Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has called Muhammad Ali the greatest athlete of all time. But on Friday afternoon, hours before Ali died at age 74, James said it was Ali’s work and influence outside the boxing ring that he will remember most.
“When I was a kid, I was amazed by what Ali did in the ring,” LeBron told ESPN.com. “As I got older and started to read about him and watch things about him, I started to realize what he did in the ring was secondary to what he meant outside of the ring — just his influence, what he stood for.”
As an African-American, James said Ali is largely responsible for his ability to enjoy not only fame and wealth as a professional athlete but also the opportunities that come with it.
“The reason why he’s the GOAT is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable,” James said, referring to the acronym commonly attached to Ali, which stands for “greatest of all time.”
“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.”
James spoke to ESPN.com after the Cavaliers practiced for Saturday’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals. At age 31, James is too young to have seen Ali fight, but he said he has watched footage of Ali on networks such as ESPN Classic.
On Aug. 28, 2010, James tweeted, “Muhammad Ali is the #greatestofalltime reguardless (sic) of sport. Nuff said!”
James has done plenty of charitable work in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and has spoken out on several social issues, including once organizing a team photo of the Miami Heat players wearing hoodies after the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. James said Ali is one of the inspirations behind his efforts to use his fame and fortune to positively impact people outside of basketball.
“People forget what you did as a professional,” James said. “People forget the championships and all the other things you were able to accomplish. But they will never forget how you made them feel. That’s a Maya Angelou quote, but I’ll transcend that into what Muhammad Ali was able to do. So it’s very important.”