More than a boxer, Ali a symbol of grace born to serve the world


More than a boxer, Ali a symbol of grace born to serve the world

Muhammad Ali’s vehicle was boxing, and great goodness was he beyond fabulous. But his calling always was infinitely higher. He was born to serve the nation and all of its peoples, and then the world and all of humanity, with its many shapes and forms and loves and hates.

There were many legendary figures in the 20th Century, and none towered with the natural elegance and bristling brio of and sheer incandescence of Ali. Not Jackie Robinson. Not Franklin Roosevelt. Not Martin Luther King. Not John Kennedy or even Barack Obama, whose presence in many ways has served a similar purpose.

Which was, of course, to make us confront the best and worst of ourselves. To search our souls and see what we would find and how we would react.

[RATTO: Muhammad Ali: The icon who represented our best selves]

Ali spoke at us in his 20s and then to us for us for the rest of his life, which ended Friday at age 74. To trace his life is to understand that his purpose was so much higher than the rest of us. He sacrificed in ways most of us never could fathom, standing up to an acutely corrupt system, showing us that real principle comes without compromise.

The system came at Ali, came at him hard, and he defeated it just as decisively as he once punished Ernie Terrell for disrespecting his faith.

To know Ali’s journey is to comprehend that he took it so that we may learn and prosper. He is America’s Mandela, a symbol of grace in the face of injustice, with the strength to overcome even the most virulent challenges thrown his way.

Adored and despised, Ali never stopped to seek the approval of those who wanted a piece of his hide. He was a complicated man who never patronized those he realized were ready to join him in his quest, any quest, because they believed it had to be righteous.

Ali was our nation’s most polarizing figure during the turbulent 1960s, when we as a nation started straining, often violently, through so many generations of racial and gender and lifestyle inequality. And yet no one has been more beloved over the past quarter century, if not more.

Who else has spanned the broad spectrum, coming full circle with such dignity and force?

[RELATED: NBC News: Boxing legend, icon Muhammad Ali passes at 74]

What might have been Ali’s influence on this world had Parkinson’s not stolen his voice, his capacity to captivate us with his words? One can’t help but speculate if his physical deterioration made him somehow safer and more acceptable to those who had resented him for simply living his fundamental truth.

From his extraordinary prowess in the ring, in which he seemed to land from outer space, to his gift of gab, his ability to pose serious issues with a twinkle in his eye to his affinity for touching people on every continent, Ali was the closest thing in our lifetimes to magic in human form.

Dr. King, who himself did plenty of sacrificing for his own noble cause, brought forth his vision, his dream, articulating it in perhaps the most memorable speech of the century.

Ali’s dream was articulated daily, not always properly, but always honestly. He liberated us to chase our own dreams and to believe without doubt that we could achieve them. He was, more than any other, a solitary sociopolitical movement, not so much a revolution but an evolution -– and always a revelation.

That is, at bottom, why we so respect him. He always gave it to us straight, without regard for what it might do for his popularity. If the news anchor Walter Cronkite often could be described as “the most trusted man in America,” could we trust Ali any less after we had seen all his pain and glory?

Which brings me to a true story that reads like fantasy.

In the year 1987, I was a young sports writer at the Oakland Tribune, not long removed from covering Bay Area high schools. My editor, the late Bob Valli, assigned me to several secondary beats, one of which was boxing. Yes! I’d grown up watching Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and then Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.

There also were nights when he read copy and wrote headlines and answered telephones. On one such night, I received a call from Henry Winston, a local boxing promoter that knew some of everybody, everywhere. He asked if I wanted to have dinner with “the champ.” I laughed and asked: “Which champ?”


Henry then explained that he was with a small group sharing a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks from the Trib. He was, he said, with Ali. Now buying his tale, I asked the night sports editor, John Simmonds, if I could join Henry and Ali and a few others at this restaurant.


I hopped in my car and drove toward the place and upon turning onto the street, I saw a limo with personalized plates that read, “Champn,” I had not been misled.

I walked in and, seduced by the aroma of garlic and butter, quickly recognized the most famous man on the planet as part of a group of five or six seated at a large table. I was invited to join them. No notepad or tape recorder, just conversation and observation.

Ali did magic tricks for the kids in the restaurant. His speech had slowed and his movements were almost painfully deliberate. His eyes were more filled with love and life than any I’d ever seen. His unmatchable charisma had not dimmed.

That night is my single greatest sports memory of my career -– and my life. How can it get any better than sitting at the dinner table with Muhammad Ali?

Ali was “The Greatest.” He also was the greatest of the greats of our time. We’re better off for having had him in our lifetimes.

Watch Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling bury Arsenal early


Watch Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling bury Arsenal early

Arsenal interim coach Freddie Ljungberg's job just got harder. 

The struggling Gunners conceded two goals within the first 16 minutes of Sunday's match against reigning English Premier League champions Manchester City, with Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling giving visiting City a 2-0 lead at the Emirates Stadium.

City forward Gabriel Jesus cut the ball back to De Bruyne, and the Belgian midfielder rocketed his right-footed shot into the roof of Arsenal's net in the second minute. 

