Wednesday April 4th was one of the biggest days of the Miami HEAT’s 2012 regular season. On this day, the HEAT would rematch an Oklahoma City Thunder team that decimated them only a week earlier, providing all a sneak-peak to what the NBA Finals could look like and even hint toward the end-result.
Across town, however there was another big event happening in Miami: Opening Day at the Marlins new baseball stadium. Decisions, decisions. What to watch? Preview of the NBA Finals, or the first home game in a stadium that was forever in the making? Some even joked that the HEAT’s show may even draw from Marlins’attendance, folks who just wanted to watch the first pitch and say they were present, then travel a few streets down and arrive late with the rest of the HEAT fans in the 2nd quarter.
So is life in Miami, always options and critical decisions for entertainment. Before the first pitch, the Marlins announced the appearance of former Heavyweight Champ, Social Activist, Humanitarian and Greatest-Ever Muhammad Ali. I watched the game not from Marlins’ seats but in front of my HD Flat screen, and admired the now weathered and aging, but ever awe-inspiring Ali take the cart from the outfield to infield, to the chants of “ALI! ALI! ALI” from the sold-out crowd. He was a staple in Miami, trained regularly at the legendary 5th street gym and fought here against Sonny Liston where he would win the Heavyweight Title.
Some quick history, Cassius Clay would change his name to Muhammad Ali after the Liston fight as a public acknowledgement of his Muslim faith, under great controversy by a socially and racially segregated America. During his career, he was an open-acknowledger of his Muslim beliefs, supporter of the Nation of Islam movement, and close-friend to civil-rights leader Malcolm X. At 22 years of age, he was the youngest Heavyweight Champ to win against a former, and began his legacy on the bad-side of America’s racially-charged criticism and angst. He was polarizing for a sport that was quickly becoming more accepted despite racial lines, and lived his life front-center, always vocal and outspoken about his beliefs and the damning of his opponents inside and outside the ring. His political views were controversial; he accepted a jail sentence that would be later overturned for refusing entry into the military draft. Ali, in every shape and form, was his own man of principal and the opinion of him was love or hate. Despite all of this, his legacy from boxing and beyond would change the sports world forever as we know it, but more importantly influence the views, the minds, and the perception of a generation during some of its’ darkest hours.
Ironic and spectacular in the same breath, that man in the cart, hardened by age and experience almost 50 years ago was hated by most in this country just by representing progress. Decades later he’s cheered and revered by fans of all ages and walks of life, compelled today to chant his name. What a symbol of the universal impact of sports, on how time can erase the hate and smooth popular opinion to a more logical conclusion of understanding and acceptance.
It was a note that I wrote myself that day that brought me to these thoughts. Before the first pitch and much-before the tipoff against OKC I wrote only one word down on a notepad to make me remember this moment. That note said only “Progress.” I found that note today and went back to the thoughts I had, thinking over almost two years of angst for a group of players that have been the most polarizing sports figure(s) of MY generation. Treading very lightly with disclaimer, LeBron’s decision is nowhere in the same ballpark as Ali’s and understandably so. The times that Ali defined were astoundingly different in America, and his struggles were unmatched, but by doing so opened up the doors for athletes to be what they are today.
But how they are linked; how many times in sports do we see the true significance of life perpetuated by athletes during their time of relevance. Ali was the greatest athlete of his time (perhaps ALL time) not just because of who he knocked out, but the PROGRESS he represented. Progress of a society, a people, a nation, a concept that we all would later believe and aspire to. The HEAT relative to their times offer a similar proposition, one of progress for professional sports. For the past two years, some critics of their professional growth and decision-making called their actions “collusion.” The center of their debate was predicated on the Freudian logic of “you can’t do that just because.” They were viewed as selfish and disloyal. Not deserving of a title or much less a televised “Decision.”
Now, by winning the 2012 NBA Championship, this team is able to write their own chapter in the ever-evolving annuls of sports history by simply showing that the formula works. By winning, their story will demonstrate the progress of individuals sacrificing star-status and money to work together and win a championship. By winning and winning only, they show their progress as winners. Because in sports, the only story of progress we tend to remember is the one written by the champion.
As the season dwindles to a close, it is becoming more and more apparent the game changer of this generation is before us today. It is the Miami HEAT, and with a trophy they become the most significant sports team I have ever witnessed first hand. I can only imagine what their impact will be 50 years from now.