I WROTE COLUMNS for ESPN on Muhammad Ali's 65th and 70th birthdays. I was looking forward to writing again in January 2017 for his 75th birthday. That was obviously not meant to be as the world mourns the loss of this giant. Had I never met Ali, I still would be mourning. But as my wife and our family were able to become close friends with Ali and his family, it is especially hard.
I was in my late teens and a child of the 1960s. I marched against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. I was with my father, Joe Lapchick, who along with Celtics legend Red Auerbach worked summers at Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in Monticello, New York. My dad helped integrate the NBA as coach of the New York Knicks with Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, one of the first black players in the league in 1950. My dad knew the power of race and sport.
Suddenly Muhammad Ali was nearby and my dad introduced me. Ali trained twice during his early career at Kutsher's. When he later refused induction into the Army and became so outspoken about race, I joined thousands of others who admired this man who was clearly risking his career and even his life to take a stand -- and on such important issues. Each time I saw him on TV, I thought about his handshake.
My dad and I watched the reactions of the media and most of the white and some of the black public as he became a divisive figure for so many. This was a man who the Selective Service said was illiterate and not eligible to serve. When he spoke and became a Muslim, he was suddenly drafted knowing that his religion would not allow him to serve in the Army. My dad and I watched "Firing Line" in 1968 when arch conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. tried to unravel Ali's religious sincerity. Ali leveled him with his brilliance, passion and commitment. I was locked on Muhammad Ali as a real life hero of mine.
I learned as a child the power of sport to affect positive social change. As a 5-year-old boy, I saw angry racists attack my father because he signed Clifton. I saw his image hanging from a tree with people picketing under it when I was 5.
In 1978, I was attacked in my college office for leading the sports boycott of South Africa. I had liver damage, kidney damage, a hernia, a concussion, and the N-word carved into my stomach with a pair of office scissors. The anti-apartheid movement was under way in an attempt to isolate South Africa, with boycotts of trade, bank loans, oil, travel and sports and culture.
If people were willing to go to those lengths to try to stop my father and me, they must have thought that the sports platform we were using was important.
Ironically, Ali, who got Africa so much positive notice with his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight in Zaire against George Foreman, almost fought in South Africa. The apartheid regime tried to fool the world with the creation of "independent" homelands. None were recognized by any other nation. One was Bophuthatswana, where the Sun City resort was built in part to attract athletes and entertainers to come and unwittingly break the sports and cultural boycotts of South Africa. Bob Arum tried to get Ali to go. I met with Arum who offered to bring me to Sun City to see how independent it was. Of course I refused because the world knew what the apartheid regime was up to with Bophuthatswana. ACCESS, which led the sports boycott and which I headed up, worked with the American Committee on Africa, led by iconic civil rights leaders George Houser and Tilden LeMelle , to create such enormous negative publicity that the fight would have to be cancelled. We were joined by The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ambassador Franklin Williams. Ali realized that Bophuthatswana was a sham. The match never got booked.
After I was attacked, the United Nations offered me a job. As a new staff member, I was incredulous that the U.N. hosted a branch of Chemical Bank, a major lender to South Africa. I got together with a U.N. staff member from Ghana and another from New Zealand to try to build a staff protest to get Chemical out of the building. The man from Ghana asked if I could get Ali to speak to the General Assembly to help our efforts. A few months later, Ali spoke for an hour in the General Assembly Hall, which often was empty but on this occasion was packed to hear the global hero that Ali had become. That January day in 1979 was the start of what became a 35-plus year friendship.
Some two decades after Ali spoke to the U.N., "the man from Ghana," whose name was Kofi Annan, became the first U.N. staff member to be named secretary-general of the United Nations. He asked me to help get Ali to be his first Messenger of Peace. Ali was a perfect choice.
After the ceremony, Annan's wife asked Ali to come to the U.N. Plaza, were several hundred children had marched from Harlem to the U.N. to commemorate International Children's Day. Ali, who adores children, did not hesitate. He confounded U.N. security as he marched into the crowd. There was no way that any of these children could have known who Muhammad Ali was as a boxer or as a world figure. I watched as child after child ran to him, jumped into his arms and climbed on his back. U.N. security could not do anything to stop Ali from spreading his joy and love. They simply began to watch the wonder before them.
