TIME

Muhammad Ali became a big brother to me—and to all African Americans

Ali and Abdul-Jabbar at a June 1967 meeting of athletes in Cleveland to discuss Vietnam draft protests

WHEN I FIRST MET MUHAMMAD ALI, HE WAS performing magic tricks on Hollywood Boulevard. I was a freshman at UCLA walking along the street with two of my school buddies when we saw him strolling with a small entourage, doing sleight-of-hand illusions for fans who came up to him. This was 1966 and Ali, only five years older than me, had already made his mark as the youngest ever heavyweight champion. The next year, he would be stripped of his title after announcing he would not submit to being drafted into the Army because “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong” who “never called me nigger.” Half the world would chant his name in praise; the other half would sharpen pitchforks and light torches.

And here he was, casually walking down the street as if he hadn’t

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