When news broke that Muhammad Ali had passed away after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s, the tweets and tributes started posting, immediately and furiously.
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about the greatness of the Greatest of All Time. I guess he was right, after all.
It is a testament to Ali that the accolades were coming from everywhere; the political left and right, Hillary and Donald, entertainers and educators, the elite and everyday people, his close friends and adoring fans, domestic and international. The trendsetter was trending.
In truth, we all want to be loved, respected, appreciated and acknowledged. That’s not egoistic, that’s a part of the human condition. Ali got his fair share, but he earned it. The hard way.
Nothing is as uncommon these days as courage, and Ali seemed to always have it in spades.
I consider myself blessed beyond measure to have befriended the champ, having first met him back in the late ’80s when I was a young aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. I’ll never forget the summer of 1990 when Nelson Mandela arrived in Los Angeles near the end of his 11-day national tour. I was just 25 years old; Mandela had been in prison longer than I’d been living.
Mandela was first to deliver a speech on the steps of City Hall to thousands upon thousands of fellow citizens who were perched in trees and had spilled out into the streets of downtown Los Angeles, excited to glimpse the man who had spent 27 years in prison for adhering to the courage of his convictions. Once inside the mayor’s office, Mandela wondered if it would be possible to greet Muhammad Ali before the program was to begin. So the mayor asked me to go outside on the platform and summon the champ.
That happened over 25 years ago and I still don’t have a language to tell you what it felt like to be in the middle of a huddle with Ali and Mandela. I can still see the look on Mandela’s face when he first laid eyes on Ali. The champ and I had to walk down a long corridor to get to Mandela and the mayor. By the time we got to the end of the hallway where these two iconic men would meet, Mandela and his South African entourage were literally dancing in the hallways and chanting, “Ali! Ali! Ali!”
I was just an aide and I knew my place. So I just stood there. In a moment of sublime and unspeakable joy. Watching the embrace of the two most courageous men I’d ever met. I was grateful to bear witness to a moment that I would hold forever. I have learned that life is more about moments than milestones, and I try hard to stay present in the moment.
I knew my place, but I also knew how to take advantage of that precious moment, and I went on to establish a relationship with Ali that would over the years lead to a friendship, brotherhood and many hours spent talking in private and on television together.
Around the time I first met Ali, I met another American original who also left an indelible imprint on American culture and on everyone she met — Maya Angelou. I was blessed with the glorious gift of her friendship for 28 years, and we talked often of art, beauty, politics and history, music, religion and race. But for the entirety of our unlikely friendship, we debated whether love or courage was the greatest virtue, a question she first posed to me over dinner in Accra, Ghana.
I argued love, she argued courage. I argued that it takes love to animate courage. She argued that it takes courage to love. For 28 years we had this ongoing debate, love versus courage.
When I think of Muhammad Ali, I think first not of his dominance inside the ring, but rather of his profound courage and deep love for all of humanity.
Courage is in short supply these days. Too many of us are crippled in our ability to act courageously, to risk anything that doesn’t present some potential for self-aggrandizement. And, yet, the people we most admire — Mandela, Maya and Muhammad — did the exact opposite. We revere them because they were noble risk takers who remind us that courage is contagious. But courage begins in small ways, small settings, small acts. We need a program of courage conditioning. You have to exercise courage like a muscle. Start building courage by discouraging insensitive and degrading comments from friends. It grows when you defend someone against others when it’s not the convenient thing to do. It grows more when you make the right choices even when no one is aware or around to give you credit.
That’s how Ali became Ali, baby steps, through courage conditioning. He trained to be courageous, just as surely as he trained to be the heavyweight champion of the world.
You might not ever be a world champion, but you can muster the courage to authorize your own reality, and live by your hopes, not by your fears.
With courage, you can be a champion for others. Just like Ali.
A version of this article appears online at USA TODAY. Tavis Smiley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of the forthcoming book Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days. Follow him on Twitter @TavisSmiley.
Click here to view Tavis’s CBS “Sunday Morning” video commentary about Muhammad Ali.