Today in black history: Joe Frazier wins heavyweight title, Magic Johnson’s jersey retired The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 16

1957 – Happy birthday, LeVar Burton. Burton is known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He also had a recurring role in the Star Trek: Next Generation series and movies and was host for more than 20 years of Reading Rainbow.

1958 – Happy birthday, Ice T. Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice T, is mostly celebrated for his rap songs concerning street life and violence. He has been an influential figure for the gangster rap genre. Highly controversial songs such as “Cop Killer” brought him much fame. He also pursued a career in acting, his most noteworthy character being that of a police officer on the show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

1970 – Joe Frazier knocks out Jimmy Ellis. Frazier, a 6-1 favorite, fought Ellis for the heavyweight title in front of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Ellis was knocked down at the end of the fourth round and trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him go back out, making Frazier the undisputed heavyweight champion.

1992 – Magic Johnson’s jersey is retired. A tearful Johnson thanked Larry Bird and the fans at the Great Western Forum as his No. 32 jersey was retired by the Los Angeles Lakers.

The 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was What if the lockout never happened?

Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.

“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”

But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?

What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.

But first, some backstory.


Noren Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images

It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.

Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.

Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.

By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”

Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.

“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”

The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”

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Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.

The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”

“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”


It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.

Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.

But let’s imagine an alternative history

Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.

“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.

Team owners, among other things, blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract.

Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.

Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.

Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.

Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.

Eastern Conference

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G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers

The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.

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G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks

Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.

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F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors

All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?

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F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons

One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.

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C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat

When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.

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Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat

With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.

Western Conference

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G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics

With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.

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G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers

It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.

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F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves

The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.

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F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz

Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.

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C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers

Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.

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Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.


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Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?

Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.

“Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs! It would’ve been crazy!” — Tracy McGrady

Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”

Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.

A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!

Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”

In 1975, Harvard got a glimpse of Muhammad Ali’s true greatness The Champ spoke truth to power in a way no one did then or has done since

The footage is simultaneously exhilarating and haunting.

In the rare recording we see a handsome, self-assured Muhammad Ali speaking to the Harvard University graduating class of 1975, where he had been invited to give the commencement address.

“I’m very flattered in coming here ‘cause you never could have made me believe years ago when I got out of high school with a D-minus average,” Ali said. “And they gave me the minus because I won the Olympics.”

Ali won the light heavyweight division gold medal in the 1960 Rome Games when he was still known as Cassius Clay.

When he addressed the Harvard graduates in ‘75, Ali was at the height of his popularity and was arguably one of most highly recognized faces in the world.

The Champ was 33 years old. Just eight months earlier, in October 1974, Ali had pulled off one of the greatest upsets in boxing history when he defeated the seemingly invincible 25-year-old champion George Foreman, in Zaire — the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.

With the victory, Ali regained the world heavyweight boxing title that had been stripped from him in 1967. His title had been taken not by a boxer, but by boxing’s sanctioning commission in April 1967 after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military.

In his 1975 talk at Harvard, Ali spoke about Uncle Toms and a condition of black brainwashing that he said kept blacks shackled.

“I don’t do no Uncle Tom-ing. I don’t do no shuffling,” he sad. “The Ali shuffle, but I don’t do the Tom shuffle.” The audience roared its approval as he then demonstrated the Ali shuffle.

Ali told the graduates he was baffled by the extent to which African-Americans in the civil rights movement went through such pains to desegregate, to push to go where they were unwanted. “Even before I was who I was,” he was baffled and angered as black demonstrators suffered physical abuse “marching, people pouring water on you, putting dogs on you. What in the hell is worth that? You got to be crazy, watching your sisters all beat up.”

He implored the black community to come back to itself, to embrace self-sufficiency. “We got the best food, the best music, everything else,” Ali said. There certainly were black Harvard graduates who appreciated the courage of those who risked life and limb to break down barriers to equal opportunity. But Ali’s underlying message of black brainwashing was on point.

He talked about the depiction of Jesus with blue eyes, of Tarzan as the white king of the jungle, beating up black Africans. He described white angels, white Miss America. “Everything good was white, the angel food cake was white, devil food cake was chocolate.”

As I watched the audience react to Ali, I wondered if the graduates, many of whom would become politicians, business magnates and leaders, heard what Ali was saying. I wonder how many today recognize how thoroughly that truth still resonates.

