Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has penned a touching tribute for Muhammad Ali following the boxer’s death Friday at the age of 74. In his remembrance, the basketball great wrote of the boxing legend, “During my more than 50 years in the public eye, I have met hundreds of renowned celebrities, artists, athletes, and world leaders. But only a handful embodied the self-sacrificing and heroic qualities that defined my friend and mentor, Muhammad Ali.”
“Part of Muhammad’s greatness was his ability to be different things to different people,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “To sports fans he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft. To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America’s purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly.”
In 1967, when Ali, as a conscientious objector, refused to serve in Vietnam and faced banishment from the world of boxing, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, was among a group of prominent African-American athletes who came out in support of Ali and his beliefs, an assembly that also included Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, football star Jim Brown and more.
In taking a stand against the Vietnam War, Ali was quoted as saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.”
Abdul-Jabbar continued, “At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller. I may be 7’2″ but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.”
Athletes, musicians, actors, politicians and more have all paid tribute to “The Greatest” in the hours after the boxer’s death after a 30-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
LeBron James remembered Ali and his accomplishments as both an athlete and a social activist in a statement. “The reason why he’s the GOAT [greatest of all time] is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable,” James said. “It’s what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for – along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, obviously, who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something. He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It’s because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that.”