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and refused to join the military, he’d become one of the most reviled men in the nation, hated almost as much by black Americans as by white ones. So the fact that other black athletes would convene in support of Ali held significance. The men meeting in Cleveland that day — including Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor — were widely admired.

But as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Summit, the time has come to scrape off the barnacles that adhere to this story. There were multiple interests at play in that room and differing conceptions of the best way to advance the position of blacks in America. Some of the men were ex-military. Others had economic stakes in the outcome.

Before the meeting in Cleveland, boxing promoter Bob Arum and others, including prominent members of the Nation of Islam, tried to persuade Ali to accept a deal that one of Arum’s law partners had negotiated with the government. If Ali would agree to perform boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops, the draft-dodging charges would be dropped.

At the time, Arum was running a company called Main Bout, which controlled the closed-circuit television rights for Ali’s fights. Main Bout needed Ali to attract closed-circuit viewers. Among Arum’s partners in Main Bout were Jim Brown and two leading figures in the Nation of Islam: Herbert Muhammad, son of the NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad; and John Ali, the NOI’s national secretary. John Ali told me that he and Herbert Muhammad profited personally from the agreement with Main Bout. It wasn’t a deal with the Nation.

That meant Arum, Brown, Herbert Muhammad and John Ali all had an incentive to get Ali in the ring as soon as possible. A lot of money was on the line.

In addition, Arum told Brown that if he and other black athletes could persuade Ali to resume boxing, the athletes would be rewarded with local closed-circuit franchises. In essence, a portion of the proceeds from Ali’s fights would go to these athletes.

Brown, who organized the meeting, had retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher a couple of years earlier and was working as an actor while also pursuing his interest in black economic empowerment. He invited not only Russell and Alcindor, who was playing for UCLA at the time (and later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but also Sid Williams and Walter Beach of the Cleveland Browns, Curtis McClinton of the Kansas City Chiefs, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Shorter of the Washington Redskins and Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers. Also present was Carl Stokes, a prominent attorney in Cleveland who would be elected the first black mayor of a major American city that November.

The meeting, held in the offices of Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union, had only one purpose, according to Arum: “To convince Ali to take the deal because it opened up tremendous opportunities for black athletes.” He continued, “I wasn’t setting it up for the athletes to rally around Ali.”

Several of the men in Cleveland were military veterans. Some believed Elijah Muhammad’s separatist ideology was racist and, if followed through, would lead to an American apartheid. They arrived intent on challenging Ali.

“My first reaction was that it was unpatriotic,” Davis of the Green Bay Packers said, referring to Ali’s anti-war stance. Davis was one of three men in the room who confirmed Arum’s version of the story.

Ali worked the room like it was his birthday party, cracking jokes and talking to everyone at once. When men aimed hard questions at him, the boxer never got defensive. He spoke passionately and confidently.

McClinton, a halfback for the Chiefs, was a member of the Army’s active reserves at the time. He told Ali that while he respected the boxer’s religion, it was important to remember his nationality, too. McClinton said he told Ali, “Hey, man, all you’d do is get a uniform and you’d be boxing at all the bases around the country. … Your presence on military bases gives that motivation to military men.”

The meeting went on for hours, but Ali never budged. When it was over, Brown led the group to a news conference.

“There’s nothing new to say,” Ali announced, perhaps recognizing that reporters expected him to make big news by backing down from his anti-war stance. Other participants said they were convinced Ali was sincere in his religious conviction.

Two weeks later, an all-white jury needed only 20 minutes to find Ali guilty of draft evasion. His exile from boxing would continue for three more years. The Supreme Court eventually reversed his conviction in 1971.

Given that the Cleveland Summit had little impact on Ali’s decision about the draft, why has it become folklore? The answer is that the story makes us feel good. It shows athletes in solidarity, standing up to power.

But, in this case, the full story works just as well, if not better, than the myth.

Several of the men gathered in Cleveland came seeking economic opportunity. When they recognized that they were not going to change Ali’s mind and they were not going to see any money from a deal with Arum, they could have walked away. Instead, they used their collective power to support Ali. They sacrificed some of their own popularity to stand up for religious freedom and to stand up to a government that seemed to be singling Ali out for punishment because he was black and outspoken.

In an article written for Sports Illustrated after the meeting, Russell said he envied Ali. “He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess,” Russell wrote. “He has an absolute and sincere faith. … I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

That day, Russell and the rest of the men did just fine.