Why Muhammad Ali’s impact on Sports is still being felt today

By Lenny Moon

The year was 1964, when a then 22-year old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr ascended to the top of the world of sports when he defeated a heavily favored veteran Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the globe. The Louisville, Ky native would not convey the image of the conventional traditional Black athlete from the outset. His extreme confidence and brashness was not the composite package that America, if not the entire free world had witnessed from such a platform before him.

One might surmise that his demeanor was influenced by the turbulent decade of the 60’s in this country, where historical social unrest dominated the landscape. Sure there were high profile Black athletes that made there mark prior to Muhammad Ali. Legends such as boxing champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, professional baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens from the 1936 Olympics along with Ali’s contemporaries Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Jim Brown. Well anyone that’s even remotely studied the career of the self proclaimed “The Greatest”, would clearly recognize that Ali had more impact on the 60’s than the decade could have possibly had on him. For that younger follower of sports, let’s place this theme in perspective.

During the time that the world was being introduced to this handsome, extroverted heavyweight champion of the world that was not hesitant to proclaim to anyone that was listening how pretty that he was, it was not fashionable for a Black athlete to be heard without being spoken to. The same year that Ali earned his title, the Civil Rights Act would finally be signed later on the calendar of 1964. This was before the Voting Rights Act had been legislated (1965) or the Fair Housing Act (1968) were signed into law. During the era of African Americans fight to elevate our status from second class citizenship, Ali was lifting the image of an entire race while becoming the most recognizable person on the planet. Once he became champion when the spotlight of world would follow the champion, he officially dropped his birth name (or slave name as he stated) from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

By this time, just as many American boxing fans would pay to see him lose as to cheer him to victory. This would only fuel his performances that would evolve to predicting the round he would stop his opponent in the ring along with penning poetic narratives that would accompany his events. When he refused the military draft in 1967 and stripped of his title for over 3 years (as an undefeated champion), his legend grew larger when he took advantage of his legal fight with the U.S. government and his exile to lecture colleges nationwide. He opened eyes by stating “I have no quarrel with the Viet Namese, it’s in America where I’m called the “N” word”. Instead of ostracizing the champ, he became larger than life. When his boxing license was restored, Ali would win the world championship two more times before retiring in 1981. Ali’s boxing career was the launching of high profile athletes utilizing their platform for issues much larger than sports.

Now that we’ve entered our third decade of the 21st Century, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re witnessing similar activity from contemporary athletes that are utilizing their respective platforms to enhance social awareness. Leading the way is the National Basketball Association which is approximately 75% Black, coupled with a globally popular product and world-wide social media accessibility, they have fully realized their leverage in the modern scheme of things. When they speak, people around the world listen. In the 21st Century, NBA players are the most visible athletes in the world, and to their credit they have evolved to effectively utilize their muscle to impact communities from whence they came. As opposed to be resigned to “shut up and dribble”, they are demanding social change such as police reform, voter education, justice for the murders of unarmed Blacks by police among other pertinent social issues. Modern day Black NBA athletes are also realizing that billionaire owners are accruing their wealth on the labor of their extraordinary athletic prowess. In essence it has always been a partnership (one can’t succeed without the other) but not necessarily executed as such. In the spirit of Muhammad Ali, these athletes are carving new paths in the sports arena and along the way, the status quo might become a little uncomfortable.

1968 Olympics in Mexico City dominated by Smith and Carlos deomonstration

By Lenny Moon

USA sprint stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter event during the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City. Their black glove salute on the medal podium created a firestorm with the establishment and led to their permanent banishment from Olympic competitions

Reflecting on the highly charged 1968 Olympic Games during the turbulent 60s, one could only anticipate that at some point during this exhibition of the world’s greatest athletes on this global stage, fireworks were inevitable. These games were staged in the midst of a decade that witnessed the assassinations of Dr Martin L King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and both Kennedy brothers John and Robert. Major US cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and others were burning as a result of the aforementioned murders as well as police brutality, social injustice and other fundamental issues that are prevalent even 50 plus years later. Added to this toxic climate, the unpopular Viet Nam War was being met with strong resistance on a national scale adding to the tension.

There was serious discussion that the Black athletes that qualified to compete in the Olympic Games would not participate. Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Jabbar) the top amateur roundballer in the country, if not the world, opted not to make the trip. This of course predated the NBA stars assuming the reins of Olympic dominance in the Games. Alcindor’s withdrawal created a tremendous void while making a resounding statement in the process. The climate also included the recent signings of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968) the result of years of successful protesting.

