LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and the meaning of Muhammad Ali at the NBA Finals and beyond
—-Straight from today’s Merc website (MY VERSION)/
OAKLAND–LeBron James spoke from the gut and the heart, Jerry West reminisced with warmth, the Warriors played 1970s music and it all felt like a day of remembrance and mourning, not the eve of NBA Finals Game 2.
Which was just the right way, I think everybody sensed, to celebrate the life of Muhammad Ali, who died Friday night.
The Warriors and Cavaliers will get back to the competition on Sunday at Oracle Arena, under the TV lights and in front of a roaring crowd.
But everybody involved with this series–and with sports, in general–understood on Saturday that Ali deserved extra words, time, and emotions on this day.
They are on a stage that Ali, in large part, built for them.
“For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking in front of you guys,” James said at his news conference, struggling at times to keep his composure, stumbling at other times in the rush to say what he felt.
“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.
“So when an icon like Muhammad Ali passes away, it’s just very emotional. It’s also gratifying to know that that 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.”
Ali’s sacrifice and leadership–that’s what hits home for these great current athletes, who understand that his refusal to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War cost Ali the prime of his athletic career.
It was about the risk, the sacrifice, Ali’s willingness to be wildly unpopular among the general population to stand up for his beliefs and to argue that America should help its poorest before going to war far, far away.
“What he did can’t fully be explained or fully comprehended because of the society we’re in now and the way our world works,” said Andre Iguodala, perhaps the Warriors’ most thoughtful player.
“He was willing to stand his ground and not sell out, which is very rare in the history of our country, especially my people… We had a few like that. It seems like they’re passing now. Prince just passed and he really stood for something.
“But it’s good that we had those people. If you look back on what they did, they had a huge impact on how we got to where we are and it’s up to us to respect that and try to move it even more forward for the next generation.”
This Warriors’ playoff journey has been marked by these significant losses–as Iguodala noted, Prince died while the Warriors were in Houston for the first round, and they played his music before a practice.
Legends pass. The games go on, but there is contemplation owed, too.
“You have a job to do,” Iguodala said, “but at the same time, when you see these passings, you try to embrace it more than anything.
“You embrace their lives, you embrace what they stood for and you use that as motivation. Try to take the passion they had and what they were trying to do for you and use that on the court.”
Later, Iguodala shrugged a big when asked if he was tired after logging all these playoff minutes defending LeBron, Kevin Durant and others.
“We’re talking about the greats passing–Muhammad Ali, they went 15 rounds back then,” Iguodala said with a smile.
Before their practice at Oracle on Saturday, the Warriors played a 1970s’ song about Ali, “Black Superman,” and afterwards they eagerly discussed his impact.
“Ali was the example of how you use your platform and speak what you believe no matter what people will say,” Stephen Curry said. “(Players) look at him as a sense of confidence in that regard, for sure.”
Jerry West, Warriors executive board member and Basketball Hall of Famer, said he had happy memories of the time they spent together.
Starting with the 1960 Olympics, in which both men starred.
“Once you got (to Rome for the Games), my goodness, you could hear him coming from a mile away–this big smile, big personality,” West said.
“Some people have big personalities. But he had the most unique one. He was always, ‘I’m the greatest this…’ He was just magnificent.
“Being around him, you almost felt a god-like presence around him. You really did. He had it. He had it.”
This was a day to make sure everybody remembered that.
So Muhammad Ali’s death didn’t make the NBA Finals seem less important and relevant, not really.
It made the presence and power of everybody involved seem more important, relevant and emotionally connected to the Greatest of All-Time.