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Muhammad Ali helped this 7-year-old be proud to live as a Muslim in America His story taught me that patriotism can be not just obedience, but resistance

Muhammad Ali began boxing at the age of 12 because something was taken from him. Perhaps embarking on a career in boxing was an overzealous response to the theft of his red Schwinn bike, but in hindsight, the seemingly quotidian burglary might have been as consequential to history as the abduction of Helen from Troy.

Even as he began compiling accolades, including a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, he was again stripped — this time of his dignity — when he was refused service at a diner in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

Then, as he surmounted the pinnacle of the sporting world as heavyweight champion, he again had something taken from him. This time, it was his career. Banned from boxing because he thought the war in Vietnam was unjust, he remained undeterred. He was aware he came from a lineage of people who would not deny themselves what they rightfully earned, even if the society at large continued to withhold what was due to them.

His patience was rewarded. Eventually, he not only regained his rightful place as heavyweight champ, he ascended to an even loftier throne: the universally recognized greatest of all time. And yet again, he had something taken from him. This time, Parkinson’s disease stole the motor and speech skills that had made him the most magnetic and celebrated personality on earth.

Yet, his spirit endured. His commitment to the cause of his people never faltered. He did what he had always done when something was taken from him. He gave more of himself.

This was the Ali I was introduced to as a boy through worn-out paperback books in my elementary school library. Before Islam was conflated with a menacing brand of terrorism, it was largely invisible, except for the larger-than-life Ali.

My 7-year-old brain puzzled over the question. How can a man so undeniably and unapologetically Muslim be so synonymous with excellence in America? I was at that point resigned to an idea of a life much like Apu in The Simpsons, comfortable in a supporting role providing comic relief so long as I could avoid greater scrutiny and alienation.

It was strange for me to come across such a man. I felt being a Muslim was about as unusual to my classmates in Germantown, Wisconsin, as being an alien from Saturn. In fact, it was more unusual because I actually told my classmates I was an alien from Saturn rather than reveal to them my true heritage.

But there he was, even in the early 1990s, the most recognizable and widely celebrated athlete in the world — no easy feat in the midst of Michael Jordan’s championship run.

And his name, Muhammad Ali.

His story taught me and millions more that patriotism is not merely a metric of obedience but also resistance. That infamy earned by a commitment to human rights could transform over time to universal praise and effusive love. That we are not the sum of the slurs society may project on us, but rather the way we refer to ourselves.

He never hesitated to call himself The Greatest, and so he was.

And for that, we are greater.

“Surely we belong to God and to him we shall return.” The Quran (2:156)

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.

Muhammad Ali knew how to play the villain, but dodging the draft turned him into a pariah An excerpt from Leigh Montville’s ‘Sting Like a Bee’

The famous quote did not come until a day later. The interviews on the lawn at 4610 NW 15th Street were long finished when Ali took a phone call in the morning from Tom Fitzpatrick, a 39-year-old sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News. The fight with Ernie Terrell was scheduled to take place in less than six weeks, March 29, 1966, at the International Amphitheatre near the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. Tickets had to be sold. There were reasons to talk to sportswriters from Chicago.

The Daily News was an afternoon paper, so Fitzpatrick was looking for a different angle, different words from what everyone would read over breakfast. He was not disappointed.

“I am a member of the Muslims and we don’t go to no wars unless they are declared by Allah himself,” Ali said into the phone. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

Bingo.

That second sentence, the one about the Viet Congs, would become the defining quote for all that followed for the heavyweight champion of the world. The initial rush of self-indulgent emotion recorded by Bob Halloran and the other reporters was enough to get America agitated about a man who talked too much, loved himself too much. The mention of the Viet Cong, first reported in the afternoon edition of the Daily News, then repeated on the wire services to newspapers across the country, brought a focus to that agitation, put all the anger into a convenient package.

“Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.”

Nothing against those Viet Congs? This was the hook. Was it dissent or was it treason? Common sense or sedition? No boldface or italics were needed. The words would jump off the page without help.