Ali won the world heavyweight title in 1964 when he knocked out the heavily favored Sonny Liston in the seventh round. Three years later, he was stripped of the crown after he refused on religious grounds to serve in the military, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.”

This month marks the 51st anniversary of Ali’s conviction. He was sentenced to five years in prison (which he never served because his case was appealed). Ali received a fine of $10,000 and was also banned from boxing for three years.

Interestingly, two months before Ali’s address at Harvard, South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam. A month before the address, President Gerald Ford essentially declared an official end to the war.

Four months after the Harvard speech, Ali survived 14 punishing rounds of boxing to defeat Joe Frazier in Manila. Called the “Thrilla In Manila,” that fight arguably is one of the greatest in Ali’s career. There were more chapters to follow. Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, and regained the title the same year by defeating Spinks.

Looking at the footage of Ali’s 1975 speech at Harvard now, we know his story would end with physical deterioration after years of absorbing punishment. Even in 1975, there were concerns about Ali’s health.

I interviewed Foreman at his Livermore, California, ranch a year after his 1974 fight with Ali and he expressed an awareness of, if not concern for, Ali’s long-term health. What struck me then and even now as I reflect on Foreman’s comments is how thoroughly Ali had gotten inside of Foreman’s head.

That defeat compelled Foreman to change his entire approach to boxing. Foreman realized that Ali had it right all along. The fight game, at its core, was entertainment. It was a game of charades. Years later, Foreman would reinvent himself as the lovable, cuddly, health-conscious Big George, inventor of the George Foreman grill.

When I look around my home and my office and see images of Ali, I realize I am as heavily invested in Ali as my father was in Joe Louis, the indomitable Brown Bomber.

And just like my father, I am just as unwilling to let emerging facts of Ali’s life diminish the impact he has had on my life, or on his heroism.

I have read multiple Ali biographies. My conclusion: Muhammad Ali was a human being, with all the flaws, frailties, contradictions and complexities that go along with being human.

He stood up to the U.S. government’s war machine and spoke for thousands in 1967 when he said, “Hell, no, I won’t go.” Many of those thousands were in the audience at Harvard. That’s why Ali was given a hero’s welcome, why he was celebrated in life and why he will be celebrated in death. He did not run and he did not hide.

Muhammad Ali was and is a true American hero.

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Not including Tiger Woods on a list of the 50 Greatest Black Athletes is beyond an oversight — it’s an injustice Tiger, even more than being one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes who ever lived, is the greatest lightning rod sports has seen since a young Ali

Let’s get something straight: Any ranking of the greatest black athletes ever that doesn’t include Tiger Woods is not something I can get behind. This list, the result of public responses to surveys conducted by SurveyMonkey for The Undefeated, could be called “50 Great Athletes People Admire Most” or “Americans’ 50 Favorite Black Athletes.” But it ain’t a credible list of the greatest if it doesn’t include Tiger.

You can dislike Tiger and you can dislike golf, but if you fail to acknowledge his competitive brilliance, his dominance of the oldest sport on the planet, his impact culturally, athletically and economically, then you should recuse yourself from weighing in on an effort to rank the greatest black athletes. There’s no responsible definition of “great” in the context of sports that Tiger Woods doesn’t fit. Any conversation that isn’t driven by personal agenda couldn’t put him any lower than 10th.

Dumping on Tiger became a sport sometime around Thanksgiving 2009, and it hasn’t let up. Surely, some of the folks surveyed hold it against him because of his salacious infidelities, others because he called himself “Cablinasian” or whatever that was 20 years ago, others because he married a white woman, others because his body broke down and he couldn’t catch Jack Nicklaus, others because he didn’t play football or baseball but made more money than anybody who ever played either. Tiger, even more than being one of the most accomplished and decorated athletes who has ever lived, is the greatest lightning rod sports has seen since a young Ali.

But none of that speaks to the criteria. Eldrick Woods is (or was) otherworldly great, and he’s black (or as black as some other people on that list). If it’s easier for people to list, when asked, Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles, go right ahead. They’re great and black AND admirable, and there’s not one reason to object to either. But if you think either — or the great Herschel Walker, for that matter — has had 1/100th the impact of Tiger Woods the golfer, then you’re delusional.