Enter Tommy Smith and John Carlos, two of the USA premier sprinters. Although they are on record as realizing the career risk involved prior to their decision, they steadfastly moved forward with the historic demonstration. Although representing the USA royally by adding to their country’s medal total, they were banned from the Games and ostracized from being gainfully employed upon their return home. The courage and commitment by Smith and Carlos symbolized the athletes of that era that were willing to sacrifice for a mission that was larger than any personal gain.

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Eric Dickerson talks with Lenny Moon about SMU’s Pony Express and NFL rushing record

Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson talks with veteran sports broadcaster Lenny Moon about the evolution of SMU’s vaunted Pony Express featuring he and Craig James. Additionally, the 6-3, 220 upright style speedster discusses his breaking the NFL single season rushing record eclipsing O.J. Simpson 2003 with the standard setting 2105.

Bill Russell vs Michael Jordan (Who’s the NBA’s greatest winner?)

By Lenny Moon

When the sports bar conversation centers around the NBA’s greatest athlete, most would concur that the selection would quickly be settled with the Michael Jordan resolution. With all due respect, “MJ” would be safe if the criteria centers around the ability to dominate for a sustained period of time while adding the optimal amount of flair to his presentation. But if the conversation is expanded to discussing the game’s biggest winner in NBA history then a different sheriff has to be implemented by the name of Bill Russell.

For those roundball fans born during the evolution of Jordan’s Nike “JumpMan” era, perhaps those individuals receive a pass. The flip side of this equation creates a “teachable” moment that bridges the two eras. William Felton Russell was a 6-10 low post wizard that revolutionized the game of basketball on multiple levels. The Oakland, Ca native utilized his vast mental capability to directly impact the flow of a basketball game from the defensive end of the court that led to higher percentage baskets for his offense. Bill has exhibited an uncanny ability to win at every conceivable level. Not only were his team usually the last one standing, but the Celtic star willingly accepted the leadership role while amassing unprecedented success.

The long and the short of the narrative pertaining to the greatest winner in the history of American team sports is the author of 11 championships during his 13 total seasons as the integral component is Bill Russell. He led his team to eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-66) in addition to leading his team to two NCAA titles (1955 & 56) and the anchor on the 1956 USA Olympic basketball championship. With all due respect, Jordan outdistanced himself from all of his contemporaries by leading his Chicago teams to two separate “3-peats” (1991-93 & 1996-98). The Wilmington, NC native procured the NBA Finals MVP during each of the aforementioned titles. We will not go into the hypothetical discussion about eras that neither legendary player had control. But what we do know is that the facts are the litmus test. Leading your team to championships in 85% of the seasons that you participated at the games’ highest level (won two as a player/coach in 1968 & 69) then the numbers easily provide the conclusion. In this author’s humble opinion, Mr Russell is the greatest winner in American team sports.

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Houston mayor honors Jackie Robinson Day in MLB

By Lenny Moon

When Major League Baseball legislated that each April 15th would be recognized as “Jackie Robinson Day” back in 2005, no one could have possibly foreseen that “America’s Pastime” would be out of commission along with most of the world. Then MLB commissioner Bud Selig mandated that Mr Robinson’s number 42 jersey would be permanently retired. Additionally, on that date (when there is no pandemic of course) all of the players would honor Jackie by wearing that same jersey number 42.

LennyMoonSports caught up with Houston, Tx mayor Sylvester Turner, who threw the ceremonial first pitch on “Jackie Robinson Day” a couple of seasons back. The Houston native also shared his thoughts about the significance of the landmark occurrence when the Brooklyn Dodgers inserted Robinson onto their roster and starting lineup in 1947. This represented the first African American to don the uniform of a major league baseball team. Shortly afterwards several other clubs granted other Blacks opportunities to apply their craft. Jackie’s resolve to withstand the abuse for a mission larger than himself represented a landmark accomplishment in American history. He went on to become Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player (1949), 6 time all-star (1949-54) and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (1962) in his first year of eligibility.

Houston, Tx mayor Sylvester Turner chats with veteran sportscaster Lenny Moon about American pioneer Jackie Robinson

LennyMoonSports remembers the “Toy Cannon”

By Lenny Moon

Former Houston Astros star outfielder Jimmy “Toy Cannon” Wynn posing with his popular moniker.