“We Muslims are taught to defend ourselves when we are attacked,” Ali further told Fitzpatrick. “Those Viet Cong are not attacking me.

“These Viet Congs are fighting a very nasty war over there,” he added. “There’s a lot of people getting killed. Why should we Muslims get involved?”

Variations of “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs” would be included in all future biographical stories about Ali. This would become his stand, his legacy: the ten words that changed his life. The quote would become part of American historical dialogue, stuff for schoolkids to remember. Who said “Give me liberty or give me death”? Patrick Henry. Who said “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs”?

An added quote would be assigned to him later: “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘n—–,’ ” but he did not say that. Not now, not for many, many years, if he ever did. The quote was said by other people — activist Stokely Carmichael, for one — but somehow was assigned to Ali in slippery history. His quote was, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

He would try later to give the words context. He would claim in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, that on his way back from the gym that day when he received the news, he had seen some kids throwing rocks at a little girl. He said he stopped and asked what was happening and the kids told him they were playing “army and Viet Cong” and the little girl was Viet Cong. The words made him flash to pictures he had seen in a magazine of a little girl walking among dead bodies outside Saigon. Troubled, he took this little neighborhood child in his arms and walked her home, away from the trouble. The incident was still in his head when he spoke later.

None of this happened. The autobiography would be filled with these little feel-good memories that were too good to be true, bedtime-story perfect, invented by the champ and ghostwriter Richard Durham. He never mentioned the little girl to any reporters on that day. He never even mentioned the Viet Cong until his late interview with Fitzpatrick. The quote that became remembered was another part of his daily torrent of words. Captain Sam Saxon, the man who first introduced Ali to the Nation of Islam in Miami, said he was with the champ at one point in the day and told him, “You got nothing against those Viet Cong,” and the champ agreed, yes, he had nothing against those Viet Cong. Ali perhaps remembered and repeated the phrase in the interview, nobody really conscious of the impact. There was no plan; the words came out with all the other words. The difference was that these words landed in the catch basin of the national mind.

Those Viet Cong were killing more than 18 American kids every day. The death total for 1965 had been 1,928 (double the casualties of any year in the Iraq War), and that would be tripled, to 6,350, in 1966 with the new escalation (more deaths in one year than in the entire Iraq War). In 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, 16,899 American kids would lose their lives. That would be 46 per day.

Not being upset with the Viet Cong seemed much worse than not submitting to the draft or not wanting to be involved in the war. Graphic pictures of these dying American boys had begun to appear on the nightly news. The enemy was supposed to be the enemy.

“I don’t want to scare anybody about it, but there are millions of Muslims around the world watching what is happening to me,” Ali said to Fitzpatrick. “I’m not making a threat [that they’ll get angry and do something]. I’m just saying maybe.”

This was heavy stuff.


Ali was familiar with the role of villain. He had chosen it in the early stages of his professional career, tried it on as if it were a black hat and a scowl discovered in the back of a family closet. He kept it when he found that it brought increased attention and larger paydays.

His marketing idea was that bad was much more interesting than good, an approach that newspapers, the television nightly news, and the gossipy woman next door had adopted long ago. People were more interested in paying money to see Sylvester the Cat than Tweety, Tom more than Jerry, Wile E. Coyote more than that beep-beep Road Runner.

This approach was adopted when Ali returned from the 1960 Olympics with his light-heavyweight gold medal and found himself back at the beginning in the professional side of the sport, no more than another low-watt attraction fighting unheralded opponents named Terry Hunsaker, Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, and Duke Sabedong. Where was the money, the instant payoff for those hundred-plus amateur fights? (His amateur record has been recorded in various places with various numbers, ranging from 99-8 to 137-7.) Where was that joy the country felt when he stood on that podium in Rome, the “Star-Spangled Banner” played for the world to hear? He was in a hurry. What would make people notice again? The answer appeared on his television screen.

