OAKLAND — LeBron James and his teammates were at their hotel on Friday night when they learned of Muhammad Ali’s passing at the age of 74. A friend of James’ put on the “Thrilla in Manila” in the hotel room.
The next day at Cleveland Cavaliers practice, a day before Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, James reflected on Ali’s legacy both inside and outside the boxing ring, and the different things he has meant as James has gotten older.
“As a kid I gravitated towards him because he was a champion,” James said. “But I only knew as a kid of what he did inside the ring. As I got older and I started to be more knowledgeable about the sport, 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.”
James himself would be the first to tell you that nothing he’s ever done in his life can compare to Ali, but he has been outspoken throughout his career on different social issues. James and his Miami Heat teammates took a group photo wearing hoodies in 2012 in honor of Trayvon Martin, and James was one of several NBA superstars who last season wore “I CAN’T BREATHE” shirts in protest of the non-indictment of a New York City police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner.
James recognizes that he wouldn’t have that platform without Ali.
“Obviously, we knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20% of what made him as great as he was,” James said. “What he stood for, I mean, it’s a guy who basically had to give up a belt and relish everything that he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. It’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 because of guys like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on.”
Since Ali’s death on Friday night, tributes have poured out from all corners of the sports world. James wasn’t the only player in the Finals who had him on his mind on Saturday — others on both the Cavs and Warriors offered their tributes, which speaks to Ali’s far-ranging impact throughout society.
“I think what’s unfortunate sometimes where some of our greats and some of our role models and some of our leaders is that we don’t appreciate them until they’re gone,” James said. “And I think that’s unfortunate. But I think in Muhammad’s case, I hope we were able to appreciate him from the time that he was set or stepped foot on Earth. And along his path from a kid all the way to a teenager all the way to an adult and to a father and so on and so on, his legacy will obviously live on.
“He is the greatest of all time, and it has zero to do with his accomplishments inside the ring.”