I have five personal heroes who made the list, four of them childhood idols (Gale Sayers, Ernie Banks, Arthur Ashe and Walter Payton) and one who is to this very day one of my adult heroes, a man whose career I covered and whose life is exemplary (David Robinson). But I wouldn’t try to make the case that any one of those five was the best ever in the sport he played (well, maybe Payton) or created the drama week after week after week for more than a decade that Tiger did … or dramatically altered his sport the way Tiger did, or redefined what a participant in that sport can look like the way Tiger did.

I’d like to say that his résumé needs no review, but clearly (and sadly) from the results of this flawed exercise, it does. At age 20 he became the first man to win three consecutive U.S. amateur titles. Without having played a single tournament as a professional, he signed the most lucrative endorsement contracts in golf history (and if you think Nike pays hundreds of millions to nonathletes, go ahead and keep deluding yourself). He was the youngest to win the Masters, the fastest ever to ascend to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings and, at 24, the youngest to win the career Grand Slam. You know how many people have twice been named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year? One. Tiger Woods. Not Jordan, not Ali — Tiger freakin’ Woods.

He held down the No. 1 ranking for 281 consecutive weeks, which is to say five-plus years. The Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year a record four times. Not Tom Brady, Tiger Woods. Golf, whether we’re talking prize money, TV ratings or weekend hacker participation, shot to the heavens when Tiger came aboard, and they’re sinking like a stone now that he’s gone. Nike, in the context of golf, was a startup company, and Tiger made it the worldwide leader in golf apparel. When he limped out of contention, Nike waved bye-bye to the business of making clubs and balls. Buick was so convinced that Tiger’s association with its cars spiked their sales, the company signed him to a $40 million endorsement deal.

You want to define Tiger Woods by competitive impact: Only Sarazen, Hogan, Player and Nicklaus have all won the four major championships that constitute the Grand Slam. And only Tiger has won all four consecutively.

You want to define Tiger by economic impact: Forbes says only Oprah Winfrey, among people of color, is richer. Golf Digest reported he made nearly $770 million and will soon pass $1 billion. You want cultural impact? Every time he tees it up, even the people who were too dumb to appreciate him from 1996 to 2007 are now begging for a comeback because they realize, as every business in the golf industry does, that Rory and Jordan and DJ and all the young guys put together can’t add up to half of Tiger Woods. He’s still the world’s most recognizable golfer, the world’s richest and most celebrated golfer. Bo Jackson, who made the list, spends most every day of every week of his second life trying to be like Tiger.

And while it’s difficult at best for most folks to muster up any admiration for Tiger these days, what the folks who participated in the survey collectively also fail to acknowledge is that Tiger conquered a sport that directed a whole lot of hostility his way. He wasn’t Jackie Robinson, but it wasn’t like he was walking into an NBA arena every night, especially his first two or three years on tour.

In the context of how we measure athletes, there’s no category in which Tiger Woods comes up short. He’s either the second greatest person to ever compete in his sport (to Nicklaus) or No. 1. The other people who qualify for that discussion in their respective sports (Jim Brown, Jordan, Magic, Bill Russell, Ali, Joe Louis, Serena Williams, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, LeBron) are all included.

Woods being left off is a glaring omission, one that undermines the intelligence and wisdom of thousands and thousands of survey respondents. Kobe Bryant being left off is a head-shaker — so is Mike Tyson — and Jack Johnson is nearly as egregious an error as Woods. The international search to find somebody to beat Johnson is the origin of the phrase “great white hope.” His July 4, 1910, victory over Jim Jeffries in the “Fight of the Century” ignited race riots in more than a dozen cities. No black (or white) athlete since has had that kind of cultural impact nationally. You can’t make the argument that Joe Frazier is greater than Jack Johnson. But I’m willing to believe you have to be nearly 60 years old to have any idea of how important Johnson was not just to blacks and athletes but to the United States early in the 20th century.

You can’t even tell the story of the black athlete in America without serious examination of Johnson. And you can’t carry the discussion into the 21st century, no matter how young you are, without including the incomparable achievements of a black man who, like Johnson, was a first: Tiger Woods.

