CLEVELAND (AP) — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown both got the call on June 4, which was strangely appropriate, along with simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming.
On one hand, someone they revered was gone.
On the other, someone they watched suffer for years would hurt no more.
“He represented,” Brown said, “what a man should be in an America that’s free.”
The death of Muhammad Ali last week sent Abdul-Jabbar and Brown — the NBA’s all-time scoring leader and a four-time NFL MVP, legends both who looked at the former heavyweight champion as one themselves — strolling down memory lane, back to June 4, 1967 and a sunny day that they spent together in Cleveland. The “Ali Summit,” as it would be eventually become known, a day where Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Brown, Bill Russell and others lobbed questions at Ali for hours to learn about his social stances and political convictions and ultimately determine why they, these other titans of sport and icons in the African-American community, should support him.
Ali never threw a punch that day.
Instead, his words delivered the knockout blows.
Brown and Abdul-Jabbar walked out of that meeting not just no longer skeptical, but true believers in what Ali was saying. Unbeknownst to any at the time, they would remain forever linked as well.
Here are some of their sentiments on the fighter’s life and legacy, shared in separate interviews with The Associated Press after Ali’s death:
ABDUL-JABBAR, on how Ali was a champion for social change at such an important time in U.S. history:
“I think Muhammad Ali was certainly a catalyst for a lot of issues. Just the whole question of whether or not our stance in going to war in Vietnam was a moral stance or was it something less. That was one of the most important aspects of what he did.”
“I understood really where he was coming from, I think, pretty early in the game. He was going to be criticized no matter what he did because he was going against the grain of what everyone else was saying with regard to our involvement in Vietnam.”
BROWN, on the summit meeting in Cleveland:
“I’m glad you asked that question because most people don’t realize that the United States government was what we were fighting. And that’s a very powerful force and they did want Ali to make an example out of them and that was one of the reasons that I called for the meeting because he was basically alone and this great force was going to try and bring him down and I conjured up this idea of bringing top athletes who were like-minded athletes. Certain athletes did not get invited.
“Everybody had taken a great risk at losing everything by meeting with him but what was so real was that we met for about five hours and he was asked every question that you could ask a person and he came through as totally sincere and it was his sincerity that made us become a group of one and we decided we would back him all the way and do anything we could do to bring attention to his situation and to let everybody know he was actually genuine about his position on the war based upon his religion.”
ABDUL-JABBAR, on how Ali’s experiences helped him with his conversion to Islam:
“Well, I didn’t want to be political with my declaration that I was Muslim. It was more of a personal religious thing. When Muhammad Ali became Muhammad Ali, initially it was very political, the whole stance that the Black Muslims were involved in. But he evolved past that. Eventually, Islam was his spiritual anchor, his spiritual foundation and he went forward with it from there. So it really made it easier for me to make my transition because of that. I was not trying to promote a political agenda.”
BROWN, on the influence Ali had on him:
“The influence he had was what he represented, not what he represented to me but what he represented to the world and I was very proud of him as a younger brother because I had my own thing about how I wanted to represent myself and I didn’t look to anyone to represent me in that sense. I had the admiration for him because he took it upon himself to risk everything for his manhood and to be a good American. As I’ve thought about it today, it’s about all of us being a part of this country and enjoying the equal rights as citizens in this country and because he was such a great athlete he was able to use the spotlight and use it probably like nobody else in history.”
ABDUL-JABBAR, on the influence he felt he had on Ali:
“Well, I think I might have influenced him to investigate what Islam was actually about instead of what the Black Muslims said it was about. Not me, personally, but just the whole concept of Orthodox Islam. It was a lot different from what the Black Muslims were preaching and he finally figured that out. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of that group and he eventually put it together and did the right thing with regard to professing or believing in Orthodox Islam.”
BROWN, on when Ali visited him while the football star was filming “The Dirty Dozen” in England in 1967:
“There were some girls, they call them birds over in England, and he was flirting with them and so I asked him, ‘Muhammad, I thought you said you don’t like white girls or white people? And he said, ‘These girls aren’t white, they’re English. I can flirt with then.’ But the fact, and this is very important to me, this man loved people. And everywhere I was ever with him he always respected people and he loved good human beings. He was definitely not prejudice. The thing that he stood for was based on him being equal and having the freedom that everyone else had, but he always loved people.”
ABDUL-JABBAR, on his favorite Ali memory:
“He would go to the training camp of his opponents and talk to them and torture them. I thought that was hilarious. … Sonny Liston, he could have fried an egg on his head when he did stuff like that. I totally enjoyed that. He was kind of like acting up for all the rest of us who were a little bit younger and saw him as kind of like our folk hero.”
BROWN, on the difficulty of seeing Ali suffer through Parkinson’s disease:
“It was very difficult because he really couldn’t communicate and he had some shaking and the disease really was affecting him tremendously and the one thing that I really felt was that (his wife) Lonnie did a tremendous job of keeping him active and taking care of him and dealing with his health but not putting him in a bed and leaving him there. She took him places and, boy, that was a tough job for a human being to do and she did a tremendous job with him.”
ABDUL-JABBAR, on his reaction to Ali’s death:
“I kind of thought that he really had been suffering a lot, just being trapped in his body and knowing that his mind was perfectly functioning but not able to get the body to go along with it. It must have been very frustrating, especially for someone that had the incredible physical gifts that he had when he was a young man.”