I was not yet a teenager when I wandered into the living room of our rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. I saw my parents sitting silently by our black-and-white television, listening as a young black boxer, Muhammad Ali, talked.
He was saying he would not serve in the Army and he would not fight those Vietcong.
“My conscience won’t let me go and shoot them,” Ali said in that rat-a-tat-tat stream-of-consciousness style of his. “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me.”
“How can I shoot those poor people?” he added. “Just take me to jail.”
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Just take me to jail. Those words registered as astonishing. Here was this great, sexy fighter on the cusp of fame and fortune, a physically pretty man who recited doggerel and who graced the covers of magazines. And he was willing to march off to prison to protest an unjust war.
We celebrate athletic courage. Watch a hoopster hit a spinning, fall-away jumper in the last seconds, see a center fielder race toward a fence heedless of the possible injury, applaud a fullback who catapults into the end zone, and we talk of courage.
Such feats are athletic and wonderful and memorable. Courage is being 24 years old and risking all, the anger of newspaper and television reporters and millions of white Americans who see you as a public enemy, to say no to a war.
Channing Frye, a tall and lithe Cleveland Cavalier, stepped onto the practice court in Oakland for an interview on the intricacies of the N.B.A. finals. He’s thoughtful on his chosen vocation; first, though, he spoke of the septuagenarian Ali.
“He just gave the black community a lot of courage and changed our mind-set: ‘Hey, you can be a superstar and not be quiet,’ ” Frye said. “You can voice your opinion and be controversial and still be a champion.”
Frye didn’t go there, but Ali ruined some part of the great athlete Michael Jordan for me. Years ago, at the height of his popularity and given a chance to support Harvey Gantt, the black progressive mayor of Charlotte, N.C., against that old racemonger Senator Jesse Helms, Jordan declined. Republicans, he reportedly said, buy sneakers too.
Others spoke and acted in the Ali tradition. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black-power sign at the Olympics in 1968 after medaling in the 200-meter race. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has spoken out often and thoughtfully on society’s ills. LeBron James has addressed violence and police brutality, and is a union activist. The cross-country skier Beckie Scott has spoken out repeatedly on athletic doping and on the fecklessness of international organizations.
The point is not whether you agree with their every utterance, any more than that was so with regard to Ali. To see athletes — young men and women who could rightly enough claim obsession with sport and endorsements — embrace the larger world and its discontents is moving.
Ali was a man, which is to say complicated and many-faced and imperfect. He could be cruel to opponents, in the ring and outside it. Joe Frazier, he said, was too dumb and too ugly to be champion.
It is probably smart not to get too worked up about this. Cruelty is woven into boxing like tweed into a fine herringbone jacket.
Ali reincarnated himself as champion, three times winning that title, and that gave to his life narrative a metaphorical power.
I know the young Ali, lean and dangerous and endlessly boastful, only through my father’s stories, and from old newsreels. The Ali I remember was heavier-muscled and a ferocious competitor, too willing to stand and absorb punishment. By the time he tangled with George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire, the fight known as the Rumble in the Jungle, his speed and reflexes were like bike tires worn down.
The question was not whether Foreman would beat him senseless, but how quickly the end would come.
Ali, per usual, would have none of that. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I whup Foreman’s behind,” he told David Frost.
Here’s Norman Mailer’s classic account in the “The Fight.” Ali would “slide off a punch and fall back into the ropes with all the calm of a man swinging in the rigging. All the while, he used his eyes. They looked like stars, and he feinted Foreman out with his eyes, flashing white eyeballs of panic he did not feel which pulled Foreman through into the trick of lurching after him on a wrong move.”
I drove back to Purchase College that night and listened to the staccato, round-by-round reports on WINS news radio. When the anchor broke in excitedly to say that Ali had toppled Foreman in the eighth round like an oak tree, I pounded my dashboard and screamed like a banshee loose on the Hutchinson River Parkway.
Ali’s decline would play no small part in my own decision to turn away from boxing. I had read of Joe Louis, slowed and thick-tongued and lost late in his life. But unlike my parents, I never knew him in his thunderbolt-throwing prime. Ali was the athlete of my youth. By the end, Parkinson’s and his past braveries in the ring had rendered Ali near immobile and mute.
Now he is dead.
Here is another outtake from that primal force. He had listened as young white men berated him for resisting the draft. Then, eyes flashing, he came back at them.
“You talking about me about some draft and all you white boys are breaking your neck to get to Switzerland and Canada and London,” he said, adding, “If I’m going to die, I’ll die now right here, fighting you.”
The words speak to a passion forever young, and brave.