Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Bill Russell are awarded SI’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award

To honor Muhammad Ali, whose lifetime of achievement forever changed the world, SI is renaming its Legacy Award the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. The honor will celebrate individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose career in athletics has directly or indirectly impacted the world.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell will receive this prestigious award  in honor of their athletic achievement and leadership as social activists.

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Abdul-Jabbar, 69, is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Known as a quiet player on the court and an introvert in the public eye, off the court, he has become a fierce advocate for social change, a best-selling author and a U.S. Cultural Ambassador, a role in which he travels the world promoting the importance of education, tolerance and cultural understanding. A SI’s Sportsman of the Year in 1985, Abdul-Jabbar received the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month standing alongside fellow NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, singers Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen and entertainers Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres.

“Muhammad Ali was both a friend and a personal inspiration to me as an athlete and as an activist,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement. “To receive an award in his name is especially moving because it means I am honoring his legacy as a man who defied conventions and courageously risked life and career to making America a land of freedom, equal opportunity and social justice.”

Brown, 80, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a three-time NFL MVP with the Cleveland Browns. After his retirement from football, he founded the Black Economic Union to promote economic development in black communities, and the Amer-I-Can program, which teaches life skills to underprivileged children. He has also dedicated his life to combating violence and gang culture in inner cities.

“I am deeply touched to be honored for a lifetime spent working to establish common ground and mutual respect for all perspectives and backgrounds,” Brown said. “I hope that this tribute serves as a symbol of inspiration for all Americans to be champions of social justice. This is a proud moment for me, and I am thrilled to be recognized alongside two other transformative athletes with whom I share a long history of activism and friendship, and for whom I have great respect.”

Russell, 82, won 11 championships in his 13 years with the Boston Celtics and was the NBA’s MVP five times. He became the first African-American NBA coach in 1966 and was the first African-American NBA player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. Russell, also a SI’s Sportsman of the Year (in 1968), was a pioneer for black men in the NBA and became known for being outspoken on civil rights and racial injustice. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“To be a true influence of positive change in the world often means that you have to stand up against injustice and fight through adversity,” Russell said. “I am honored to be recognized alongside some of the great cultural icons of our time who have used their platforms to fight for civil rights and social justice, regardless of the risk, including my good friend Muhammad Ali to whom the award is dedicated. Our work has just begun.”

 

There was a greater connection that all four sports greats had in common and it was captured in a picture back on June 4, 1967 at a news conference in Cleveland, Ohio.  Ali is speaking into a microphone.  On his right, sits Russell.  On his left sits Brown and Lew Alcindor (now Abdul-Jabbar).  They are assembled and flanked by other athletes, including future NFL Hall of Famer Willie Davis and community leaders such as Carl Stokes, who would become the first black mayor of a major city. 

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They were there to lend visible support to Ali’s decision to object to his induction into the war in Vietnam.  The “Ali Summit,” as it was later came to be known, was pulled together by Brown at the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union and became a crucial step in the civil rights movement.

The moment itself would be remembered as the first and last time that so many African-American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause.

Abdul-Jabbar spoke about Ali’s power:

“At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right.  In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller.  I may be 7’2″ but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.”

We salute Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Brown and Russell for their courage.

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