The Greatest Went Home

A super hero passed away yesterday. For some reason I felt a need to write what he meant to me. I’m no writer so bear with any bad grammar. 🙂 In some small way the Balloholics exist because of him. He was my hero and still is. Children need heroes when life seems difficult. I’ve said on many occasions, Balloholics were conceived for the child I was to provide the things I never had. We’re not a basketball program ,we’re a life skills program.


Today the man forever known as ‘The Greatest’ passed. The greatest at what one might ask? I just watched several hours of coverage on ESPN where commercials were halted. When has that ever happened, ever? For some recently born say after 1975; that alone must be impressive and maybe when they’re my age the only thing they remember about this day. I’m not a writer and I don’t journal either but I feel I must document this day and what it means to me, I never met him, never boxed,  I just need to say thank you.

Cassius Clay came into my consciousness in 1968 when our family moved to Canada and we got a TV with more than one channel, Cassius Clay wasn’t world famous yet where we came from, maybe he was I was still learning to talk. He won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and world heavyweight championship in 1964. I had never heard of him yet, I hadn’t heard of much. There was just the radio and who listened to that. I lived in the Caribbean that was great too. He was one year into his suspension from boxing for refusing to be drafted.

The sixties were amazing I watched it on our brand new to us black and white TV. My world was as far as I could walk or ride my bike. I was the only minority kid in my school all the way through high school along with my brothers and sisters. It wasn’t easy being 3000 miles from home. I don’t remember it being that difficult in school as I was more of a curiosity but I just never felt I fit in, I just played sports the great equalizer. You’re just good or bad, I had to learn all these new sports. I tried them all finally settling on basketball and football around 15 mainly because we didn’t need to buy equipment.

Muhammad Ali was someone whose life and times I witnessed as a child and idolized. I didn’t know much about the world back then and maybe now know even less. I do know now my choice in idol was 100% correct. I could never watch Muhammad Ali fight live as that’s when corporations started to remove those types of events off of public television to closed circuit where you had to go to a theater to watch it live. My bike couldn’t go that far and I had no money. I was lucky to even have that bike, I made it.

I can’t chronicle the times that Cassius Clay came along I’m not that smart, I was a kid, you got the internet now, look it up. There was no HD then, you’ll probably be bored watching it. I remember the war in Vietnam was on the news every evening with Walter Cronkite the most trusted man in America was his onetime title. Every evening pictures of bombing, soldiers, battle ships and war. I didn’t know what they were fighting about then and I still don’t know. I just know they lost that war and veterans were hailed as heroes in America. I think more important are the times that’s preceded the 60’s and are actually history to me even the 40’s and 50’s.  Muhammad Ali was born in 1942. World War II was on, in 1945 it would end and the baby boomers would start being born, I’m one.

The times in brief for a young Cassius Clay growing up in the Southern United States are now history. There was racial segregation, black only water fountains, blacks to the back of the bus, birth of the civil rights movement, KKK ruled the south, and blacks were treated as second class citizens, animals or property. They were routinely hunted down and lynched, set on fire or shot for any number of reasons like looking at a white woman. Of course low paying jobs were included in the job description if they could find one along with poverty, mostly of spirit.  On the flip side or the white side there was Woodstock, draft dodging , drugs , the Beatles,  Elvis Presley , JFK , the moon shot, rock and roll was making kids crazy and parents exasperated. The suburbs were exploding with the baby boom.

Muhammad Ali emerged from all of that to be Olympic Champion, World Champion, a legend, a hero an idol. As a child I was so excited when I knew he was about to fight he fought often, 61 professional fights in all. Ali was my first and only idol to this day; I’ve since met and played basketball with many NBA players met some NHL players, and NFL players, some in the hall of fame now and to me they were just guys playing sports or tall dudes. I have bumped into movie stars including the first Superman Christopher Reeves before he was injured, just a lucky guy in my book. No icons among them.

I would listen intently on the radio with my Dad an old fighter himself. It was chilling to listen to and know it was live on the radio. It was if I was there. I’m sorry that the last few generations will never know these times. There were no drug cartels yet; no mobile phones let alone cell phones, color TV was coming, cable would take years still. I cheered when he won and was disappointed for days when he lost the first time trying to get back his championship belt.

