So, last Sunday, instead of writing The Great American Novel like I ought to be, I’m idly looking in my usual dumb fashion at a television screen.
University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga was addressing his team in the locker room after its hard-fought 63-59 victory over Illinois in the NCAA tournament.
“I asked you to be fighters,” he said. “You know what I saw out there? I saw Muhammad Ali!”
Then the 63-year-old coach did a little Ali-like boxing shuffle, and his players went nuts, jumping to their feet, cheering and laughing.
It was fun to see, unless, of course, in your office tournament bracket you had Illinois advancing to the Final Four. But what struck me most is that Ali’s last bout was 31 years ago, long before any of those players were born.
Yet, they all knew who he is … and was.
I doubt any of them ever heard of Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko, the current heavyweight champions, but they knew about Ali.
It got me to thinking back to when I was covering sports all those decades ago, and it just seems that the stars back then were brighter, the pace quicker, the stakes higher and giants strode the arenas.
“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men Walk under his huge legs and peep about …”
Shakespeare’s Cassius was talking about Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2, Page 6), but the idea is still the same. Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay), who I interviewed on several occasions, was bigger than life, and the tasks set before him seemed to rival the 12 labors of Hercules.
He was brash and outspoken (and still Cassius Clay) in 1964 when he taunted, teased and wrote inferior but amusing poetry about terrifying Sonny Liston before beating him to win the heavyweight title. I was 14 at the time, and there was no such thing as cable TV or Pay-per-view. So on the night of the fight, I sneaked a transistor radio under my pillow and listened to the broadcast.