Muhammad Ali: The icon who represented our best selves


Muhammad Ali: The icon who represented our best selves

No athlete has been more written about, talked about, rhapsodized and eulogized and defined and redefined than Muhammad Ali. And that covers “ever.”

In other words, none of them will do him justice, including this.

He is almost surely the one athlete who transcends the history-means-nothing divide between his generation and the two that have followed him. Nobody isn’t aware of him, or his impact upon American and even global culture. He was for decades the most recognizable and ultimately admired athlete in the world, so much so that unlike Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown and Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you almost cannot find a young person who doesn’t nod in appreciation at the mere sound of his name.

In short, they may know all those names, but Ali’s is the one they know viscerally and reflexively.

Ali stood for more than himself in a business that almost demands hyper-narcissism. He didn’t just leave money on the table with his beliefs, he left time at the height of his career on the table as well. Others might well have if they’d been forced to do so, but he’s the one who did it. He spoke loudest in an era in which the idea of athletes speaking out was in its adolescence.

Oh, and he was almost indisputably the greatest boxer of all time when being the greatest boxer meant something more than Floyd Mayweather cashing and flashing his latest check.

He was a towering monolith and an idiosyncrasy, a stalwart and a hyperactive entertainer. He commanded that you watch, and then that you listen. And the nation did, reluctantly at first and eventually with more open minds and hearts. He was a man before, of, and ultimately after his time.

One might make the case that he could not thrive as well in this more cynical, self-obsessed and technologically intrusive time, because what he had to say would more easily be drowned out by hot takes and media covering media and “blackboard material” given full electronic throat. After all, our media fixations devour all their young indiscriminately and without regard to value.

But to assume that Ali could not handle these times as he handled his own is to shortchange his gift for adapting himself to his surroundings, and then standing apart from them. Ali’s extraordinary boxing skills (spend a few days seeking out the highlights – you’ll thank yourself later) were the stairs he climbed to reach the height of his significance because our culture gives more weight to the thoughts of the famous, especially the athletically famous. But once on stage, his communicative skills drew the main spot and the audience’s eyes and ears to him, and his intellect held it there. He was the perfect amalgam for the emerging television age, and the most recognizable spokesman for his time’s most objectionable notions – racial equality, social and economic justice, and freedom of thought and action.

These are social wars we still fight today, and sadly will probably be fighting again in 40 more years – ground seemingly claimed for good will always be disputed by the disputatious. Ali is in many ways as needed now as he was in the 1960s and 1970s.

But he also provided the hope that maybe some things can transcend tribalism and the defense of privilege and the malicious distrust of the powerless by the powerful. When he climbed the stairs to light the Olympic torch to begin the 1996 Atlanta games, he had reached the point where he was that most misused of appellations – he was an icon representing our best selves.

We have no such icon now, at a time when we need one as much as we did back at Ali’s cultural height. Even in his physically enforced silence, his mere presence stood for something more than the sum of all our parts.

And maybe we won’t get another; the luck of the draw is a cruel thing. But we – the four generations who spanned his life – had Muhammad Ali, the life he led and the lives he reached. Consider him a gift we must work harder than we are at present to have earned.

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."