Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.
That simple truth has resonated in my heart over the past few days as volumes of praise and tributes have been lavished on Ali and his legacy.
I had not expected to be this sad. We all knew this day was coming, that he would die, but the finality of it has been a bit difficult to accept.
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Now I understand what my father meant many years ago. He said that when Joe Louis died, he felt that he lost a little bit of himself. Louis had helped frame the ethos of my father’s generation of black men and women as Ali helped frame mine.
Louis’s warning to his opponents summed up the determination of my father’s generation: You can run, but you can’t hide.
Ali told us to float like butterflies and sting like bees.
We all have the heroes and legends of our youth. I am forever grateful that the athlete I most respected and admired taught me the realities of life in the United States. That being an active, conscious black person in the United States meant travelling a road where wealth and trinkets would test the will of men and women of principle.
Gentrification is on my mind because I live in Harlem and have watched as this and other previously black neighbourhoods around the country are being gobbled up and transformed from black to non-black.
Black homeowners, eschewing neighbourhood and community, sell for million-dollar trinkets.
Ali never sold.
I was a high school junior when he was stripped of his heavyweight title. When his championship belt was taken, Ali effectively said that it was a mere trinket, nothing compared to the principle he was being asked to relinquish.
I loved that and would try – sometimes succeeding, sometimes not – to live by that ideal.
I met Ali for the first time in the 1970s while working at Ebony magazine. The year I arrived at Ebony, Ali pulled off the greatest boxing upset I have ever seen. He knocked out the seemingly invincible, previously undefeated George Foreman in Zaire.
Two of Ali’s three fights against Joe Frazier were classics, but the victory over Foreman was transformative. For Foreman, it was life-altering.
I never spoke to Ali about the Foreman fight, but I spoke plenty about it with Foreman. He was devastated and eventually would take a 10-year hiatus from boxing. Foreman said he had a religious revelation. I think the revelation was Ali, and everything he stood for.
It was during that period that my friend Gregg Simms, then the sports editor at Jet magazine, called me one afternoon and asked if I wanted to go to Ali’s house.
Of course I did.
But once inside his house, in the presence of an athlete I held in such high regard, I wasn’t sure what to say, and said nothing. I just stood there.
Life went on. In September, 1976, I covered Ali’s third match against Ken Norton, at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, I left Ebony to become a feature writer and jazz critic for The Baltimore Sun and, from there, joined The New York Times in 1982. By that point, the impact Ali had made on my life – the strong belief I now had that black athletes needed to express themselves politically – was set.
I was in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games when Ali lit the Olympic torch and seemed to set the world on fire. Two years later, I was at the United Nations when then Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented Ali with the Messenger of Peace award.
In 2005, I was in Louisville, Ky., for the dedication of the Muhammad Ali Center. In each of these instances, the toll that Parkinson’s disease was taking on Ali was becoming increasingly evident. Still, Ali kept up a gruelling schedule. After the Louisville event, for example, he was scheduled to fly to Germany to receive an award. I asked his wife, Lonnie, why Ali kept travelling. Why he subjected himself to the grind. She said: “People always ask: ‘Isn’t he tired?’ ‘Shouldn’t he rest?’ Muhammad says, ‘I got plenty of time to rest.’”
My last real exchange with Ali came at the Sydney Olympics, in 2000, during a reception. By now, his Parkinson’s disease had progressed to the point that you really had to strain to make out his words. Yet Ali was in great form.
Asked how it felt to light the Olympic torch four years earlier, Ali said: “Scary as hell. My left hand was shaking because of Parkinson’s, my right hand was shaking from fear. Somehow, between the two of them, I got the thing lit.”
When someone asked him to name his toughest foe, Ali said: “U.S. military. Next toughest fight was my first wife.”
Later, in his hotel room, I was speaking with Ali when he looked at me and asked: “What’s your name?”
Of course he knew my name, but he wanted to make a larger point.
“Bill Rhoden,” I said, knowing what was coming.
“That’s not your name. That’s your slave name.”
He talked for another 15 minutes about racism, oppression and history.
What I gleaned from Ali’s life, as I lived mine, is that the goal is not to go through life undefeated. The quest is to exercise resilience and come back stronger.
Beloved by much of the world, Ali nonetheless was consistently, unapologetically black.
I loved that about him. Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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