OAKLAND, Calif. — Smack in the middle of his own title fight, LeBron James made it clear Saturday that his thoughts were occupied by the memory of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at age 74 from septic shock “due to unspecified natural causes.”
The Cavaliers forward, one of the most famous athletes of his generation, referred to Ali as “the first icon” and “The Greatest of Alltime” as he saluted the three-time world heavyweight champion’s impact on society.
“We knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20% of what made him as great as he was,” James said. “[He] basically had to give up a belt and [relinquish] everything that he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. It’s a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk in the streets.
“For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking in front of you guys. I wouldn’t be able to walk in restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere where blacks weren’t allowed back in those days because of guys like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on.”
James, who spoke before Cleveland’s practice in advance of Sunday’s Game 2 of the Finals against Golden State, appeared emotional as he described watching tape of Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” with friends on Friday night.
“It was just an unbelievable pound-for-pound slugfest,” James said of the 1975 bout between Ali and Joe Frazier. “Just two greats seizing the opportunity and seizing the moment to be in it and do what they love to do. It sent a lot of emotions through all of us just in that room watching it.”
It was clear Ali had impacted James on many levels: man to man, athlete to athlete, star to star and leader to leader. James told reporters that he felt it was his “duty to carry on the legacy” of leaders like Ali by speaking out on societal issues, like the Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner cases. He added that Ali’s global fame paved the way for the international acclaim enjoyed by superstar athletes today.
“It’s just very emotional,” he said. “It’s also gratifying to know that that guy, one man, would sacrifice so much of his individual life knowing that it would better the next generation of men and women after him. So today I can sit and go to China and make trips to China and all over the world and people know my name and know my face. I give all credit to Muhammad Ali because he was the first icon. He is the G.O.A.T. He is the greatest of all time, and it has zero to do with his accomplishments inside the ring.”
For a day, basketball took a backseat during the Finals, which the Warriors lead 1–0 after a 104-89 victory over the Cavaliers on Thursday. Players and coaches on both teams joined in offering their thoughts and reflections on Ali, the athlete and the icon.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said that Ali was the “first guy I idolized growing up” before reciting his grandfather’s favorite Ali quote: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr described the “nervous” feeling he felt meeting Ali at a Suns game, adding that Golden State opened practice by playing Ali’s anthem “Catch Me If You Can” as a tribute.
“What he did not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans in terms of trying to promote equality, in terms of really raising the level of consciousness about what was happening in the country, [he’s] probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country,” Kerr said.
Down the road from Oracle Arena, makeshift vendors sold shirts bearing Ali’s likeness and one of his most famous quotes: “The draft is about white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from the red people.”
Golden State’s players saluted Ali’s willingness to stand up for his political beliefs, his leadership role in the black community and his brash confidence.
“He told you he was the greatest ever, and was going to let you know every day that he was the greatest ever,” Draymond Green said. “Yet he still had the respect of so many because of what he stood for. He never cracked, he never wavered, never went away from it. It was always about that. You don’t see that often.”
Andre Iguodala marveled at Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, which kept Ali out of the ring from 1967–70 and led to his arrest.
“That’s something that my community misses is the leadership and what it really means to sacrifice especially in your prime,” Iguodala said. “Imagine one of us just stopped doing what we’re doing in the prime of our careers to make a change for our people. That wouldn’t happen today. So just he lived his life and he stood for something, and that means more than anything that fame or money or glory can try to make up for.”
Sports Illustrated’s 100 greatest photos of Muhammad Ali
Ali cultivated relationships with NBA stars from Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, to James. Photographs show him interacting with Dream Team II during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he lit the torch, and sitting courtside at the All-Star Game.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement on Saturday morning in response to Ali’s passing.
“Muhammad Ali transcended sports with his outsized personality and dedication to civil rights and social justice,” Silver’s statement read. “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.”