[RELATED: VAR overturns offside on Gosling's winner vs. Chelsea]

Sterling doubled City's lead nearly a quarter-hour later, off an assist from De Bruyne. 

Entering Sunday, Arsenal had won just twice since the start of October. The Gunners came back to beat London rivals West Ham on Monday, but beating the league's highest-scoring side is another matter entirely. 

Ljungberg won one of his first four matches in charge of Arsenal, going 1-2-1 since taking over for the sacked Unai Emery. The Swede told the BBC last week that he has "been told to work on a game-by-game basis," and Sunday's sluggish start won't keep the eyes of Arsenal's board from wandering toward other coaching candidates. 

Willie Cauley-Stein opens up about time with Kings, how things ended

Willie Cauley-Stein opens up about time with Kings, how things ended

SALT LAKE CITY -- Warriors center Willie Cauley-Stein bunkered up in a corner of the visitor's locker room at Vivint Smart Home Arena under unusual circumstances before Friday night's loss to the Utah Jazz. 

For the last four years, he has sat in a similar area twice a season, with "Sacramento" across his chest. Now, two days before his first matchup against his former team, Cauley-Stein is still reconciling his emotions. 

"It's going to be weird," Cauley-Stein said to NBC Sports Bay Area. "It's my brothers over there, and I went to the battle with them dudes and for them four years. So it's going to be cool just to see my guys again and be on the other side of it, it's going to be cool to just to see how different it is." 

Cauley-Stein’s time in Sacramento came as the Kings were in peril.

Six months before the Kings drafted Cauley-Stein, the team fired coach Mike Malone after a year-and-a-half on the job. Sacramento opted to hire George Karl midseason, reportedly to the dissatisfaction of the roster.

By the end of his tenure, Cauley-Stein had two head coaches in three years. The Kings never made the postseason, holding true to the perception he heard about Sacramento when he was drafted. 

"Before I got drafted there, [University of Kentucky] coach [John Calipari] kind of warned me what that organization was like already,” Cauley-Stein admitted. “So, I mean, I just went in there just trying to get better. Every year just try to keep on getting better, and that's the way I approached the game and every day.”

All the while, Cauley-Stein garnered the reputation of inconsistency, much to his chagrin. While he posted respectable numbers, local observers complained about his propensity to occasionally disappear during games. 

Nonetheless, prior to last season, with solid numbers in tow, Cauley-Stein stated his goal for his fourth season was to “get paid.” Despite him averaging 11.9 points and a career-high 8.4 rebounds per game, the Kings missed the playoffs, leading to the center’s former agent Roger Montgomery to tell The Sacramento Bee that his client needed a “fresh start.”

According to Cauley-Stein, his agent’s comments came after the team had all but given up on their former first-round draft pick. 

‘Yeah, because they decided to go a different route,” Cauley-Stein said. “So like we tried to jump the curve and be on top of it.

“I might as well move on and show my work somewhere else. That’s the way me and my agent approached it was just like, 'They really don't want us, so we might as well take our talents somewhere else.' That's the kind of way we went on with it.” 

The prospect of leaving Sacramento left Cauley-Stein with a conundrum. The capital of California gave him the center the luxury of living on the West Coast, while providing a hometown feel similar to his small-town Kansas roots. 

“Sac was home,” Cauley-Stein admitted. “I was here for four years. Like, I lived there. I didn't go away for the offseason. I could go to the same neighborhood and go to my little like corner store and jones with my guys there and it's all love.” 

On the business side, the Kings decided to extend a qualifying offer to the center, giving the team the first right of refusal on any contract tendered from another organization. The Kings relented in late June, pulling the offer on the eve of free agency in a move Cauley-Stein believes hindered his options. 

"I feel like that kind of screwed things up for me a little bit," Cauley-Stein said. "Because people didn't know. So, then it was just a waiting game after that, all the deals was gone by that time."

A little over a week later, he signed a one-year contract with the Warriors, equipped with a player-option, giving him an opportunity to make true on his proclamation last season. However, his performance hasn't helped so far.

Despite flashes, Cauley-Stein is averaging just 7.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, the lowest output since his rookie year. Nonetheless -- with Steve Kerr coaching -- he says he wants to stay in the Bay Area long-term.  

"He wants to build a relationship with you," Cauley-Stein said of Kerr. "I think, in the past I hadn't had a relationship with my coach. [Former Kings coach Dave] Joerger, me and him had a pretty good rapport, pretty good, like cordial, but we never had like in-depth conversations about life and stuff like that, and the first couple of conversations I had with coach Kerr was real-life stuff and that hit home with me like, 'Damn, he really tried to get to know me.'"

[RELATED: How Warriors' players recruited Cauley-Stein]

Until the decision about his future is made, the center remains fond of his former home, even if it's not his current place of employment. 

"I'll always have a place for Sacramento in my heart," Cauley-Stein said. "Like I said, it's never, it was never bad blood. It was just like a business decision on their side. So, I had to make one on my side."