This Emile Griffith jazz opera strives to understand boxing and masculinity Terence Blanchard asks, ‘What makes a man, a man?’ in ‘Champion’

The use of massive projection screens is one of the most remarkable things about Champion composer Terence Blanchard‘s opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, which debuted recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The screens, which flank either side of the stage, do more than provide a bridge into the world of film, where Blanchard has found a home crafting the sonic atmospheres of many of Spike Lee’s movies. And they don’t just help to establish Champion, with its heavy jazz influences, as a contemporary opera — a rarity when traditional operagoing audiences want and expect Verdi and Puccini and Mozart. No, the screens in Champion are central because they help the audience, who may not be familiar with Griffith’s story, understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s own story, but our understanding of it.


The opera tells the story of Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands who gained notoriety in 1962 after his blows put an opponent, Benny Paret, in a coma. Paret died in the hospital 10 days later from his injuries. Underscoring the tragedy was the fact that Paret had taunted Griffith, who was gay, with anti-gay slurs. “Hey, maricón,” Paret apparently said it in a “cooing lisp” at a weigh-in before the two met in their third fight. “I’m gonna get you and your husband.” Maricón translates roughly to an anti-gay slur.

And because this took place in the days when boxing was still broadcast on network television in prime time, Paret’s fatal fall, after a savage round, was broadcast live into living rooms across the country. The fight, and Paret’s subsequent death, haunted Griffith for the remainder of his life.

The production originated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, which commissioned it from Blanchard, a three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter. With his first opera in the can, Blanchard is now working on his second, an adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which will likely debut in 2019.

Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny Paret and Aubrey Allicock as young Emile Griffith in ‘Champion.’ In front of the bed: Arthur Woodley as the elderly Griffith.

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

The violence of Griffith’s story — “Paret’s head rocked on a neck that looked like a broken plinth” — presented a question: How would it be depicted onstage, in a way that would give audiences an understanding of Griffith’s complex talents as a boxer, with his incredible left jab and quick-moving hands? Griffith was said to have landed 17 punches in seven seconds in his fight with Paret.

The screens in Champion help the audience understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s story, but our understanding of it.

Choreographer Seán Curran (Stomp, L’Etoile, Alcina) chose to slow things down in the pivotal fight of Griffith’s life. Onstage, the two men playing Griffith (Aubrey Allicock) and Paret (Victor Ryan Robinson) are isolated in spotlights, surrounded by a sea of red. The punches are drawn out so that the fight looks more like a dance, with the actors bending their bodies, Matrix-style, in response to each blow. The flashes of white light that capture the blows echo the flashes of photographers who documented the fight. You needn’t see the literal depiction of the violence in the ring, because, on either side of them, the screens flanking the stage show the real-life grisly imagery of Paret sliding down the ropes and out of consciousness.

By incorporating the actual footage of Paret, Champion underscores the role television and newspapers had in framing our understanding of what happened. The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture. That even now fight night is still so often relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable is part of the legacy of the Paret-Griffith fight.

Andre McLaughlin and Aubrey Allicock in an encounter in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

But the discrepancy between the fight occurring onstage and the imagery framing it serves another purpose as well: depicting the art and the beauty so many boxing fans see in the sport, even as the fatal violence of the fight became a political football in the aftermath. “I’ve been such a big fan of boxing and, to me, it’s one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet,” Blanchard said. “We try to have some elements [showing] the rigorous workout that goes into it, the science behind it. It’s not just guys up there whaling on each other and throwing their hands around and beating on each other. It’s not that. It’s really a scientific dance.”


Media didn’t just influence how Americans saw the Paret-Griffith fight. It determined how they perceived Griffith’s masculinity, and Paret’s taunting, as well. At the time, homosexuality was still so taboo that The New York Times dared not speak its name. In the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, journalist Pete Hamill described his colleague Howard M. Tuckner as “furious” when The New York Times copy desk changed the word “homosexual” to “unman” in Tuckner’s story about the weigh-in standoff.

Griffith is played by three actors. (That fact, along with Champion’s themes of homosexuality and black masculinity, are certain to attract rudimentary comparisons to recent Academy Award best picture winner Moonlight.) Arthur Woodcock portrays a hobbled, hunched-over, elderly Griffith, near the end of his life, whose brain is so addled by dementia that he doesn’t remember putting one of his shoes in the refrigerator. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks from Griffith’s life, with Allicock playing Griffith as a young man and Samuel Grace playing Griffith as a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands. With his bell-like vocals, Grace exhibits a stunning vulnerability in his turn as Little Emile. It becomes clear that the adults around him realize Griffith is “different” when his surrogate mother, Cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), forces him to hold a cinder block above his head for hours because, Little Emile sings, “She say I have the devil deep inside of me.”