Before the vaunted “Killer B’s” (Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Bergman) a dynamo housed in a 5-9 frame and weighed a mere 160 pounds named Jimmy Wynn became the first breakout star for the Houston Colt 45s and later the Houston Astros. Although drafted by the Cincinnati Reds back in 1962, the Colt 45s acquired the promising infielder at the conclusion of that same year admiring his raw athleticism that included exceptional speed and surprising power for his anatomy. The Houston club along with the New York Mets arrived on the MLB scene as expansion teams the season prior to the Wynn transaction.

After spending a short stint in the minors, the Hamilton, Ohio native was prepared when the team rolled out the “Eighth Wonder of the World” aka the Astrodome in 1965 as their fulltime starting centerfielder. The “Toy Cannon” was born, blasting 22 home runs, 73 RBI, 43 stolen bases, and 84 BB with a solid .275 BA. Additionally, Jimmy was a splendid defensive outfielder with a great arm rounding out the proverbial “five-tool” player indicative of a bonafide MLB star. Wynn would go on post 20 plus round-trippers in seven of his nine seasons for the Stros as a starter, including 37 in 1967 and 33 in 1969. He was a league MVP candidate both seasons.

The Toy Cannon held his bat high and came through the hitting zone with a big sweeping swing. As with most power hitters, he struck out his fair share of the time but contrasted that trait with a penchant to draw walks enhancing his on base percentage (led the league in 1967 with 148 BBs). What made Wynn “box office” was not only his being the team’s premier slugger in the middle of the lineup, but the distance that his blasts would travel. He and teammate Doug Rader were the only players to ever hit home runs in the upper deck at the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. Another of his blasts went viral at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati when the power hitter lauched one that left the ballpark completely and landed in the middle of the freeway.

Wynn was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers ahead of the 1974 season and again became a MVP candidate, depositing 32 home runs, 108 RBI, scoring 104 runs and drawing 108 walks. The three time all-star, teamed with resident stalwarts Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker to participate in his only World Series where the Dodgers lost to the Oakland As. He would wrap his major league career with stints in Atlanta, New York (Yankees) and Milwaukee. Wynn finished with 291 roundtrippers and 964 runs batted in. His jersey no 24 was retired by the Houston Astros in 2005 and is a member of their hall of fame. The Toy Cannon was employed by the ‘Stros until his death on March 26 2020….Thanks “Toy” for all of the great moments.

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Former ABA-NBA skywalker David Thompson talks with Lenny Moon about becoming a Hall of Famer

By Lenny Moon

Legendary pro basketball leaping sensation David Thompson was a contemporary of Julius “Dr J” Erving and George “Iceman” Gervin of the ABA prior to the merger with the NBA. Although standing only 6-3, the North Carolina State product consistently found a home at the rim with the ability to elevate above even the tallest defenders.

He penetrated the national roundball radar screen by leading his Wolfpack to the 1974 NCAA National Championship, including dethroning defending titlist UCLA led by Bill Walton in the semi-final round. As a pro, Thompson is one of only six players to score 70 or more points in a single NBA game and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1996.

LennyMoonSports remembers Kobe-“A lot more than a Basketball Player”

Former Houston Rockets star Kenny “Jet” Smith engineered a “Katrina Hurricane Relief Game” at the Toyota Center back in 2005. When Smith reached out to his NBA fraternity to assist, one of the first respondents was the late, great Kobe Bryant. All proceeds went toward aid to the then-recent evacuees with a great number headquartered in Houston. Bryant spoke with veteran sports broadcaster Lenny Moon about his decision to participate and described the interactions he encountered during his visit to H-Town.

The video represented below is a ld2kVIDEOS production (see video link below)

Bill Nunn and Lloyd Wells, two Unsung Heroes that Delivered HBCU Stars to the NFL

By Lenny Moon

With Super Bowl LIV on the horizon, LennyMoonSports reached back and procured an earlier article we published about two gentlemen that contributed mightily to their respective NFL franchises during the 1960s and 1970s. Although both have transitioned, their contributions are permanently etched in the annals of America’s Pastime. (originally published on Sept 7 2018)

Anyone that’s had the privilege of visiting the Voting Rights Museum (at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Al), one can’t help but to notice the special tribute paid to the “Foot Soldiers” and their contribution to one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of our union. The Foot Soldiers would accommodate the functionality of front-line figures such as Dr Marin L King Jr, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash, John Lewis and others as foundational components in their quest to overcome a barrier that was deeply embedded into the fabric of our country.

