By Sam Pollak
The Daily Star
---- — 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.
“Clay’s eyes are as big as doorknobs!”
That’s how I remember the announcer describing Ali’s semi-blindness and his attempts to clear his vision from a substance his gloves apparently picked up from Liston’s body.
It’s hard to imagine any 14-year-old kids today abandoning their video games for a night to obtain a memory like that.
Those surrounding Ali’s career seemed bigger than life, too. One was the United States government, which didn’t believe Ali when he said he was a Muslim minister and a conscientious objector while refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
It cost him 3½ years of his career, but Ali won that battle in the Supreme Court.
There was Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who beat Ali in their first fight in 1971 (I saw that one on Pay-per-view as a member of the working press), but lost to Ali in two subsequent fights, including the “Thrilla in Manila,” that epic struggle about which Ali would say, “It was like death. The closest thing to dying I know.”
There was Howard Cosell, a self-promoting, pontificating sportscaster who was one of the few media people who defended Ali for rejecting the draft and became a star in his own right for his connection to Ali and outrageous comments on “Monday Night Football.”
Cosell, once holding court in a bar filled with other media types, approached the great sports columnist Red Smith and loudly asked him how many great sportscasters Smith thought there were in America. The professorial, dignified Smith brought down the house when he calmly replied:
“One fewer than you think, Howard.”
The massive and formidable George Foreman, who knocked out Frazier twice (and who could forget Cosell’s “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” description during one of those fights?), fell victim to Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy and got knocked out in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974.
But it wasn’t just Ali, and it wasn’t just boxing. Also striding the narrow world like a colossus were (to name just a few) Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas in football, Johnny Bench and Henry Aaron in baseball, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walt “Clyde” Frazier in basketball.
Even horse racing demanded our attention back then, when in all three epic 1978 Triple Crown races, Affirmed just wouldn’t allow Alydar to beat him to the finish line.
Shuffled off this mortal coil are Frazier (who nearly drowned in a 25-meter swimming pool during a filming of the “Superstars” television show in 1973), Unitas, Liston, Cosell and Red Smith.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, probably the result of the beatings he took in a ring career that lasted far too long. The disease has stilled the voice that thrilled and infuriated us.
But as the reaction of those University of Miami basketball players proves, while Ali’s body is frail, the athletic glory of his time outshines anything going on now.
Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.