On any given day during the NBA series, my students shout out any number of stats and names, solidifying their argument for who reigns supreme as of that specific game. After Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant dropped 29 points in a summer game in 2011, turquoise-blue and hot orange became the wave, chipping at the LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant duopoly that held the debates then. Nowadays, some kids flaunt goldenrod and blue, shooting threes in their gym periods from inappropriate distances, yelling “CURRY!” even as the basketball thuds against the backboard. A few of them still flex three fingers to their temples after making an ill-advised fade-away a la Carmelo Anthony, a hopeful sign that the Knicks franchise isn’t completely comatose. As the NBA finals wrap up and we get into the heart of the MLB season (note bene: most of my students are Dominican), there’ll be plenty of baseball talk too. The Red Sox still have a Dominican stronghold thanks to David Ortiz and Yankees fans still rep Derek Jeter two years after he officially announced his retirement.
So when I woke up this morning to the news of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s passing, one of my first thoughts was “How am I going to explain him to my kids?”
Growing up, Mike Tyson was boxing. His matches seemed to only last a minute before he laid waste to his opponent. Tyson’s broad shoulders, menacing walk, and gap-toothed grin at a time when boxing still captivated most of my friends. Even with Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco, and Jerry Rice captivating us in their respective sports, Mike Tyson was indomitable, and, with his ferocity, we thought he might never lose. After that fateful match against Buster Douglas, Tyson’s reputation as a warrior took a turn for the worse. As with every athlete, their greatest losses flip a switch for the rest of us, as if the very quality that made them great now becomes a character flaw.
Which is inherently our fault, right? We heap praise on people fully expecting them to never break away from our expectations of them. We don’t simply create pedestals to knock the greats off them. We fear our imperfections and simplify our heroes because their celebrity allows us to heave our visions upon them.
So when I found out about Muhammad Ali, I went into my readings with the sanitized version of the man formerly known as Ali: a great fighter and an outspoken gentleman. A 37-5 record against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman with at least two different styles of boxing is more than commendable. According to experts in the field, he belongs on everyone’s top ten list, if not #1. His three-year suspension from boxing snatched his athletic prime away from him (and us), perhaps vaulting him even further up the boxing ranks. With that, he was a US Olympian and a three-time champion who made his impression felt worldwide.
He also creates one of the most iconic moments in sports and US history by seeking conscientious objector status after the US government tried to draft him for the Vietnam War. Back then, Ali was a visionary. While the general public still defended America’s right to wage this war, Ali stood his ground and paid dearly for it. His affiliation with the Nation of Islam (read: “Black Muslims”) didn’t help him, either. Neither did changing his name to Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He took out his frustrations on his opponents’ faces and bodies, knocking out seven of the next nine opponents before getting stripped of his title in 1967.
These were easy items to find out through my school’s Encyclopedia Britannica. (Remember those?) Whenever I read Ali’s name, I felt nothing but reverence and FOMO. I wish I had lived during the time America hated him, not when he was lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA.
But then, in college, I happened upon a book by Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali’s biographer, and I learned a few things. I learned about his rocky relationship with his parents. I learned about his gallivanting, and the multiple children he fathered by multiple wives. I learned about the ugliness that transpired between him and Joe Frazier, and how a black prince can call a blacker person a “gorilla.” Here was a champion who prided himself on his ethnicity, but absolutely humiliated a man who grew up much poorer than Ali did. In his post-fighting days, he would wince at the cruel things he’d say about his other opponents as well, and this book served as a means of contrition, revealing to the world a grace he often withheld in his youth for the purposes of elevating his fights to “must-see.”
That’s why, when I walk in with my Muhammad Ali t-shirt on Monday, my message will be simple: you don’t have to be perfect to be great.
In the coming weeks, we’ll surely see a plethora of tributes to Ali, most of them embracing the American ethos of sanitizing popular icons. America has proven that even our most anti-imperialist figures can be purified given a motive and enough time (See: Che Guevara, MLK, Harriet Tubman). This filtering process preempts activist aspirations from our current crop of athletes, cut off at the proverbial legs by the legacy that Michael Jeffrey Jordan left behind. The same Kobe Bryant that called for peace in Darfur flubbed a softball question aimed at discussing the Black Lives Matter protests. The same LeBron James who, along with Dwyane Wade, organized his teammates into supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin had nothing to say in public about Tamir Rice right in his backyard. I won’t even get into Stephen Curry. He did something on gun violence, a relatively mainstream issue that doesn’t change his status as one of the most beloved athletes in the nation.
In each of these instances, it seems that these (and so many others) could say something, but they either donate anonymously to make something happen or simply ignore the issue altogether, preserving their businesses and marketability. On the court, they’re amazing, and I’ve found myself in awe of their on-the-court performances numerous times. But, in the age of a global Nike, a global Apple, a global NBA, they’re maintaining appearances of the sake of global millions. Perfection.
Right now, my kids have no athletes that both combine the greatness in and out of the playing field that Muhammad Ali did. The political sentiment of the 60s and 70s perhaps allowed for folks like Jim Brown and Kurt Flood to succeed without apology, but, at a time when heightened political awareness on the streets and the mainstream, it’s pertinent to see the figures my students idolize have a dimension about them that asserts their identities.
For too many people out there, athletes should transcend. For folks like me who’ve seen the potential for uplift, transcendence is a weak goal. I prefer my heroes with contradictions. I like knowing that the humans who I adore have flaws, because it also means their greatness is not impossible, but attainable. I want to show my students that the few mistakes they make as human beings don’t make them that different from the athletes they currently deify.
I suppose having someone in sports or any field who kept at least one foot firmly and unapologetically in the culture that made them is a privilege. Yet, as I look at my eighth graders sporting OKC gear, arguing left and right over the merits of said athletes’ greatness, I can’t help but offer to my students the opportunity to ask why they’re great. Ali had plenty of losses, but he’s still considered the Greatest. The gap between my understanding of greatness and my students’ isn’t just generational; it’s about the size of LeBron James’ wingspan. Shoulders included.
Allah yarhamak, Muhammad Ali.