Comparing athletes and coaches from various eras is a common practice among fans and journalists.
LeBron James has long been measured against Michael Jordan. The argument as to who is the pre-eminent quarterback in the annals of professional football, Tom Brady or Joe Montana, intensifies with every victory added to Brady’s record. Phil Jackson versus Red Auerbach and Bill Belichick versus Vince Lombardi are debates that will continue into the coming decades.
Yet rare is the person who is incontrovertibly incomparable. One whose achievements, historical stature and enduring impact on multiple generations cannot be quantified or definitively deciphered. Muhammad Ali is that singular figure. He is referred to in the present tense on this page because despite his physical death this past June from septic shock at the age of 74, The Greatest, as Ali was known around the world, is still very much alive.
His legacy both inside and outside of the boxing ring permeates sports and society. Athletes of every ethnicity, nationality and religion, some more than 50 years younger than Ali, credit him with inspiring them to reach lofty athletic heights and engage in social activism.
“I give all credit to [Ali], because he was the first icon, the greatest of all time, and it had zero to do with his accomplishments inside the ring,” LeBron James said during June’s NBA Finals.
“I’ve spoken up on a lot of issues that other athletes might not speak upon but feel it’s my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me.”
“[Ali was] probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country,” said Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr as his team faced James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the championship round.
“I met him once in Phoenix at a Suns game very briefly,” Kerr recalled. “He was one of the few people on Earth who had that presence where you just got nervous just being in his presence, being there in the same room.”
Over the past year, many legends of the sports world passed on from this realm, transitioning to another state of being. In the vein of Ali, their kindness, generosity, compassion and unwavering commitment to making the world a better place for those they tangibly and viscerally affected define their legacy.
The names will forever ring loudly. Pat Summit, the former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Arnold Palmer, whose transcendent accomplishments on the golf course were equally matched by his grace and humility. Brooklyn’s own Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who captivated New York City in the early 1980s as a star point guard for Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn and later played electrifying college basketball at Syracuse.
All of them, along with the others who have meant so much to so many, will everlastingly be revered.