(Reuters) - The death of boxing great Muhammad Ali was a huge talking point on Saturday for players competing in the NBA Finals, and prompted the Golden State Warriors to begin their morning practice with an Ali tribute song.
“We started our practice with the old song from the 70s, ‘Catch Me If You Can’,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, referring to the hit single ‘Black Superman’ which was released by British singer Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasa Band in 1975.
Ali, who died on Friday aged 74, reportedly did not like the song, but it nonetheless became a number one hit in Australia while also charting high in Britain, the United States and elsewhere.
On a day when Cleveland Cavaliers star forward LeBron James and his team coach Tyronn Lue also spoke eloquently about Ali, Kerr joined in with the heart-felt tributes.
“(Ali was) probably the most influential athlete in the history of our country, so as a team, as an organization, we’re thinking about him,” Kerr told reporters on the eve of Game Two of the best-of-seven NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Golden State won the first game on Thursday.
“I met him once in Phoenix at a Suns game very briefly. It was a thrill. He was one of the few people on earth who had that presence where you just got nervous just being in his presence, being there in the same room. It was quite an experience.”
Kerr’s counterpart Lue also paid tribute to the late boxer, as did James.
“That was the first guy I idolized,” Lue said of Ali.
“Muhammad Ali was a big reason why I was able to achieve so much in my life. I was honored and had the privilege to meet him a few times and it meant the world to me.”
Four-times NBA Most Valuable Player James said that Ali paved the way for African-American athletes.
“Without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking to you guys, I wouldn’t be able to walk in restaurants, wouldn’t be able to go anywhere where blacks weren’t allowed back in those days,” James said.
”We knew what a great boxer he was but that was only 20 percent (of what) made him as great as he was. He ended up in jail because of his beliefs.
“That was a guy who stood up for so many different things at a time when it was difficult for African-Americans to even walk the streets.”
James added that Ali sacrificed so much in his life knowing it would benefit the next generation.
”I give all credit to (Ali), because he was the first icon, the greatest of all-time and it had zero to do with his accomplishments inside the ring.
“I’ve spoken up on a lot of issues that other athletes might not speak upon, but feel it’s my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me.”
Jerry West, who was a champion NBA player with the Los Angeles Lakers in the same era as Ali, spoke about what it was like to be in Ali’s presence.
“You almost felt a God-like presence around him,” said West, 78, who is now a board member with the Warriors.
”He had IT. He had IT. Certain people are courageous in doing what no other athlete probably would have dared to have done, particularly a black athlete.
“He was a magnificent person. I loved that guy.”
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes