There is no superstar athlete who has publicly reckoned with the legacy of Muhammad Ali quite like LeBron James. Early in his career, James has said that his dream was to be “a global icon like Muhammad Ali.” He also has clearly understood that to be “a global icon like Muhammad Ali” means that you have to stand for something. When James had his Miami Heat team wear hoodies, or when he had his team wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts after the police killing of Eric Garner, or James’s motivations to return home to Cleveland, it’s clearly an effort to be more than an athlete, to walk in Ali’s footsteps. When James fails to live up to this Ali example in the eyes of fans or social-justice activists, it clearly pains him. Like Ali, he wants to make a difference. Unlike Ali, he has access to capital, power, and sponsorship that The Greatest rejected. Muhammad Ali once said, “God DAMN the white man’s money.” He once said, “I declare my support for the liberation of the Palestinian people.” These are sentiments that today’s athletes, no matter how much they love Ali, cannot and will not say. But yet, you can tell that part of the admiration LeBron holds for Ali is that he did say things like that.
As Leonard Pitts wrote beautifully in The Miami Herald, “He sounded like he didn’t know or else, didn’t care, that white people were watching. He sounded like it didn’t matter what they might think. And so, he sounded free. Indeed, Muhammad Ali might have been the first truly free black man in America.”
Given the weight that LeBron carries—his franchise, his brand, his responsibilities in Akron, one wonders how “free” he feels. That background makes his comments on Ali all the more poignant.
So many thoughts come to my mind when I think about the man who passed away yesterday. What he represented, as a kid, I gravitated towards him because he was a champion, but I only knew as a kid what he did inside the ring. As I got older and started to be more knowledgeable about sport in general and about the guys who paved the way for guys like myself, I understood that he is the greatest of all time, and he was the greatest of all-time because of what he did outside of the ring. Obviously we knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20 percent of what made him as great as he was. What he stood for—I mean that’s a guy who basically had to give up a belt and [relinquish] everything he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. That’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. When an icon like Muhammad Ali passes away, it’s just very emotional. It’s also gratifying to know that a 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. 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 GOAT. He’s the greatest of all-time and it has zero to do with his accomplishments inside the ring.
LeBron clearly knows what it will take to become a global icon in the mold of Muhammad Ali. It will take sacrifice. It will take using his platform to speak his mind. It will take feeding the part of himself that wants to see a transformation to a system where, as he says, “I could have just ended up a statistic.” As long as athletes like LeBron James have the courage to wrestle with what Ali did outside of the ring, he will never die and more importantly, he will never become harmless.