The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture.

Through Curran’s choreography, Champion portrays Griffith as a figure who was repeatedly goaded into displays of aggression, which at the time were conflated with masculinity. When he first meets his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges), Griffith is a fairly subdued man, new to New York City, who wants to make hats. But Albert pushes Griffith’s buttons, hoping to unleash his “killer instinct” lurking within, and Griffith sends Albert careening to the floor.

“Throughout all of Emile’s journey — of course he got a lot of accolades and all of the great things that he deserved — he’s kind of just the pawn in the bigger structure of what this field was, or continues to be,” said Champion fight master Joe Isenberg. “And, he’s pushed to kill this guy. Of course, not intentionally, but it’s a part of this journey that he didn’t really intend to fall into, and then he continues a whole life of regret … dealing with that situation.”

Further complicating Griffith’s inner conflict is his tortured relationship with his birth mother, Emelda (Denyce Graves), who left him and his six brothers and sisters sprinkled among various caretakers in the Virgin Islands. When Griffith journeys to New York as an adult, his mother Emelda mistakes him for his brother, Frankie. While Griffith’s story is portrayed as an epic tragedy, Emelda is a tragic figure in her own right and in Champion, her relationship with Griffith is forever tainted by the fact that she left him.

“I know I’m not the mommy you want, but I’m all the mommy you got,” Emelda tells her son, who is still trying to outrun the specter of Paret’s death even after his success in the boxing ring climbs to greater and greater heights.

“You’re nobody’s mommy,” Griffith tells her, practically spitting the words in contempt. “You’re just a money-loving whore with a s–tload of children.”

Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith in ‘Champion.’

Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera

Blanchard fills in Emelda’s story with two arias that provide some explanation for Emelda’s decision to leave her children, and the complicated feelings she has about it. And while Verdi and Puccini seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in pushing singers to the brink of their capabilities with vertiginous, superhuman upper-register runs, Blanchard brings forth revelations in plumbing the low end of the scale in Emelda’s second aria, allowing Graves to show off her range.

“She’s like Muhammad Ali,” Blanchard said of Graves. “You don’t want to teach your kid to box by watching Muhammad Ali, ’cause he always kept his hands down. She’s like that. She breaks all the rules. Her low register is impeccable. It’s amazing to listen to her sing.” There’s also a moment in Champion after Griffith defeats Paret and he’s standing over his opponent, both arms raised, seemingly not unlike the famed photograph of Ali standing in victory over Joe Frazier.

But alone, the triumphant pose belies what’s really taking place. In that moment, Griffith isn’t just a winner. He’s the little boy who grew up in the Virgin Islands, holding a cinder block over his head at the behest of Cousin Blanche. He’s the man Blanche and Albert goaded him into being, and what of it? His rival is conquered, defeated, dead. But so is part of Griffith. And the devil he’s been trying to shake still clings.

“What makes a man a man?” a forlorn Griffith asks of himself. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Even by the end of the opera, it’s not clear that Griffith really knows.

On this day in black history: Joe Frazier wins heavyweight title, Magic Johnson’s jersey was retired, ABC hires first black female president Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 16

1957 – Happy birthday, LeVar Burton
Actor LeVar Burton is known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television series Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He also had a recurring role in the Star Trek: Next Generation series and movies, and was host for more than 20 years of Reading Rainbow.

1970 – Joe Frazier knocks out Jimmy Ellis
Joe Frazier, a 6-1 favorite, fought Jimmy Ellis for the heavyweight title in front of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Ellis was knocked down at the end of the fourth round and his trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him go back out, making Frazier the undisputed heavyweight champion.

1992 – Magic Johnson’s jersey is retired
On Feb. 16, 1992, a tearful Magic Johnson thanked Larry Bird and the fans in Los Angeles as his jersey was retired by the Lakers.

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2016 – Channing Dungey becomes first African-American president at ABC Entertainment Group
This made Channing Dungey the first black president of a major broadcast TV network. She joined ABC Studios in 2004, was previously executive vice president of drama development, movies and miniseries and was integral in the development of shows such as Scandal, Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder, Quantico, Army Wives and Once Upon A Time.