OAKLAND – One day before Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cavaliers, the game itself, crucial in determining the champion, seemed to shrink in significance because the men involved were preoccupied with another champion.
Muhammad Ali died Friday night, and it was evident during interviews Saturday afternoon that the loss of this towering social crusader and magnificent athlete struck a powerful emotional blow.
“The greatest ever, a guy who paved the way for all of us, a guy who knew what he stood for and never wavered away from that, a guy who didn’t change sports – he changed the world,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said.
Jerry West, Warriors executive board member and himself a sports legend, spent a good 10 minutes on the subject to Ali.
“Being around him, you almost felt a Godlike presence around him. You really did,” West said. “He had it. He had it. Everything he went through in life . . . certain people are courageous, and he’s very courageous in doing what no athlete probably would have every dared to have done – and particularly a black athlete.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Friday night attended a Paul Simon in concert in Berkeley, where the singer paused while performing the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Boxer” to break the news that Ali had passed away.
“What he did went so far beyond the boxing ring, the sporting arena in general,” Kerr said. “What he did not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans in terms of trying to promote equality, in terms of really raising the level of consciousness about what was happening in the country. He was probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country.
“So, as a team, as an organization, we’re thinking about him today, about his impact and, of course his family.”
The Warriors through music paid homage to Ali during their 90-minute practice session. Though “The Greatest” meant different things to different people, he meant something to all people.
“He’s the greatest athlete ever, not only in terms of what he accomplished in the ring,” Harrison Barnes said. “He was a full-blown activist. You hear a lot of times about athletes today, not being distracted, being totally focused. This guy was a full-blown activist. Took off three years and some change in his prime.”
Cleveland star LeBron James recalled his growing awareness of Ali, who retired from boxing in 1981, three years to the month before James was born. After learning of Ali’s skills as a boxer, James further educated himself to discover there was so much more to the man.
“He’s a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk the streets,” said James, who seemed particularly contemplative. “For an athlete like myself, today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking in front of you guys. I wouldn’t be able to walk in restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere where blacks weren’t allowed back in those days.
“ . . . So when an icon like Muhammad Ali passes away, it’s just very emotional. It’s also gratifying to know that guy, one man, would sacrifice so much of his individual like knowing that it would better the next generation of men and women after him.”
Like Green, Warriors forward Andre Iguodala expressed sorrow at not having the opportunity to meet Ali. Nearly everyone of their generation gained knowledge of Ali through reading and watching video clips of a man courageous enough to make his own path and create a set of footprints no one dared to follow.
“That’s something that my community misses is the leadership and what it really means to sacrifice, especially in your primes,” Iguodala said. “Imagine one of us just stops doing what we’re doing in the prime of our careers to make a change for our people. That wouldn’t happen today.”
West and Ali were teammates, both representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. They remained, in a sense, teammates in life, both speaking their minds with unyielding conviction, even the risk of alienating others.
“He has inspired people that looked at the inequities in this world,” West said. “And some of the things he did, he changed the perception of people. He was a magnificent person. I loved that guy. I really did.”