On “Today” Thursday morning, Matt Lauer took his turn at this week’s feature. The on-air folk took turns revealing the person who’s most inspired them.
The NBC morning man chose Muhammad Ali.
Tape rolled. The world once again saw scenes from the boxing great’s life. Some were in black and white. They were paired with scenes from Ali’s post-ring, humanitarian life. Slowed by Parkinson’s disease, on the man goes, helping those less fortunate than he.
The man born as Cassius Clay certainly is a most interesting study. His youth was dominated by confidence bordering on arrogance, defiance to the maximum and talent that made him arguably the most recognized athlete in the world.
His poetic fighting philosophy was “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He declared himself “The Greatest,” and the nickname caught on.
In America in the 1960s and 1970s, all of that made him a polarizing figure. People seemed to either love Ali or despise Ali. The lovers noted his intelligence and humor. The haters seemed to hate on principle.
Ali remained the same, but the world changed.
His sense of self and ability to embrace all of mankind were more readily accepted, admired and held up as an example of what an athlete should do with wealth and fame.
The world cheered when Ali was chosen as the figure to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. The identity was kept a secret until the appeared at the top of the Olympic stadium. I got goosebumps, and I bet you did, too, savoring how this Kentucky native went from a light heavyweight gold medal winner in Rome in 1960 to lighter of the torch because of a life well lived.
Thereafter, Parkinson’s kept Ali mostly out of the public eye. But four Summer Games later, there he was in London, honored as a flag bearer at the opening ceremony. He was helped to his feet by his wife, Lonnie, to accept the love.
A documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Al,” was released in May.
The world is still interested.
Matt Lauer’s choice was a good one.
I seriously wonder if any of the athletes that followed Ali as “The Greatest” will ever end up as cherished for a life as a whole.
The feature also made me think about people who inspired me.
My uncle Pete was a really good man, hard-working as a custodian at a church and devoted to the family — even though it was his wife, my Aunt Julia, who was a half-sister to my paternal grandfather. One of my first journalism professors, Neil, loved working with his students, carried a torch for all things sporting and raced around the campus every day, instructing with his words and actions. When I actually became a journalist, the Sports Illustrated stories and subsequent books by Frank DeFord always amazed and entertained me. I wanted to have a grip on humanity and the language like he did.
There are many others who taught me important lessons. That is my criteria. And I don’t have to choose just one.
Would you pick somebody famous or a family member as the most inspiring figure in your life? Share your list, if you dare.