I was reminded of the day in 1994 when we inducted Ali as the first person into the Sports and Society Hall of Fame at Northeastern University. Dick Schaap was the emcee and proclaimed that the Sports and Society Hall of Fame was the best in the world with "the only inductee being the greatest athlete in history." Before the ceremony, I was introducing my wife Ann's brother, Michael, to Ali, who was surrounded by people wanting to meet him. Ann was poised to take a picture while holding our 5-year-old daughter Emily's hand. Emily was shy and never went to strangers. Ali looked at Ann, then looked at Emily and beckoned with his finger for her to come to him. To this day, Ann talks about Emily dropping her hand "like a hot potato" and running to jump in the arms of Ali. He is that magnetic and lovable. Northeastern gave Ali an honorary degree that night. Ali dashed to the podium telling a room full of 750 guests, "Now you can call me Doctor!" Everyone stood and cheered The Champ.
"If people were willing to go to those lengths to try to stop my father and me, they must have thought that the sports platform we were using was important." Richard Lapchick
In 2000, we inducted Ali into the National Consortium for Academics and Sports Hall of Fame. Ali was introduced by Eddie Robinson, the legendary coach at Grambling State University. I had co-authored Coach Robinson's autobiography with him. Coach said to the audience: "I have a story for you before I introduce Muhammad Ali. I got a call many years ago from Grambling basketball coach, Fred Hobdy. He said he met this young man in Louisville, Kentucky. He said, 'Coach, he would be a great tight end for you and a great basketball player for me. The only problem is that he thinks he will be the greatest boxer of all time.'
"I told Fred to 'tell him what a great education he would get at Grambling and that he could play both sports.'
"Fred called me a few days later and said, 'I am sorry, Coach. This kid really believes he will be the greatest boxer of all time.'" Robinson paused and then said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce that kid, the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali."
Our families have been together on many occasions, often several times a year. Lonnie, Ali's amazing wife, is a dear friend. Their youngest son, Assad, has played with our Emily. We were all together at Lo Conte's, a Boston North End Italian restaurant. Ali drew pictures with Emily and Assad when a waiter came to our table to inform us that the verdict in the civil case against O.J. Simpson was about to be delivered. With us that night were Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ali's best friend and noted photographer Howard Bingham. We asked if they had a TV, and a small set was brought to the table. We all stood around the table as the guilty verdict was delivered.
When Emily was in high school, she introduced her boyfriend, Steven, to Ali who playfully reached his arm out, rested his fist on Steven's chin and told him to be good to Emily.
I was part of the United States delegation with Ali in Singapore in July 2005 as we unsuccessfully tried to win the bid for the 2012 Olympics, which were awarded to London. Ann, Emily and I spent quite a bit of time in London with the Alis at the Beyond Sport conference held right before the 2012 Olympics.
Bingham has become a good friend of ours, too. I consider the friendship with the Alis and Howard to be one of sport's biggest gifts to my family.
Ann and I were there for the gala opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. I had been privileged to be asked to consult for the center's education programs in the planning process.
We were back there for Muhammad's 70th birthday party. At our table was a young mechanic who told us he had driven 14 hours just to be there in the presence of his hero. One of the great honors of my life was to be asked to deliver one of a handful of toasts to him that night.
I told Ali that he is one of two people in my lifetime who have been able to bring people together no matter the color of their skin, the faith they follow, their age, education or income. The other was Nelson Mandela. I told Ali that after I attended Mandela's inauguration in May 1994, I accompanied him to a stadium in Johannesburg to watch a Zambia-South Africa soccer match. I told Mandela then about how I held him and Ali in such high esteem. President Mandela responded, "If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is The Greatest."
In a world filled with fear and hatred, Troy Yocum, a veteran of the Iraq War, captured the power of Muhammad Ali that night when he made a toast. Yocum told us that when he was a teenager, his mother bought him a poster of Ali and explained to him how hard Ali worked to beat the odds to become the champ. Yocum's mother, he said, hoped it would inspire her son to overcome some of the obstacles in his life. Each time he became discouraged, he stood by the poster and got a dose of Ali inspiration.
Yocum was a soldier back from fighting in a distant war with his American brothers and sisters. He told us how looking at the poster in his tent reinforced his courage to go out and fight the next morning. To fight for peace.
The Ali family has requested donations to the Ali Center in lieu of flowers. Let's do that. But the best thank-you gift we can give to his legacy would be to stop the hatred of Muslims and realize this peacemaker better represents the millions of Muslims around the world than the small band of terrorists who use the name of Allah to spread hate and destruction. Muhammad Ali put it perfectly in one of his last public statements: "I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion."
Another amazing gift he gave to me was to write the foreword of my 1991 book "Smashing Barriers: Race and Sport in the New Millennium." He ended his foreword with this: "We must reclaim the true spirit of sport, deconstructing these barriers and ensuring they will never rise again. By doing so, we can enjoy for once the actual design of sports: to rise, and fall, and rise again together, all cultures, all nations, all races.
Muhammad, thank you for making the world a better place. I love you, and I am hardly alone.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook at facebook.com/richard.lapchick.