Muhammad Ali turns 70, and it prompts this question: Who among today’s sports stars will be the toughest to explain to future generations? Who will be the athlete one who years and years from now will have us spluttering and shouting at some young and clueless kid until finally we are left only with, “I guess you had to be there?”
In the 1940s, I think, it was Joe DiMaggio. Ted Williams was the greater hitter. Stan Musial might have been the more ideal ballplayer. Jackie Robinson was the player who changed the game. But it was probably Joe DiMaggio who defined his time by the way he carried himself, by the grace with which he played, by the 56-game hitting streak just before America went to war. And by something wordless. I can remember older men trying to explain to me what DiMaggio meant to them, but I didn’t understand — words like class and elegance and style seemed dry and without feeling. Anyway, they said, he was better than that. They exaggerated him, said things like “DiMaggio never threw to the wrong base,” or “DiMaggio came through every time.” They spoke loudly, as if volume could get across what they felt. But the truth is that they just could not explain him, not well enough, not to a young kid, they could never get across DiMaggio’s confluence of time and place and excellence. In the end, yes, they were only left with, “You had to be there.”
Jim Brown, I think, was like that for the late 1950s and early ’60s. Old football films of Jim Brown running do not jump off the screen the way they do for, say, Gale Sayers. You watch Gale Sayers highlights in 2012, and he feels just as amazing and surprising and alive as he did in 1966. He’s timeless that way. Not Jim Brown. I always thought on film he looks dated somehow, yellowed, like beauties from the Silent Film Era. It’s hard for film to capture Brown as he was in, say, 1958 or 1963 — the most astonishing football player ever. He was relentless, overpowering, overwhelming — he was bigger, faster, stronger and more determined than anyone else on the field. They knew he was going to get the ball. They always knew. And they could not stop him — 5.2 yards per carry for an entire career (nobody with 2,000 carries has averaged more than 5), 104.3 yards per game for an entire career (nobody else has averaged 100), led the league in rushing every year but one. But even these numbers, even the highlights that survive, none of them can explain Jim Brown. I grew up idolizing JIm Brown based only on the stories my father and his friends told me growing up in Cleveland, but in the end (they would tell me) I couldn’t really KNOW what he was really like.
Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds … Pete Maravich at LSU … Willie Mosconi playing straight pool … Clyde Frazier in the Garden … Julius Erving in the ABA … Wilma Rudolph in full sprint … John Unitas in high-tops … Ben Hogan on the tee … John McEnroe at Wimbledon … Nadia Comaneci in ’76 … Tom Watson in ’77 … Bo Jackson in his glory … there are many athletes who simply do not travel well through time, whose greatness can only be approximated by statistics and stories and the gushing praise of us fans.
In my childhood, mostly, there was Ali. Sure, everyone knows Muhammad Ali as one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing. His most famous fights — the Rumble with George Foreman, the Thrilla against Joe Frazier, the two odd fights against Sonny Liston — have been played and replayed. He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated 38 times, I believe, and he has had dozens and dozens of books written about him. Ali did not invent sports hype anymore than The Godfather movies invented gangster movies, but he magnified sports hype, tilted its axis, made it modern and new and electric. George Plimpton credited Muhammad Ali for the shortest poem ever written, but the one that probably defines both his life and much of what was to become of sports.
Still, there is a part of Muhammad Ali that stays in my childhood, our childhoods, those of us old enough to remember him. There is something about Ali that would be hard, I think, for a 25-year-old to quite appreciate just as I probably could never fully appreciate DiMaggio or Mays or Brown before me.
In fact, even Ali predates me — the young Ali, before Vietnam, when he was young and pretty and controversial and untouchable and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. No, I grew up with the older Ali, just like I grew up with the older Elvis, and to me they were the two most famous people in the world. In fact, they weren’t like other people. They were childhood dreams. I can remember at age 6 or 7 thinking that the greatest thing a boy could grow up to become was:
1. The President of the United States.
3. Muhammad Ali
A little later, after my world expanded a little, I would realize that a boy could also grow up to be Evel Knievel.
