If you weren’t around when the late, and very great Muhammad Ali was in his pomp in the 60s and 70s you probably can’t imagine how famous and iconic he was, especially for a boxer. I mean, who the fuck even knows who the heavyweight champion is these days?
But everyone knew who Ali was, for a while he was the most famous man in the world and probably deserved to be. Not just for his incredible float-like-a-butterfly boxing talent, it was also his outsize personality, his gift of the gab (he turned trash talking into poetry), his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (which cost him several of his prime fighting years), and as a symbol of black pride as potent as Martin Luther King or James Brown. He was as dazzling outside the ring as he was in it.
Us kids knew nothing about Vietnam, Islam, or Black Power, we just thought of him like he was a superhero. When he fought Joe Frazier in 1971 everyone in my school wanted Ali to win and I got into a playground fight with another kid because I said I wanted Frazier. Not that I was some huge Joe Frazier fan or even knew anything about boxing, I was just being a contrarian prick by going against popular choice. I still do that.
Even though I was right — Frazier won — being against Ali now feels like being anti-life, and joy, and even history — because of course he came back and beat Frazier in their next two fights.
The Celebrity Grim Reaper was busy in the week between Christmas and New Year, taking Lemmy, Natalie Cole, The Specials’ drummer John Bradbury and Guru Josh (not Guru Josh!) off to meet their maker. But I’m not kidding when I say the one that upset me the most personally was the death of legendary Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
Basketball is a niche sport in England and when I was a kid we’d never even heard of the NBA and couldn’t name a single American team. But we knew all about The Harlem Globetrotters (who actually came from Chicago), the exhibition team who toured the world playing “matches” against opponents they always beat which were full of trick shots and clownish routines and more about entertainment than sports.
They were such a pop-culture phenomenon in the early 70s they had their own Hanna-Barbera cartoon show on television (the first one made with a primarily black cast) and made guest appearances on Scooby-Doo.
My mum took me to see them at Wembley Empire Pool (now the Arena) one year and actually seeing Lemon — the star of the team nicknamed “The Clown Prince of Basketball” — doing his famous Hook Shot and that gag with the bucket full of confetti was one of the major treats of my childhood.
But it was their cartoon show that really made them household names with my generation of English kids, and because of it Meadowlark Lemon (how could you forget that name!) became part of the pantheon of loved TV stars I watched after school. So when I heard the news about his death it felt like Hong Kong Phooey or Secret Squirrel had died. No wonder I was so upset.