I couldn't write about Ali's death at any point during the last week, which sucks for someone like me who fancies himself as some kind of a writer. Every time I turned on the computer or the television, there was someone I respected, writing or discussing Ali and it was making me gun shy about writing any damn thing. From Bryant Gumbel to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Jeremy Schaap, to Jim Brown to Bob Costas, to Tony Kornheiser, there were respectful athletes and journalists, who were discussing Ali's legacy and what he meant to each one of them. And I was in awe every time.
I remember when Phife died, I was pissed that certain news outlets were covering his death strictly as a news story, rather than an emotional event that they felt passionately about. Looking back, I don't know why I expected news outlets to do anything more than what they are paid to do, but the fact that I irrationally wanted more just speaks volumes to how much Phife's (and Tribe's ) music meant to me. Phife started his career in 1988 when I was 13, and it ended prematurely in March of this year when I was 41. In between that time he made a bunch of amazing music that served as the soundtrack of part of my life. That seems quite corny and cliched but it indeed the truth. That is why I appreciated the memorial service that was done in Phife's memory. All the people who spoke about Phife, actually lived in during his era of relevance. These weren't second-hand stories or things people heard on the Internet, they were authenthic, heartfelt stories...which brings us to Ali.
I wasn't fortunate enough to have been conceived during Ali's dominant, talkative, militant time. In fact, the first time I saw Ali fight it was in 1980, when he fought Larry Holmes.. Holmes, who had been Ali's sparring partner at one point, was young and in his prime, while Ali was slow as molasses, barely a shell of his former champion self, and based on what we know now, he was in the embryonic stages of Parkinson's. The fight was so bad that at one point Holmes would hit the defenseless Ali, and then look to the referee and beg him to stop the fight. The ref never stopped it, but eventually (and thankfully) Ali quit.
My father cried during that fight, and at five years old, I really did not understand why he was crying. When I asked him, he took me to his room and showed me two Sports Illustrated covers: This one after he defeated George Foreman and this one after the last Ali/Frazier fight. My dad said he was used to seeing Ali as a frontrunner or coming back from adversity, but he was not used to the sedentary Ali who was hit repeatedly and no longer had the ability to be elusive. My father said Ali was a hero of us, and that fight signified the end of relevance in the ring. From then one, I knew Ali was someone I need to learn about.
Since then, I've read book and articles, I've watched documentaries, I've listen to men and women in older generations, and I've even watched fights, and I feel like I know the man, and more importantly I know the effect he had on people. I know he was hated by some and loved by many, and I appreciate how he empowered so many of the adults who have helped raised me over the years. But I'd be selfish and foolish if I sat here and waxed rhapsodic about the good old days of Ali, when I wasn't there. I'd much prefer to leave that to folks who were there, and I can appreciate from afar.
By the way, 11 years ago today Ralph Wiley, who is still my second favorite writer behind John Edgar Wideman, passed away. Back in 2002, he wrote a brilliant article on OJ Simpson that I highly suggest you read.