Remembering Ali: A Champion of Unapologetic Strength, Love, and Blackness

It was around 4:30 on the afternoon of June 3rd when I landed in Hartford, Connecticut to keynote a gala event when I received a text from a good friend and colleague, David Banks, CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation. His message: Muhammad Ali, one of my greatest heroes, was gravely ill.

Upon receiving David's message, I recalled a year earlier when the internet and social media became saturated with claims that Ali had passed away, claims that were ultimately exposed to have been an online hoax. However, my gut told me that this time might be different. And so as I crawled into my Hartford hotel bed later that night, my denial kept me from turning on the television to validate David's news. I would awake Saturday morning to learn that sadly this time, it was true.

Muhammad Ali was my first hero. I vividly remember as a young boy staring at a postcard of him in his Everlast white boxing trunks with black stripes, his crisp boxing boots and smooth, handsome features, staring at the picture of this regal Black man and thinking - dreaming -- that this is exactly who I wanted to be like when I grew up.

I remember the deep sadness I felt that early Harlem morning when my 8-year-old eyes saw the gloating Daily News cover showing a swollen-jawed Ali with a headline that proclaimed "Well, Shut My Mouth" following his loss to Joe Frazier in the first of their three epic fights.

I remember a boxing tournament during my summer youth camp situated on the coastline of the Hudson River, and being so engrossed with emulating my hero (with more floating like a butterfly and not enough of stinging like a bee) that I lost a disheartening championship decision. And I remember when my mother brought me an Ali speed bag, which soon became my indoor basketball hoop after my sports leanings began to point more towards the court than the boxing ring.

Through my many Muhammad Ali memories and the countless iconic images of him, I will never forget how he made me feel. I had never seen a Black man walk in his championship calling, especially outside the ring, with the boldness, bravery and bravado that Ali had, brazenly predicting the rounds he would knock out his opponents in, while also emanating an ethos of Black power and self-determination. His confidence became my confidence to believe that I too could grow up to be a "baaad man!" He gave me permission to know that I could be a poet and a pugilist all at the same time, and above all, that I could be unapologetically Black in my dreams and pursuit of greatness. Even then I knew I wasn't alone in this, that so many Black men and boys also sought to find a little piece of Muhammad Ali inside of them.

With news of Ali's death, I couldn't help but feel that a little piece of me had also died. I tearfully mourned for the adult me whose lifelong hero had passed, as well as the youthful me who was empowered by Ali's swagger way before we even knew to call it that. My tears burst into a watershed when my 14-year-old son called me to ask if I knew Muhammad Ali had died and if I was okay. Since 2011, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) has hosted "Rumble Young Man, Rumble," an annual gathering of leaders from the Black Male Achievement movement that takes place at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. In the content of our "Rumble Young Man, Rumble" events CBMA has incorporated the core principles -- Confidence, Dedication, Spirituality, Conviction, Giving and Respect - embodied by Ali's life and legacy. It was through accompanying me on these trips that my son and his twin brother came to know how much I loved the Champ and the great impact he's had (and continues to have) in empowering others to reach their greatest potential.

In the midst of my sadness, I have been warmed by the many stories, particularly from Black women, who attributed their connection with Muhammad Ali to the love that their fathers had for this great boxer and humanitarian. Despite attempts to label him as a polarizing or divisive figure in his earlier career, the truth is that Ali has always been a great unifier, ambassador and advocate for Black people, families and communities. As I help to lead this movement to improve life outcomes and opportunities for Black men and boys, I am inspired and emboldened by Ali's strong moral compass, sense of integrity, and willingness to use his voice and platform to elevate issues impacting society's most vulnerable and disenfranchised.

This is how I will always remember Muhammad Ali -- as a man who was just as fearless in his pursuit of greatness outside the ring as he was inside of it. As a person who prioritized freedom and purpose over fame and popularity. And as a Black man who proudly celebrated his Blackness and never faltered in his love for Black people.