“Soon after I turned pro, I discovered that even though I won the Olympic title, I wasn’t making any money,” Ali said to Alex Haley in Playboy. “I was the only champion who didn’t have no jack jangling in his jeans. . . . One night I was watching Gorgeous George on TV. He was jumping around making a lot of noise and threatening his opponents and I said to myself, ‘This guy’s on to something. I think I’ll put some of that into my act.’ ”

Gorgeous George, whose real name was George Raymond Wagner, was an eighth-grade dropout from Nebraska who had become one of television’s first stars in the Fifties, as notable as Lucille Ball or Milton Berle or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He strutted into the ring in sequined robes and high-heeled shoes and had bleached-blond hair that looked as if it came from the same bottle Marilyn Monroe used. His personal “valet” preceded him, squirting perfume into the air. George was a sissified, exaggerated stereotype of a homosexual, effeminate to the ultimate, totally in love with himself. He also was a sneaky, dirty wrestler once the matches began. The combination was irresistible. People howled from the moment he was introduced. A ringside spectator named Hatpin Mary sometimes would stick said hatpin into George’s grand backside somewhere during the proceedings, to everyone’s amusement.

Ali, as Cassius Clay at the time, adopted pieces of this act — the villain was known as the “heel” in wrestling, the hero known as the “babyface” — and added some of his own. The adopted parts involved the self-important bluster, the constant confidence, the repeated declarations about how pretty he was, the demonization of every opponent. He became a shouter, eyes bugged out of his head, one of those people who always seemed to be ticking, ready to explode. The predictions, the rhymes, the nonsense were part of his act.

American boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in the ring after his defeat of Sonny Liston in their world heavyweight title fight at Miami Beach, Florida.

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

He was especially insufferable and comic in the buildup to the first fight with Liston. He called Liston “The Bear,” and wore a light blue jacket that said “Bear Huntin” on the back. He went to Las Vegas, screamed outside the champ’s house, confronted him in a casino, made his life miserable. He asked if that big bear was as “rangy and fast and pretty as me.” Gorgeous George couldn’t have done any better.

Ali was familiar with the role of villain.

“[Clay] is light-hearted and breezy and has just enough twinkle in his eyes to take most of the obnoxiousness from the wild words he utters,” Arthur Daley of the New York Times said before the fight. “When they are imprisoned in print, however, the twinkle is never captured and Cassius just becomes nauseous.”

The twinkle made its last unadulterated appearance in the moments after Ali won the title. He was outrageous, comical, as he shouted in triumph from the ring at the sportswriters who picked Liston to win easily. He boasted about his looks, his ability, his battle plan for the odd fight that he had won when Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. No doubt about it, the night the young challenger captured the title he was a hoot. He made even his worst detractors admit they had been wrong about what would happen.

The change came the next day with his announcement that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. The comedy of the past was overwhelmed by the message of the present. The bigmouthed character became a Black Muslim. This was not what most of the paying public wanted to hear. The villain’s words now meant something. The jokes took second place to personal philosophy.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said at his press conference. “I’m free to be who I want.

“I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see?” he said. “I see there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor,” he said. “And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go in there.

“In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds,” he said. “That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”

The softness here was in contrast to the national image of the NOI and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For the white folk who had paid attention, not a large group at the start, this was a cult more than a religion, a theology that talked about white devils and spaceships and a black scientist named Jakub, who had an enormous head and created the white devils 6,000 years ago to persecute the black man.

The Muslims had demands. What was it that Malcolm X always said? “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Most national stories about the faith mentioned the large number of convicted criminals who now were members.

At first, there was the thought that Ali’s conversion was a phase, a mistake by a 22-year-old guy — 22 years, 39 days at that — who had landed in a new situation with new levels of fame and economics. He had been brainwashed by some slick salesmen, sold this bill of curious religious goods. He would grow out of it soon enough. A Black Muslim? He would realize a heavyweight champ could have a much easier life.

“He’s always been such a good boy,” said his mother, Odessa Clay. “He’s been taken in by these Muslim people. We pray he’ll see the light — and we think he will.”

