"I believe in Allah and in peace," Clay was quoted Feb. 26, 1964, affirming the rumor. "I'm not a Christian anymore.
"I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want."
It was one of the most powerful declarations ever uttered by a black man, let alone a black athlete, in this country.
It wasn't an accommodating statement like those made by African-American male athletes afforded luminary status before Clay, like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. It was strident. It was defiant. It was revolutionary in that it shaped the thinking of not just his peers, like Brown, but of those who would follow the swath he cut and protest their plight and that of others, athletes like Arthur Ashe, Carlos & Smith and others.
Clay's pronouncement, which was followed less than two weeks later by his renouncement of what he called his "slave name" and the adoption of the Islamic name Muhammad Ali, wasn't meant to be commercial like LeBron James allowed Nike to riff this week.
"Should I be who you want me to be?" James asks into the camera lens after driving to the rim to end the 90-second advertisement.
What Nike wants James to be is its pitchman for the newest LeBron basketball shoe, LeBron 8, as well as the rest of its LeBron line. James isn't balking at that like he did a more appropriate and graceful manner to leave behind his home state fans in Cleveland. He's even cashing in on trying to rehab his image, which up until this summer was as the ultimate loyal team guy. That is the backdrop for his latest infomercial for Nike.
It's a minute and a half bit that shows LeBron in myriad roles -- an athlete, a cowboy, a construction worker, a sidekick with the 1980s TV series Miami Vice star Don Johnson. Each time, James alludes to his controversial decision from last summer, when he decided to jilt his hometown lovers for Miami's surf, sand and glitz, and asks the viewer, "What should I do?"
It never looks right when historical moments, pivotal times in society, are reduced to mere vehicles to sell some product to feed our conspicuous consumption. The King family erred when it sold digital images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to Alcatel to help it sell electronics in television and print ads.
Ali's quote does not rise to the magnitude of that address, maybe the greatest ever delivered on North American soil, but its potency and importance can not be denied. To use it to sell sneakers is a desecration.
"In Rise, we amplify LeBron's voice," Davide Grasso, vice president of Global Brand Marketing, stated in a press release about the commercial, which is part of a multi-media campaign starring James speaking in his own voice. "We're celebrating his courage to forge his own journey even when others may have disagreed with his decisions. It's this Just Do It spirit that defines LeBron and Nike as we strive to inspire all young athletes."
Ali's original and spontaneous quote, which James borrowed from liberally and without a hint of attribution, did inspire generations. It still does. The Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, Ky., which is a testament less to Ali's pugilistic superiority than his unending far-reaching humanitarianism, is a testament to that.
There is no doubt that James did something between the end of last season and the start this week of the 2010-11 NBA season that is against the norm of what we've come to think of when it concerns professional athletes. What he did is, potentially, revolutionary, too. He opted to turn down more money at his longtime employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to take advantage of an opening in as glamorous a city as there is in the United States, Miami, and play alongside players of his choosing, stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, rather than players of an owner or general manager's desire.
James didn't just circumvent a design element of the contract between players and owners put in place by owners to insure that each owner could keep his most-valued player. That is a reference to the stipulation that no other team can pay a superstar more money on the open market than that superstar's current employer. The clause appealed to what we all thought was every player's ultimate motivation: money.
But James, along with Bosh, turned that idea upside down. James decided to take less money to play where he wanted and with whom. James took the bargaining power away from owners and delivered it to the players, or at least to superstar players like them. To be sure, the Heat after signing James and Bosh to fit in with its longtime superstar Wade could no longer afford the middle-class (speaking in relative terms) NBA player to complete its roster. For the most part, the Heat could only purchase the services of the league's least-expensive laborers to go along with its three superstars.
So what James spearheaded wasn't an egalitarian movement for all NBA players. He didn't free them like Curt Flood did all baseball players. James' calculated act stands to benefit only the best players in the league. It will turn out to be an elitist strategy. It will swing in the opposite direction of what Ali, the man for whom James borrowed his newest commercial's ending quote, intended.