When I think of Muhammad Ali, the image of a boxer isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And it’s not an image from one of the many famous photographs of him — of the athlete and the man. It’s something else entirely, almost out of a dream. Ali is standing on a diving board. He’s alone, one hundred feet above a distant pool below. He’s looking down, wondering, Is there enough water down there?
Two days ago, when I learned that Ali had been hospitalized, I wrote him a letter. I wasn’t sure if my note would reach him in time. Part of me knew it wouldn’t. We’re both more than threescore and 10 years old and have known each other for many years. I just wanted to talk to my old friend.
This morning, I’m grieving. We all are. Our country is mourning the mighty soul of a man. Ali was my hero. If our presidents get a sentence in history, Ali deserves at least a paragraph.
Today we are all desperately pushing buttons on our computers and searching for stories to help us make sense of Ali’s legacy. We’re staring at his iconic photos in the hopes that if we look long enough, perhaps we can hang on to some of his magic for just a little while longer.
I’m deeply saddened that I won’t get to see Ali again and that he will never get to open my letter. The man meant so much to me.
Here’s part of what I wrote to him:
When I stood on the podium in Mexico City in 1968, you were with me.
When I ran for gold medals, your spirit was the wind.
When, throughout my life, I worked up the courage to speak out against systemic injustices in our society, your strength echoed in my voice.
When I was told, “Don’t shake things up” and “Don’t cause trouble,” you were there saying, “Speak up. Get louder.”
When I wanted to quit — and we all flirt with quitting at some time — I would think about how many times you had had every reason in the world to say, “Cut the tape off. I’m done.” You’ve always had little use for excuses.
Ali, you taught many to stand. Whether it was on a podium or on principle, you showed the strength to stand — even when it was unpopular.
In times of grief, it’s easy to exaggerate the greatness of our heroes. Let us tell the truth about Muhammad Ali. Very few people in this world put action behind their words. Muhammad Ali did. He shone a light on humanitarian issues and he opposed war and racism, clearing the way for generations of athletes. When he spoke, people listened. More importantly, when he spoke, he gave birth to new voices.
I’m reminded again of the image in my mind of Ali on the diving board. The waters below are dark and what’s beneath the surface is unknown. Throughout his life, Muhammad Ali had the faith and the fortitude to leap. It’s the image of a man undeterred and unafraid. Ali felt deeply about what needed to be done in our society, in our systems and in our hearts, so he stepped out onto that diving board and didn’t worry about the risk below.
The man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee is no longer with us. Let’s allow ourselves to mourn. But then let’s get back to work. Now it’s our job to carry Ali’s torch.
Find your place to stand.
Find your song to sing.
There’s no time to waste.
Rest in peace, my friend.