The first loss was after he had 3 plus years of his prime taken away at 25 due to his refusal to be drafted into the US Army as a conscientious objector. Muhammad Ali decided at 25 to give up all that he had achieved by 22 becoming world champion to take on the United States Government. I don’t know what you were doing at 22 or even 25 but changing the world wasn’t on my agenda or taking on the government. Muhammad Ali was on his way to being one of the most recognizable people to ever walk the planet and not everybody was a fan. Think about that…

I didn’t know what to think back then, I wondered if he was scared to go the war that was on TV. I knew I would be but; he was Muhammad Ali, and world champion already doing what would scare anybody being a prize fighter. I listened intently to the news why he wasn’t allowed to fight, he was facing prison time, people were turning against him in droves he was already antagonizing the world with his originality and brashness. I thought he was amazing.  Even back then when they wouldn’t let him fight I worried he was getting old at 27 and so much time was passing. I didn’t even know how old he was but by now I was becoming of age and playing sports hitting my teens, yes the big 1-3. My hero lost his first fight to Joe Frazier shortly after he was allowed back in the ring in 1971.

Here is what I would learn later in life. Muhammad Ali stood up for his principled belief coming from the deep south where any wacko could have ended his life and been a hero, while his service in the army would have likely been doing the same boxing or exhibitions for 2 years or less in an army uniform similar to Elvis Presley promoting the draft or war effort. He would likely never have come anywhere near the war in Vietnam. So he wasn’t scared of war, he wasn’t scared of anything, not a wacko in the south, the US government, prison, losing his title, being vilified around the country, losing his prime in the ring; but why? Not a question I care to answer but it’s the making of legend in my mind. There’s probably a very short line of people who would travel back in time or ever walked this earth would take his place and make that ‘decision’.

Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating publicly, “No Vietcong ever called me nigger”. He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeal process. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling.  (Thurgood Marshall abstained from the case) ( Wikipedia)

Muhammad Ali believed he was right and was willing to stand up to the consequences of his actions and won in a time when life wasn’t really fair for black people. I’d like to think things have changed but sometimes I wonder.

Ali went on to win the heavyweight championship of the world a record 3 times over his 21 year career. He had 3 brutal and classic fights with Joe Frazier that will forever be remembered; after losing the first following his exile he won the next 2. The 60’s became the 70’s and Ali now in his 30’s was trying to make a living again fighting often and chasing the title he had yet to regain, 1974 he would get his shot. In what was billed “The Rumble in the Jungle”, George Foreman was now the world champion by destroying Joe Frazier in 2 rounds. He had savaged the division with second round demolitions of 2 fighters that had many long arduous battles with Ali that went the distance and who handed Ali one defeat each. Ken Norton broke his jaw in 1973 and Joe Frazier won a 15 round decision in 1971. Ali shocked the world again.

At the time nobody believed an aging Ali could win that fight. His closest advisers did not believe he could win. His trainers didn’t believe he could win. Ali had lost so much of his skill by 1974 and taken so much punishment in the ring, he was now 32. I was in high school. I can’t remember what I thought but I remember Ali detailing to anyone who would listen how he would win. Before that fight his trainers were in tears as they feared for his life. Ali went out and did what he said he would do, created a whole new strategy just for George Foreman, rope a dope. It has since never been mentioned or used again by anyone and regained the world championship. I was elated to say the least. No one could believe what Ali had accomplished. He was essentially the only one in the world who thought he could win.

He had an unshakable belief in himself. This is what makes champions. This is what determines your level of success as you climb the ladder of your own personal title chase. At what point does it get too difficult. For Ali the answer is never. My own personal title chase is just that belief in myself. I won’t ever reach my idol’s level. I can only hope to keep learning from him.

Its only tears I have to live in a world with no hero. Maybe your hero is Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. They’re just basketball players not worth your worship motivated by dollars and greed. Ali changed the world; he came from nothing to do it, did it alone and always knew he would do it and he told you so. Some say there will never be another like him. The bad news is this world needs another Muhammad Ali right now.

A part of me died today, I only have tears for the times I had listening to that radio hoping he would win and those times when life was so simple. I have tears for today’s generation who have billion dollar heroes and goals that revolve around bling. Now as an adult working with kids today in a sports program it centers around one thing. Reinforce the belief system in children; it’s the key to their future success.

The reason Ali suffered with Parkinson’s for 30 years is the brutal beatings he took in the last years of his career when his skills were gone, he was a punching bag still needing to fight to support his family. He was fighting still because he needed the money. He was victimized by the corruption of the boxing business and basically used like a slave to enrich the promoters. I don’t really know if much has changed for people of color. I know we lost a superhero, you know like the ones in the movies. Only this superhero was real, with some real imagination, real skills, real originality, real fearlessness, real super powers and a peerless belief system that told him, “I’m the greatest”. I had the greatest hero. I’m so happy he’s boxing in heaven again.

So Thank You Mr.Ali