I have nothing unique or profound to say about the passing of Muhammad Ali.
Anything I could write would be parroted wisdom, repeating things others have said or written about him. Suffice it to say, he was perhaps the most important athlete in American history.
Instead of my own thoughts, here are the best things I've read about Ali today:
With Muhammad Ali, it was always the people.
It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, black or white, celebrity-famous, blue-collar weary or welfare poor. It didn't matter what language they spoke, what God they worshiped, what gender they were. Well, in this last group I'd have to say that the ladies had a little edge.
I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones — Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.
Ali was that famous, worldwide, without the internet, without selfies, without cell phones, without universal television, without a lot of satellites, without any of the methodology by which fame is now transmitted or constructed. If he had been the star not of the Olympics of 1960 but of 2000, it is conceivable he might have become not just the most popular person on the planet, but famous in a way we can’t conceive — outshining every other athlete and every world leader ombined. Michael Jordan multiplied by Lady Gaga, taken to the exponential degree of the last couple of dozen popes put together.
A sportswriter celebrates an athlete, criticizes an athlete, or lifts his hood for inspection. Here, the athlete transformed the sportswriters, reaching through the ring ropes and lifting them off press row. By 1999, when The Best American Sports Writing of the Century was published, it had a whole section devoted to “The One and Only.”
That was the implicit message of Muhammad Ali’s life. He was a great American athlete. He was an essential American. He was a powerful pivot in American history. He was such a better American citizen than were the people who denigrated him for his brashness, who spat on his religion, who called him a coward because he wouldn’t be an accessory to mindless slaughter, and who hounded him out of his profession at the height of his powers and influence. They were the American government. He was America, the great and self-evident contradiction of a nation, and that, as Melville warned us, makes all the difference.