The three sports icons were chosen in honor of their athletic achievements and leadership as social activists.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell will receive the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in honor of their athletic achievement and leadership as social activists.
Abdul-Jabbar, 69, is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Off the court, he has become a fierce advocate for social change, a best-selling author and a U.S. Cultural Ambassador, a role in which he travels the world promoting the importance of education, tolerance and cultural understanding. Abdul-Jabbar, who was SI's 1985 Sportsman of the Year, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month.
"Muhammad Ali was both a friend and a personal inspiration to me as an athlete and as an activist," Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement. "To receive an award in his name is especially moving because it means I am honoring his legacy as a man who defied conventions and courageously risked life and career to making America a land of freedom, equal opportunity and social justice."
Brown, 80, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a three-time NFL MVP with the Cleveland Browns. After his retirement from football, he founded the Black Economic Union to promote economic development in black communities, and the Amer-I-Can program, which teaches life skills to underprivileged children. He has also dedicated his life to combating violence and gang culture in inner cities.
“I am deeply touched to be honored for a lifetime spent working to establish common ground and mutual respect for all perspectives and backgrounds," Brown said. "I hope that this tribute serves as a symbol of inspiration for all Americans to be champions of social justice. This is a proud moment for me, and I am thrilled to be recognized alongside two other transformative athletes with whom I share a long history of activism and friendship, and for whom I have great respect."
Russell, 82, won 11 championships in his 13 years with the Boston Celtics and was the NBA's MVP five times. He became the first African-American NBA coach in 1966 and was the first African-American NBA player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. Russell, SI's 1968 Sportsman of the Year, was a pioneer for black men in the NBA and became known for being outspoken on civil rights and racial injustice. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“To be a true influence of positive change in the world often means that you have to stand up against injustice and fight through adversity," Russell said. "I am honored to be recognized alongside some of the great cultural icons of our time who have used their platforms to fight for civil rights and social justice, regardless of the risk, including my good friend Muhammad Ali to whom the award is dedicated. Our work has just begun.”
SI editor-in-chief Chris Stone, who helped select the recipients along with other SI editors, said the three men were chosen because of their willingness to be vocal on the defining issues of our time.
“In 2016 we learned that the consequences of speaking out on hard issues were often painful ones, but also how deeply athletes can impact and advance the conversation on those same, hard issues," Stone said. "Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all recognized, and acted on this in a far harder time in America. That was the example of their friend, Muhammad Ali, and the torch they’ve carried for the more than a half-century."
Lonnie Ali, Muhammad's wife, congratulated the men on winning the award, which was created in 2008 and was renamed after her husband last year.
“Congratulations to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell for their numerous athletic successes and more importantly, the leadership they all have displayed to make this world a much better place," Ali said. "In times of hardship and adversity, these three remarkable individuals continued to stand up as activists to pave the way for those that followed. I honor you for that and I know Muhammad certainly would be proud that you are receiving the award that bares his name.”
Muhammad Ali died earlier this year at the age of 74.
The award presentation will take place at SI's Sportsperson of the Year event on Dec. 12 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Click here for more information about how to attend the event.