LEGACY, LIKE its first cousin legend, is an often misappropriated word, this franchise not exempted. This issue, however, features two figures for whom the term cannot be applied or intuited too freely: Yogi Berra and Muhammad Ali. Their contributions are measured not only in rings and belts, in home runs and knockouts, in honorary degrees and the hundreds of millions they've raised in philanthropic efforts, but also in ways more abstract. Of Berra, who died last week at age 90 (page 6), his former teammate Dr. Bobby Brown once said, "Every time I see him, I feel a little better about the human race."
Ali's legacy is more complex, both complicated and enriched by stands for which he is lionized today but was vilified in the real-time political swirl of the 1960s. To be close to the man, however, gives that legacy a sudden, unmistakable clarity. In his story that begins on page 60, SI senior writer Tim Layden relates the story of Janet Evans's first meeting with Ali a day before the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games. Evans, a four-time swimming gold medalist, learned that she'd be passing the Olympic torch to its final bearer, Ali.
"At that point in my life I was struggling to find the real meaning of the Olympics," Evans tells Layden. "They are supposed to mean people getting out on that stage and doing their best. In America it means win gold medals. But then you see this man, and he's come back to the Olympics, in the South, after the civil rights movement, and with his physical issues, and he was so courageous to stand there in front of the world."
ALI HAS been standing in front of the world for more than five decades, diminished physically by a 35-year struggle with Parkinson's disease, but as robust a symbol and agent of social and humanitarian change as ever. On Thursday, Oct. 1—coincidentally 40 years to the day after arguably the greatest heavyweight fight, the Thrilla in Manila between Ali and Joe Frazier—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, in a ceremony at the Ali Center in Louisville, will dedicate its annual Legacy Award in the name of Ali. In mid-December his wife, Lonnie, will present the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award at our Sportsman of the Year ceremony in New York City.
October 5, 2015
The idea to honor Ali was hatched two months ago by the trio of SI assistant managing editor Steve Cannella, experiential marketing director Hillary Drezner and Time Inc. senior executive producer of video Ian Orefice. But the link between the award and Ali can be traced all the way back to a 1998 dinner in which the Arthur Ashe Foundation honored Ali. In the audience that evening was then SI senior editor Greg Kelly, who was moved especially by the speech of another honoree, a Special Olympian named Loretta Claiborne. Ms. Claiborne spoke about the impact that Eunice Kennedy Shriver had upon her life and the thousands who have participated in the Special Olympics, which was founded by Mrs. Shriver in 1968.
"I thought it was important for SI to recognize Mrs. Shriver while she was still alive," Kelly says. "Here was a woman who changed the way the world looks at special-needs people, and she used sports to make it happen. She'd never really fit the criteria of Sportsman of the Year, but perhaps we should have something similar to the Oscars' Lifetime Achievement Award to honor her and those who transform the lives of others."
Ten years later, on the 40th anniversary of the first Special Olympics, Mrs. Shriver became the first recipient of the SI Legacy Award.
THE FIRST mention of Ali in SI came in our April 4, 1960, issue, in a one-paragraph dispatch about the impressive performance in the national Golden Gloves championships by an 18-year-old named Cassius Clay. In the decades since, through this, his 39th appearance on the cover, Ali has been an essential character—the essential character—in a story SI has always strived to tell: how sports can be used not just for the pursuit of personal glory but also to leave a broader footprint.
"Ali has lived his life as a champion in every possible sense," Cannella says. "Champion in the ring. Champion of his principles. Champion of those in need and those who struggle for equality. There's no greater legacy to celebrate."