Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James called Muhammad Ali a “pioneer” for black athletes on Friday.
James made the comments on Friday afternoon to ESPN’s Chris Broussard, hours before Ali died at the age of 74. James lauded Ali for his willingness to comment on social issues in addition to his dominance in his sport.
“When I was a kid I was amazed by what Ali did in the ring,” LeBron told Broussard. “As I got older and started to read about him and watch things about him I started to realize what he did in the ring was secondary to what he meant outside of the ring—just his influence, what he stood for.”
James himself has become a much more socially conscious athlete later in his career, commenting on issues such as gun violence in America or the death of Trayvon Martin. In his announcement that he would return to the Cavaliers, James said his mission was “bigger than basketball.”
“The reason why he's the [greatest] is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable," James told Broussard. “It's what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor—obviously who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]—Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something. He's part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We're free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It's because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement early Saturday morning on Ali’s death.
“Muhammad Ali transcended sports with his outsized personality and dedication to civil rights and social justice,” Silver said. “He was an inspirational presence at several major NBA events and was deeply admired by so many throughout the league. While we are deeply saddened by his loss, Muhammad Ali's legacy lives on in every athlete who takes a stand for what he or she believes.”