OAKLAND: Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James offered an impassioned tribute to Muhammad Ali on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) at the NBA Finals, as the defending champion Golden State Warriors began their practice with a musical homage to the iconic fighter.
Ali, who died Friday at age 74, was recalled for his sacrifices and struggles for social justice as well as his boxing career on the eve of game two of the NBA Finals.
The late boxer lost three prime years of his career for his stand against fighting in the Vietnam War before the US Supreme Court vindicated him in 1971.
“When an icon like Muhammad Ali passes away, it’s just very emotional,” James said. “It’s also gratifying to know that guy, one man, will sacrifice so much of his life knowing it will better the next generation of men and women after him.”
James says he would not be among the world’s richest and best-known athletes if not for Ali.
“I wouldn’t be able to walk in restaurants, go anywhere where blacks weren’t allowed back in those days,” he told reporters.
“Today I can make trips to China and all over the world and people know my name and face. I give all credit to Muhammad Ali because he was the first icon. He’s the greatest of all time and it has nothing to do with his accomplishments in the ring,” he added.
“His legacy will obviously live on.”
James has been active in social issues as well, posing in a hoodie for a photo after the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman.
“I feel it’s my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me,” James said.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr began practice Saturday with an Ali tribute song including the lyrics: “I’m Ali, the black Superman. I’m Ali, catch me if you can.”
“What he did in terms of trying to promote equality, raising the level of consciousness about what was happening in this country—[he was]probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country,” Kerr said.
Jerry West, a 1960s Los Angeles Lakers star guard and boxing fan who is now part-owner of the Warriors, was co-captain of the US gold medal team at the 1960 Rome Olympics where Ali won light-heavyweight gold.
West, 78, attended Ali’s first fight with Joe Frazier in New York and saw Ali fight and excite the Athletes Village in Rome.
“He was a teen sensation,” West said. “You could hear him coming a mile away. Who knew what he was saying? I’m the biggest this. I’m the greatest that.
“That guy was bigger than life. You almost felt a God-like presence around him. You really did.