At that time, I knew little or nothing about Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam, knew nothing about Ali and Malcolm X, knew nothing about Ali (less than a month after I was born) taunting and torturing Ernie Terrell because Terrell before the fight kept calling Ali “Cassius Clay.” ‘What’s my name? What’s my name?” Ali repeated again and again as he brutalized and savaged Terrell but refused for 15 rounds to knock him out. Truth is, I knew very little at all about the real Ali. I could go on and on now talking about Ali’s personality, his contradictions, his changing style, the early speed, the lightning jab, the flab that the layoff left on his stomach, the way he got up at the Fight of the Century, the rope-a-dope, the fight that felt like dying.
But none of that had anything to do with what Ali MEANT to me at 8 years old. To me Ali was the King of the World who also cracked jokes on the sitcoms, just as Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll who wore jumpsuits and capes. Ali wasn’t just larger than life. He was larger than legend. He was bigger than the comic books.
When I think back to those years, for whatever reason, I see them through the faded color of old clips. I remember how big everything seemed to me then — how big it was for Billie Jean King to win the Battle of the Sexes, how big it was for Franco Harris to catch the Immaculate Reception, how big it was for Carlton Fisk to hit that home run off the foul pole, how big it was for Meadowlark Lemon to lead the Globetrotters to another victory, how big it was for Jerry West to make his half court shot … those moments stand out of time for me. I don’t remember them well, but I remember them deeply. I remember how YELLOW those Oakland A’s uniforms were. I remember how BRIGHT Sunday afternoons were when the Cleveland Browns played.
Ali was the deepest of all those memories. Every time I saw him on TV — on commercials, in cartoons, on talk shows, in the ring — he took me out of time. He was powerful and funny, the baddest man on earth and approachable somehow, the fighter Foreman couldn’t hurt and Frazier couldn’t knock out but also the guy on Sonny and Cher and Diff’rent Strokes. He was not my hero or a role model — those words don’t reach up to him. He was the biggest deal in the world.
I remember my father would not let me stay up to watch the first Ali-Leon Spinks fight, so I made him promise to write down who won so I would know first thing in the morning. I remember still walking over to my dresser, and seeing the note. “Ali lost,” was all it said. It didn’t compute. I can remember just staring at that note for 10 minutes, like it was the Rosetta Stone or something. I was sure, for while, that my father was playing a trick on me — though I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he would do that. Six months later, Ali won the title back — and he talked on and on about how he was the first heavyweight champion to win his title three times. He made it sound like a big deal so I figured it was a big deal. I did not know yet that Ali was done as a fighter.
Two years later, Larry Holmes battered him … I still didn’t think Ali was done. He said that he had lost weight too quickly for the fight, and I believed him — that’s how big he was in my mind. Even after he lost to Trevor Berbick in that sad sham of a final fight in the Bahamas, with a cowbell ringing between rounds, I probably would have believed Ali if he said he still had something left. That time, however, he admitted that it was over. I had seen other athletes grow old — Namath, Bench, Aaron, Warfield, and so on — but I’m not sure I really understood what it meant for an athlete to grow old until seeing Ali at the end. It was shock enough when Elvis died, but even Elvis wasn’t Ali. I thought he would be the greatest forever.
In the many years since then, boxing has mostly died. Men mostly fight in cages now. The news cycle is unquenchable, television is unstoppable, hype pervades every nook of our games, someone shouting “I am the greatest,” would blend into the scenery. Yes, many things change. But some things don’t. I suspect and hope that for every 8-year-old open to it, there is an athlete — maybe it’s Albert Pujols, maybe Tom Brady, maybe Tiger Woods, maybe Hope Solo — who is every bit as big as Ali was to me. And someday, years from now, maybe they will have the same trouble explaining. Maybe they will write a long blog post leading to nothing except those sad and empty words: “I guess you had to be there.”