Muhammad Ali at the Howard university with the Muslim journal ‘Muhammad Speaks’ produced by an African American organization (Nation of Islam).

Henning Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

“That Muslim stuff is a phony religion,” said his father, Cassius Clay Sr. “They brag that they don’t drink, smoke or fool around with women. That is only one commandment. There are Ten Commandments.”

The depth of Ali’s belief soon became established. If this was a brainwash, it was a very good one. Standing at the side of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after Malcolm X’s death, the heavyweight champion of the world became a potential target for revenge. He never blinked.

As city after city rejected the idea that it should be the host for his rematch with Liston because of worries of Black Muslim violence, because of the potential for his assassination, his commitment never changed. As the fight finally landed in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine, and he trained in Chicopee, Massachusetts, trailed by five policemen every day as he went from his motel room to the converted banquet hall where he sparred, he laughed about the threat. As he was guarded by more than 200 policemen on the night of the fight, with hourly reports of Malcolm X Muslims coming north from New York to kill him, he laughed some more. He then dropped Liston in one round with one “anchor punch,” supposedly taught to him by old-time actor Stepin Fetchit, and as all of America wondered what the hell was going on, he exulted.

“Nobody wants to kill me,” he said. “If they shoot, the gun will explode in their hands, the bullets will turn, Allah will protect me.”

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play.

The Lewiston win was followed six months later with the 12th-round TKO embarrassment of Floyd Patterson. Poor Floyd, 31 years old, was a gentle man, a practicing Catholic, a two-time heavyweight champ who had been knocked out twice by Liston in the first round, causing him to disguise himself in shame when he walked the streets after the fights. He was cast here as a classic babyface by Ali, drawn for the fight as “The Rabbit,” as the white man’s version of a good black man, yessir, nosir, Uncle Tom. Ali cast himself, of course, as the heel. He was the belligerent black man the white man feared in the night.

Booed during the introductions, booed during the lopsided fight, booed at the end, Ali converted the night into a morality play. True Black Man pummels Fake Black Man. He would use this plotline often during his boxing career, no one ever sure if he was kidding to hype the crowd or was as serious as could be. The answer was left to the observer to decide. Ali simply laid out the story.

His domination of Patterson was obvious. The challenger, who claimed he hurt his back in the fourth, didn’t win a single round. Ali played with him, taunted him, called him “the white man’s black man,” said, “Come on, black man, fight for America.” He seemingly could have knocked him out in any round, finally dropped him in the sixth, then finished him in the 12th. Ali would claim that he was waiting for the referee to stop the fight all night, that he tried not to hurt Patterson, but the ringside view mostly was that he punished the challenger for insisting on calling him “Clay,” not his Muslim name, in the prefight publicity whirl. Fake or real, the villain was in charge all the way.

“He’s mean,” legendary retired champion Joe Louis said. “He worked that poor Floyd over good. He handled him like a baby and he gave him more than he had to give him. I think he could have knocked him out from the first round if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to. I think he just let him have it for fun.”

“While we were fighting, Clay said maybe once or twice in the earlier rounds, maybe like in the third or fourth, ‘What’s my name?’ and I said ‘Cassius,’ ” Patterson said years later. “And finally, in the latter part of the fight, I’d say in the ninth, tenth or eleventh round, and I was really taking a really bad beating, suffering, he said ‘Now what’s my name?’ I believe I said the same thing, ‘Cassius Clay and that’s what it’s always going to be, regardless of the results of this fight. Cassius Clay.’ ”

“Round one, I said, ‘What’s my name?’ ” Ali said, some number of years later. “He didn’t say nothing. So round two, round three, I hit him with my right hand. ‘What’s my name?’ He said, ‘Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali.’ ”

Either way, the fight was a showcase for Ali. This was how well he could box. The two bouts against Liston had been characterized by their strange conclusions. This fight was characterized by Ali’s abilities. He had dazzle, flash, incredible speed. There never had been a heavyweight champ like this young guy. He danced and moved like a middleweight, but had the size and power of a heavyweight. He had told everyone before the fight that Joe Louis would have been too slow to beat him. Rocky Marciano would have been too short. Jack Johnson would have been too ugly. Jack Dempsey would have been too light and couldn’t punch. That left him at the top. The Greatest. He looked the part against poor Patterson.

