One of the contributors to Thomas Hauser’s biography of Muhammad Ali told a story that sums up one — just one — aspect of the boxer.
Ali, then world champion, was strolling through a high school gym one afternoon, chatting to friends, when some kids shooting around at one end realised who he was. They threw the ball to him and Ali caught it, kept walking and talking, and flung the ball back over his shoulder without looking once at the basket.
It dropped through the hoop, of course.
“I figured that was the luck that just followed him around,” was the contributor’s description for Hauser.
Ali passed away late on Friday night, and the tributes have flowed ever since. I referred to the story above as an illustration of Ali’s ability to send yarns and tales spinning off at odd angles — the boxer himself probably never even saw the ball swish through the net, but for those in the gym it was a story they’ve dined out on, no doubt, ever since.
Being a world-famous individual for almost 60 years means there can be hardly a celebrity alive who doesn’t have his or her bespoke Ali memory, of course.
By midday Saturday it seemed few of them were keeping those memories to themselves.
There’s a grim appropriateness, then, in the fact that Donald Trump exposed his duplicity — yet again — in a tweet paying tribute to Ali over the weekend (“a truly great champion and a wonderful guy”) which contradicted another message (“Obama said . . . Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who?”).
Ali demolished Trump’s anti-Muslim stance with a brief message last year, but even if he hadn’t the juxtaposition of those two messages served to underline the difference between blowhard opportunism and genuine political belief.
When Ali refused his induction into the US army in 1967 his decision was neither profitable nor popular, to quote Flann O’Brien. He was stripped of his title (completely illegally) and lost years of his career for no reason more compelling than the discomfort of the boxing establishment with his stance.
Nowadays, when genuine political engagement among sportspeople is rare, and engagement with unpopular and unprofitable matters even rarer, Ali’s willingness to take up such a position is even more striking.
The man wasn’t perfect: his personal relationships were messy, his cruelty to Joe Frazier was unnecessary, and he eventually disentangled himself from the Nation of Islam’s bizarre beliefs and sharp practices. But a saint that’s easily admired is hard to love.
It was Ali’s humanity that people responded to. Always.
Cork need a multi-pronged approach
Enjoyed the spin on The Last Word last week with John Gardiner and Matt Cooper discussing the Cork hurling situation.
A point or two I made came up in a couple of conversations since: for instance, I said I was a development squad sceptic because, while it works well in counties with one sporting focus, it’s undone by Cork’s dual commitment.
When people are more concerned than ever about burn-out and training load, is it really best practice to have some teenagers do double training?
I also said that the calls for a director of hurling and director of football in Cork were wrong. What’s really needed is a director of coaching.
Why? Against Tipperary would the director of hurling have gone down to the sideline and told Kieran Kingston and his selectors to change their approach?
A director of coaching in hurling and football would presumably bring a uniformity of approach in both codes, as well as improve the coaching skills of others in the county.
One issue that didn’t come up is a Cork centre of excellence. Derek Kavanagh made a persuasive case for same recently in this newspaper, making some very strong points.
Much is made in Cork of the proposed Kerry centre of excellence at Currans. But if you’re a kid from Dingle it takes you the guts of an hour to get to Currans; the same if you’re coming from Cahirciveen.
What many people don’t realise is that the Kerry centre of excellence has two locations. The other is in Tralee IT, thus serving the populous northern half of the county.
For Cork the obvious model would be at least a three-site model, with the county board signing deals with, say, Clonakilty GAA, Mallow GAA and maybe Midleton CBS to use facilities to serve those geographical areas.
A strange complaint for the Irish abroad
The weather reports from France on the news in recent days don’t make for encouraging viewing, the floods and the rain ahead of the European Championships.
Given the Irish team was sweltering in the Fota Island heat last week, for the first time have we have acclimatised a team the wrong way around for a major championships? Could an Irish team arrive tanned and temperature-ready for a tournament — to be undone by the heavy rain and water-logged pitches they encounter?
Summer reading suggestions
Recently I bought a couple of books I’ve had an eye on for quite a while.
Elmore Leonard’s Four Novels of the 1970s called out to me softly so into the shopping bag it went, along with Bill James’ True Crime.
A reverse image: James, the famous creator of the baseball abstracts, writing about crime. Leonard, the greatest crime novelist of his time, with many a nod to his beloved Detroit Tigers.
The James book takes a bit of getting used to — his points system for assessing guilt, well, I don’t know — but the comparison with Elmore Leonard’s probably a bit unfair.
If you tell me there’s a better thriller opening than Unknown Man #89 I’ll listen, but I doubt you can find one.
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