Saturday, June 4, 2016

The greatest

I always watched Wide World of Sports. It was a Sunday afternoon ritual. Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, those yellow blazers, and whatever random sporting event they were covering. (Based on this early experience, I would have projected cliff diving to feature much more prominently in my life than it actually has.)

I watched with my dad, mostly. Probably my brothers were around, too. But it was my dad I was aware of, in the room, following the standings of the giant slalom or weightlifting. And it's my dad I thought of immediately when I heard this morning that Muhammad Ali had died.

Wide World of Sports was the Muhammad Ali show for a lot of those years (with short breaks during which it become the Evel Knievel show). Howard Cosell was Ali's foil. Wide World previewed the fights, showed the fights, interviewed Ali before, after, and for all I can remember, during the fights. Cowell and Ali, Ali and Cosell, verbally jabbing at each other, engaged in a joyous dance, each endlessly amused by the other, needing each other.

Ali was on Wide World so much because he was a personality. He must have been great for ratings. And because of that, I felt ... odd about him. It wasn't always about the sports, is what I realized. Often it was just about putting entertaining, unpredictable people on air and waiting for the fireworks. I intuited, in a childish way, that Cosell was something of a parasite, when it came to Ali. I was disturbed that he could get so far by so blatantly hitching his wagon to a star. (There was more to Cosell, too, I know, but the relationship still felt one-sided.)

What I wasn't quite sure about was whether I should be equally disturbed by Ali playing along. Was he in on the joke? Was he doing an act for the cameras? Was he giving the people what they want? Or was he desperate for attention? In my world, one was expected to be self-deprecating and gracious. All the boasting and grandstanding -- it made me uncomfortable. And the Wide World machine enabling and encouraging it, egging him on. I really did not know what to think.

Boxing was different in those days, for sports fans. Now the title fights are all on pay-per-view. They're still very popular, no doubt, but they aren't a mass-market product. Back then they were on network television and we all watched them avidly. When Ali fought, that's when my confusion melted away. He was actually engaged in a different sport than his opponents. He was playing a different game. He could tell the whole world his exact strategy, like the "rope-a-dope" (which I remember so well), and still nobody could do anything about it.

Someone who could back up his braggadocio with actual domination -- someone who was bigger than life in a seventies wide-lapel suit and in boxing trunks -- someone who made for equally great copy in his interviews as in his contests. That's what I wasn't prepared to understand. Someone who always played his own game and expected us to come to him, in the media world and in the ring alike. I didn't know how to judge that, how to value it.

Race was a factor, there's no doubt. We were privileged white folks. I had very few black classmates in my private schools, and at least in the arenas where I interacted with them, they displayed few cultural traits or habits that weren't my own. We employed a black maid. Dad interacted with black truck drivers or other workers in his job sometimes, I knew. Our large and prosperous church was all white. Obviously I wasn't comfortable with black assertiveness, black speech patterns, black politics, black power. Obviously I was bound to see it as alien, as a threat, even if I had the most generous of curiosities.

I watched with my dad, and part of my discomfort was my suspicion that he wasn't okay with the changes in sports that Ali represented. I idolized and learned my sports fandom from my dad. I didn't know whether I should be okay with them or not. But we kept watching, together. There was never any question that when it came to the fights, these were monumental events, and that Ali's triumphs represented a historic dominance of the sport.

That ambivalence mixed with fascination defined my view of Ali during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Boxing moved away from the mass market, and I stopped paying attention to it. It wasn't until the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (which Noel and I attended) that Ali re-entered my consciousness in a big way. I was stunned by the significance of that event, by the courage of the fighter bowed by disease standing up once again to be seen, taking it as his due. In subsequent years, the documentaries When We Were Kings and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (both tremendous, powerful films) filled in the massive gaps in my knowledge. I don't remember Cosell asking about, or Ali talking about, resisting the draft -- maybe he did and I just didn't know what was going on. I was ignorant of all the context surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle. I was ignorant. I'm glad in a way that I was too conflicted to have a strong opinion, besides just fascination. I didn't know enough to have an opinion.

Since then I've read David Remnick's biography. I've read many great sportswriters painting a picture of the man, in all his dimensions.  (Check out Jerry Izenberg's obit, just for a sample.) He has only grown larger, more imposing, more improbable with each detail. What I wasn't equipped to appreciate until only a few years ago, I think (having been fortunate enough to be educated by many eloquent, thoughtful, forceful, patient people of color on social media, especially), was how important he was as a black man. How his politics and religion unapologetically flowed from that singularly American experience. How paying attention to that could teach me things I could never learn on my own.

Muhammad Ali made me a better, more well-rounded, more nuanced and perceptive person for paying attention to him, for thinking through what he showed me, especially when it was uncomfortable for me to do so.

Yet he didn't exist for my benefit. That's what made him the greatest. He was exactly the person he wanted to be, almost from the moment he burst onto the scene until the day he died. I'd thank him, only it's beside the point. Better to say to the universe: We didn't deserve that. We're grateful.

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