He said he didn’t need love. He had talent.

“I’m not worried about those boos,” he said. “Those were white people. I got all the black people, some white people, too, and the people of Africa and Asia.”

That theory would be tested with his remarks about the draft and the Viet Cong. The volume became louder. Starting now.

Adidas, Shinola honor Jackie Robinson with style Items commemorate the 70th anniversary of No. 42 breaking the color barrier

April 15 marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and two apparel lines have released commemorative items to celebrate.

Adidas created a series of special-edition baseball cleats and turf trainers that feature Robinson’s signature. The cleats and trainers sell for $120 and $100, respectively, and are available at adidas.com, eastbay.com and dickssportinggoods.com.

The company also built a new baseball and softball field at Robinson’s alma mater, John Muir High School in Pasadena, California. The school’s athletic facilities are also used by the community’s Little League teams.

Detroit-based watch company Shinola has released a limited-edition Jackie Robinson timepiece that features his famous “42” jersey number. The 42 mm stainless steel watch retails for $1,500 (available at Shinola.com and in Shinola stores) and is sold as part of a limited-edition gift set that includes a mini-pennant, a set of three pins and a four-pack of postcards. The watch is the fifth installment in Shinola’s Great Americans Series, which honors inspirational figures such as Maya Angelou and the Wright brothers.

Robinson is, of course, one of the most important race men to have ever played professional sports. Before Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown, there was Jackie Robinson. After being signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson shouldered the burden of being the first — and, for a time, only — African-American to play in the major leagues. Over the course of his outstanding 10-year career, he and other Negro players faced open hostility from teammates, fans and media.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers, the team is planning to unveil a statue of their most iconic star Saturday at Dodgers Stadium. Rachel Robinson, 94, and two of her children, Sharon and David, are expected to attend the ceremony along with nearly 200 friends and family members.

Muhammad Ali’s words are transformed into ‘Ali Prose’ to inspire kids to become poets The contest will award scholarships for the best submissions by high school students

Everyone knows there was more, much more, to the late, great boxing champion Muhammad Ali than his fiery moves inside the ring. His sharp tongue, rhyming words and singsong continue to move fans nearly 60 years after his first fight.

Ali’s prose, a genre of its own, is so influential that Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) has used The Greatest’s words to encourage black high school seniors in Detroit; Oakland, California; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Milwaukee; Baltimore; and New York to express their inner Ali through the organization’s first poetry contest, Ali Prose.

One of his most popular chants, which he and trainer Drew Bundini Brown commonly used to hype the boxer up before and during fights, serves as the name of CBMA’s annual event: Rumble Young Man, Rumble.

“As many people will recall, not only was Ali a great fighter, some people say he was one of the first rappers,” said Steve Vassor, director of Rumble Young Man, Rumble. “He actually created what some categorized as pretty bad poetry, but it was poetry nonetheless. You’ll find that he’s a visual artist, you’ll find that he’s a cultural icon, you’ll find that he’s a civil rights fighter.”

Within the contest, the theme of the submitted poems should honor Ali’s legacy and include one of his six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. And they shouldn’t be more than 20 lines long.

“What we want to do is get poetry from young men across the country inspired by Ali and his six core principles and the idea of black male achievement, then pick the best of the bunch that comes through,” Vassor said. “Again, it’s just another way to extol those who are leading the site for black men and boys around the country in whatever way they rumble. We’re hoping to lift up some poetry that will do what Bundini and Ali did for each other in terms of getting them amped for the fight.”

Poetry submissions, which are due April 23, will be judged by poet, publisher and educator Haki R. Madhubuti and international youth slam poetry champions Philly Youth Poetry Movement. All three winners will receive scholarships with a combined value of $1,750 and have their profiles featured on CBMA’s website.