 

A similar sentiment can be established for two notable journalists from the African American community that made “game changing” contributions while remaining in the shadows of two highly successful pro football franchises. One was from the north, the Managing Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier whose publication was widely respected throughout the nation. The other from the south and served as a renowned columnist and photographer for Houston’s Informer, Defender and Forward Times publications. Both had direct ties to Black College campuses and brought value to the world of pro football as liaisons to the largely untapped talent toiling on those mostly southern landscapes.

Bill Nunn was hired as a scout for the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers to lure some of the talent that had been gravitating to the upstart American Football League (Cleveland and Pittsburgh moved to the AFC in 1970). He had established himself amongst Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by implementing the Black College All-American Team that brought with it deserved notoriety from his nationally distributed newspaper. Retired USA Today sports writer Roscoe Nance offered “Bill was a giant when it comes to Black College Football as a journalist and talent evaluator. His contributions to the Steelers Super Bowl teams of the 70’s are unparalleled. He was directly responsible for the likes of John Stallworth (Ala A&M), Ernie Holmes (Tx Southern), L.C. Greenwood (Ark-Pine Bluff) and Donnie Shell (S Carolina St)”.

 

It did not stop there with the West Virginia State product, who once led his basketball team to an undefeated 26-0 record in 1948, and had an offer to play with the Harlem Globetrotters but opted to join the staff of the Pittsburgh Courier. Other players delivered by Nunn to the Steelers were Mel Blount (Southern), Frank Lewis (Grambling), Dwight White (E Texas State) and Joe Gilliam (Tennessee St). In the case of White, Nunn was once quoted as saying that he wasn’t exclusively restricted to HBCU’s but would also scout Black players that played for smaller white schools that quite possibly would have been overlooked. The Homewood, Pa native (35 miles NW of Pittsburgh) would earn six Super Bowl rings with the Steelers. He passed on May 6, 2014 at 89 years of age.

Lloyd Wells, a Houston Fifth Ward product, not only was a well respected sports journalist and photographer among HBCUs around the country, he was also a huge advocate for Black College and high school athletes in the south. Known as “The Judge”, Wells would organize football and basketball all-star games for Black high school prospects and invite college coaches to create exposure that would have likely been overlooked in the 60’s during segregation. The Texas Southern University alum also utilized his journalistic platform to break down discriminatory seating practices with the Houston Buffs and Houston Astros.

 

Shortly after the Dallas Texans departed for Kansas City and became the Chiefs in 1963, Wells connected with team owner Lamar Hunt and was hired to their scouting department. Shortly afterwards, he used his persuasion to convince Grambling’s Buck Buchanan to sign with the Chiefs (instead of the NFL) and became the first Black number one pick ever in a pro football draft. Other notable contributions by Wells include Otis Taylor and Jim Kearney (Prairie View), Mack Lee Hill, Robert Holmes and Frank Pitts (Southern), Willie Lanier (Morgan St), Gloster Richardson (Jackson St), Jim Marsalis and Nolan “Gnat” Smith (Tennessee St), Emmitt Thomas (Bishop) among others. The Judge’s shining moment occurred during Super Bowl IV when Kansas City defeated the highly favored Minnesota Vikings 23-7. That Chiefs squad was comprised of a large contingent of players that Wells had delivered from HBCUs. Wells protégé (Otis) Taylor’s dazzling 46-yard touchdown reception in the second half sealed the victory for coach Hank Stram’s underdog unit. Wells passed on September 12 2005 at the age of 81.

 

Both Nunn (2010) and Wells (2016) are members of the Black College Football Hall of Fame as contributors.

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  • Winston Hill-Tx Southern, 4-Time All-Pro starter on New York Jets upset victory the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III
  • Harold Carmichael-Southern, 6-8 WR/ 4-Time All-Pro that earned slot on the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
  • Donnie Shell-SCST, 4-Time Super Bowl Champion (IX,X,XIII, XIV) that’s a 5-time Pro Bowl performer, Steelers All-Time Team       

 

Winston Hill…………Texas Southern University…….(Jets 1963-76, Rams 1977)
Harold Carmichael..Southern Univ……….(Eagles 1971-83, Jets ’84, Cowboys ’84)
Donnie Shell…………..South CarolinaState (Steelers 1974-1987)