Vassor said the Ali theme during National Poetry Month was a perfect match. Besides the contest’s thought-provoking submissions, Vassor hopes the conversation surrounding CBMA and Rumble Young Man, Rumble’s efforts will continue to help make the lives of young black men an ongoing priority.

“We would like to develop Rumble into more of a lifestyle so that it’s not just an annual event that only 150 people can attend,” Vassor said. “Our intention is to create a series of engagements and activities across the year. This poetry contest is one way to extend this idea of Rumble beyond one annual event.”

How Martin Luther King Jr.’s death affected the NBA On the eve of Russell vs. Chamberlain, MLK Jr. was assassinated — could the game go on?

News didn’t travel as fast in 1968. Radio, evening news and morning papers were still decades away from being taken over by the internet. And the most effective form of social media was still word of mouth.

But it was a large crowd, mostly black, that gathered in a poor section of Indianapolis to hear Robert F. Kennedy speak. The night was April 4 — hours before the NBA’s Eastern and Western Division finals were set to tip off — and the crowd was upbeat, as many expected the senator to soon be the second Kennedy to call 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home.

It was evident that no one in the crowd had yet heard of the assassination that had happened earlier that evening. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination would bring black America to its knees and the country at large to a crossroads. Kennedy’s police escort knew, of course, and refused to follow him into the neighborhood, fearing a volatile reaction from the crowd. Outrage had already sprouted in various pockets of the country. Why wouldn’t Indianapolis be next?

The Democratic presidential hopeful handed down the news from the back of a flatbed truck. King was dead.

The crowd shrieked in horror. For black America, it was the bloody zenith of a decade sinister enough to rob it of every leader who seemingly had its best interests at heart: Robert Kennedy’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — plus the countless men and women who sacrificed their lives in both the civil rights movement and what felt like a generational genocide thanks to the Vietnam War. King, of course, was the civil rights movement’s and, alongside Muhammad Ali, the anti-war movement’s most recognizable face. And the most prominent voice of a race that has seemed always behind the eight ball of equality.

His last words as the bullet — per CBS’ Walter Cronkite, describing the civil rights titan’s final moment — “exploded in his face” on the second floor of Memphis, Tennessee’s, Lorraine Motel, “Ohhh!” King collapsed.

A man stands on balcony of Lorraine Motel in the approximate place Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was killed April 4, 1968. In the background is the rooming house from which the fatal bullet was fired. In the courtyard beneath the balcony are reporters, police officials and others.

Getty Images

Robert Kennedy — who himself would die from an assassin’s bullet just 63 days later — delivered the defining speech of his career. As any savvy politician would, he preached peace in a time of carnage. Responding with violence isn’t what King would have wanted, he cautioned. But Kennedy also sympathized with the anger. The ’60s had robbed him of a piece of his soul as well.

“What was [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] title? Why should we call off the game?”

“For those of you who are black, and are tempted to … be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said in the unrehearsed speech. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond and go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Indianapolis remained calm the evening of April 4 thanks in large part to Kennedy’s grace, humility and vulnerability. But Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; Chicago; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; and Washington, D.C., were far less peaceful. The assassination had been announced at 8:19 p.m. in D.C. By 9:25, the first window was shattered. In Atlanta, Gov. Lester Maddox refused to lower the flag for King. He reportedly told state troopers to “shoot [protesters] down and stack them up” should they try to enter the state capitol. Maddox later lowered the flag only after being required by federal mandate.

King had spoken out against segregation, unfair housing, income and economic disparity. Now he was gone. Cities rioted out of hopelessness more than anger. Fear more than fury. And desperation more than enmity. Their pleas for justice had long gone unaddressed. America found itself involved in a war that millions opposed, barreling toward its most important presidential election in years, and the blood of the civil rights movement stained its streets. No one knew the direction the country was headed in — including the NBA. Its playoffs were set to resume the next day.


Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell was in shock Thursday night and all day Friday in his Philadelphia hotel room. He hadn’t slept. His mind raced. He was one of the most visible athletes involved in the civil rights movement, and for him King’s assassination was a kind of confirmation. “Stuff that I said 10 years ago, that everybody dismissed as an angry Negro talking, is coming out today,” Russell said in Aram Goudsouzian’s 2010 King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.

King hadn’t been dead 24 hours and the NBA was in an awkward position: to play, or not to play? The equivalent of today’s conference finals were slated to tip off April 5. This wasn’t the first time a major sports league had been directly affected by a high-profile assassination. Five years earlier, the NFL played after President Kennedy’s assassination — a decision infamously dubbed “Black Sunday” and one former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would define as “the worst decision I ever made.”

Even in 1968, the NBA was a majority-black league. Its biggest superstars — Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Nate Thurmond, Dave Bing, Elgin Baylor and more — were black. Jerry West was the league’s only bona fide white superstar. The black players, like black Americans as a whole, wrestled with grief, shock and rage. King was more than a civil rights leader. His work and his words were reflections of their stature. His murder was not only personal. It was affirmation of the value of black life. Or the lack thereof.

“Russell saw it as, black people continue to give to America. [Black people] were sort of the most loyal Americans of all,” Goudsouzian said. “And [King] gets taken away from us.”

In the final months of King’s life, his philosophies shifted. Tactics and philosophies had fractured the civil rights movement throughout the decade, and Black Power was usurping nonviolence as a popular resistance. King focused on the economic discrimination in America of poor people of all ethnicities. He openly opposed the Vietnam War. Exactly a year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, King spoke in a manner very similar to Ali’s refusal to fight. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

The assassination had been announced at 8:19 p.m. in D.C. By 9:25, the first window was shattered.

King also openly praised Harry Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) platform. He saw eye to eye with the OPHR with regard to it reinstating Ali, restricting apartheid South Africa from Olympic participation, removing International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, the hiring of black coaches and administrators by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the desegregation of the New York Athletic Club.

And so with all this in mind, Russell still had a game to play. His Celtics were set to square off against a familiar opponent, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Russell vs. Chamberlain was the premier rivalry in basketball. Their statures made them larger than life, and their exploits made them hardwood gods. Russell and Chamberlain carried the league on their broad shoulders throughout the decade, although the image of both couldn’t have been any more different. Russell was the thoughtful and defiant sociopolitical defensive savant who participated in the March on Washington and led the Boston dynasty via actions and words. Chamberlain was the 7-foot freak of nature and dashing playboy who compiled stats with ease but could never eliminate Russell and the Celtics to cement his place as champion.

Wilt Chamberlain (No. 13) of the Philadelphia 76ers posts up against Bill Russell (No. 6) of the Boston Celtics during a game played in 1967 at the Boston Garden in Boston.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

The previous year, Chamberlain and the Sixers had finally defeated Boston en route to the ’67 championship. After defeating the Celtics, the crowd chanted, “Boston is dead!” and sparked dozens of cigars — mimicking the victory routine of Celtics coaching great Red Auerbach. Philly’s 68-13 record (then the best ever), along with the championship, earned that season’s team an eventual Hall of Fame nod as the best team of the NBA’s first 25 years.

The Sixers returned the following season with hopes of establishing a “mini-dynasty” of their own. Visions of the Celtics’ demise were all but etched in stone. Philly was the new Boston, and Chamberlain had finally dethroned Russell. Their 1968 East finals clash was to be a mere formality. Until the course of American history changed on the second floor of a Memphis motel balcony.

Russell called his longtime friend and rival Chamberlain in the early afternoon of April 5. Though never at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Chamberlain was distraught and shaken. Neither wanted to play in Game 1, but there was hesitation about postponing. Tip-off was only hours away, and neither team knew exactly what it wanted to do. Race had reared its head in the Boston meeting. Celtics forward Bailey Howell wondered why the idea was even being discussed. “What was [King’s] title? Why should we call off the game?” he asked, angering many black players.

For the Sixers’ part, Chamberlain and Wali Jones voted not to play. Chet Walker refused to vote, calling it a “dreary charade” on the heels of the league disrespecting its black players. The sentiment was common. NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was at a University of Cincinnati banquet on the evening of April 4. “I don’t think the game should have been played [a day later], but that’s the NBA for you,” Robertson told The Undefeated. “There was not a regard for Dr. King. He was almost like an enemy to many in America. But he was a savior to a lot of us.”

Savior or not, the decision was made. Game 1 of the 1968 Eastern Division finals went on as scheduled. There were safety concerns around the city that if the teams did not play, Philadelphia would add its name to the growing list of cities in revolt.


Leonard Koppett covered Game 1 for The New York Times. The crowd of 14,412 filled the Philadelphia Spectrum, reacting in “normal fashion.” But “shock and despondency” was the mood of most of the players. Though the effort on the court was at its expected level, the image of King’s dying body in a pool of blood covered the arena like a layer of fog.

Similar to a performance by James Brown — ironically in Boston — that same night, Russell, Chamberlain, the Celtics and the Sixers were temporary bandages on an open wound. Boston defeated a dejected Philly squad 127-118. Chamberlain finished with 33 points and 25 rebounds, but fell short to Russell’s 22 rebounds and John Havlicek’s 35 points and 11 assists. All stats and no win — history was repeating itself with Chamberlain. The pair of NBA giants attended King’s funeral the following Tuesday, a moment that would spark Chamberlain’s brief stint in politics.

Bill Russell (No. 6) of the Boston Celtics posts up against Wilt Chamberlain (No. 13) of the Philadelphia 76ers during a game played in 1968 at the Boston Garden in Boston.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Sunday’s Game 2, however, was postponed, originally scheduled on what President Lyndon B. Johnson dubbed the national day of mourning. Major League Baseball followed suit, postponing its season openers between the Minnesota Twins and Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. But while athletes grieved with the rest of the country, they were also expected to play peacemaker in communities forced to deal with vitriol of America’s bigotry. Athletes involved in the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (NIEU), which Jim Brown helped organize in 1965, were asked to “move into the streets and ghettos and try to stem the tide of racial unrest,” an April 8 Associated Press report stated. Cleveland Browns guard John Wooten, the NIEU’s executive director, noted that 35 to 40 athletes would be involved in the initiative, including the Chicago Bears’ Gale Sayers and Russell.

The haze over black America hadn’t lifted by the start of Wednesday’s Game 2. “The whole day felt like a daze — like being underwater or in humid weather,” a volunteer at King’s funeral recalled to author Rebecca Burns in 2011’s Burial for a King. “You’re aware of the moment but not aware fully of all that is around you.”

 

After the funeral, the Eastern finals resumed. Boston, having stolen Game 1 on the road in Philadelphia, proceeded to lose the next three, giving the Sixers a 3-1 lead. Philly had resumed control of the series. They resembled the team that had become the king of the hill in the Eastern Conference, until Boston mounted an epic surge, rallying from 3-1 to win the series in seven.

“If they hadn’t stolen that first game when Philadelphia was kinda discombobulated, who knows what that series looks like?” said Goudsouzian. “Then the Celtics beat the Lakers and Russell’s legend is burnished. Then he wins again in 1969, giving him two titles as a player-coach. There’s a basketball dimension to the story that’s obviously not as important, of course. But it’s still sort of interesting from … a sports perspective.” Logic says if Philly were the better team, the series dictates as much. They would have won in five or six or, worst case, prevailed in seven. It is intoxicating to ponder the possibilities. With the Boston demon officially exorcised, would Philly have repeated? And if they repeat, does Chamberlain remain in his hometown of Philadelphia, thus giving rise to a new Eastern Conference powerhouse? It just wasn’t meant to be.

King’s assassination ruptured the future of civil and human rights. King was dead at 39, his legacy partially realized by the election and re-election of former President Barack Obama. Yet, despite the romanticization of his life and words, the bullet that shredded King’s neck and the fallout thereafter affected every fabric of society. Even the NBA and its most storied rivalry.