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Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Malcolm, and others like him

By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

Fundamental beliefs are the connective tissue for the generations.

Malcolm X, who would have turned 80 this week, met Cassius Clay at a mosque in Detroit. A year later, he hung out with Clay at Clay's training camp in Miami. At the time, Malcolm X was serving a suspension from the Nation of Islam. He was being punished for espousing his own beliefs. This was also about the time he first got wind of threats against his life.

Like you and me, Malcolm X sought diversion in a sporting event. Malcolm X went to Miami, where he watched Cassius Clay defeat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. After the fight, Clay announced that he was a Muslim. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

Ali never claimed allegiance to the so-called Black Muslims, but instead professed a belief in the tenets of Islam, the religion practiced by 700 million people worldwide. At the time, Islam was a religious sect whose foundation was believed to cater to the "needs of black people." Ali's fundamental beliefs kept him from participating in the Vietnam War, and for that, he was forced to give up his title.

Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace is known for his anger ... perhaps he should be known for something else.
In the marriage of fundamental belief and sport, Muhammad Ali was the most socially conscious athlete of his generation. And that marriage didn't end after Malcolm X was assassinated.

Like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the Detroit Pistons' Rasheed Wallace is a Muslim.

Basketball is a black man's game. No, I don't mean in terms of physical ability – as in, only black men can jump. I mean in a purely mathematical, opportunistic sense, it's a black man's game. Look at the numbers. Seventy-eight percent of the players in the NBA are black. Fourteen of the coaches are black. There's a powerful black presence in the front office. Whenever you or I (OK, mostly I) talk about a dearth of black coaches, we (OK, I) aren't talking about the NBA. When we talk about an American sport being wholly tethered to black culture, basketball is the game that comes to mind. And this time of year – playoff time – basketball is religion for some.

So back on that November night in Detroit, when basketball and the NBA collapsed on itself, we lost some of our religion. The Pacers and Pistons played a game, but when someone tossed a brew at Ron Artest, the game was briefly in peril. For about 20 minutes, basketball's heart stopped beating.

I noticed two things that night. Actually, I noticed two people. I noticed them because they weren't involved.

The first was Wallace. I'll go on record and say Wallace is my favorite modern athlete, and part of the reason I feel that way is what he did and did not do that night. As the building erupted in unspeakable violence, as players hit fans and fans spilled beer and threw chairs, 'Sheed was nowhere to be found. This is noteworthy because 'Sheed's reputation is one of volatile truculence, and his image is consistently enigmatic.

While he played for the Portland Trail Blazers, he was known more for his violent temper than his 16 points and six rebounds per game. Then last year, in a moment of unguarded honesty, he blurted out his feelings about this generation of athletes. He said, "I ain't no dumb-ass n----- out here'' who's just happy to be in the league.

Of course, he wisely back-pedaled from those comments. He shut his mouth for the rest of the season and labored as just another basketball player. But after his Pistons won the championship and were invited to the White House, the socially conscious man resurfaced. When asked what he would say to President Bush, Wallace told the Detroit Free Press: "I don't have [expletive] to say to him. I didn't vote for him. It's just something we have to do."

The other man who caught my attention that night was Reggie Miller. As teammate Jermaine O'Neal rained blows on that chubby little man wearing the impossibly snug Pistons jersey, Miller tried to keep the peace.

Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller is another player who should be admired for sticking to his beliefs ... and his love for the game.
It isn't Miller's political posturing that makes him special, but his fundamental beliefs that pertain to the game. The long-range jumper, the consistent defense, the full embrace of fundamental skills are becoming things of the past. Miller's time in the league is near its end. He had a good run. No, he had a great run. The fact it will end without championships or diamond-encrusted hardware isn't significant for me. Miller is part of a generation of players who took pride in every aspect of the game. Miller's story is one of loyalty.

The man was born and raised in Riverside, Calif. But he has stated that Indiana is his home, and that after he's done, he'll split his time between Indiana and California. They burned his house down in Indiana. We're not sure who "they" are, but that house is long gone. Yet he stayed loyal. He stayed with the cause. He stayed with the Pacers. In a recent documentary, Miller told us why he made this decision.

"I think the character of a man is to establish something where no one else has ever done before," Miller said.

Back in February, I went to a Pacers game. I'd heard that Reggie was calling it quits and I wanted to see him one more time. That night, they played against the Charlotte Bobcats. Miller didn't score until three minutes were left in the first half. He came careening off a screen and stopped just beyond the 3-point line, clacked his wrists together and popped a three, making the score 47-30.

Then he beat his teammates back on defense. He was assigned to Keith Bogans, a quick but uninspired big guard. On one possession, he chased Bogans around the court, hounding him as if he were a rookie trying to make the team. After 17 years, Miller was still playing with a sense of urgency that looks odd when compared with the languid cool of O'Neal.

The first time I saw Miller play was in February 1987. UCLA came to Stanford on a Friday night to play the Cardinal. The crowd was there, it seemed, mostly to jeer Miller, whose interactive personality has always made him a target for hecklers. Each time he got the ball, the crowd chanted his name. Miller hit a 3. The jeers got louder and more intense. They started calling him Cheryl, his sister's name. Miller hit another 3. He had 29 points that night, and passed Bill Walton to become UCLA's No. 2 all-time leading scorer. And he still got heckled.

Spike Lee once heckled Miller at a Pacers-Knicks playoff game, and Miller erupted with one of the most memorable performances ever witnessed in the postseason. And then Miller taunted Lee. You remember the choke sign and the glare he gave Spike after that game.

Spike was a fan in search of a diversion, but Miller, ever true to the game, showed him no mercy.

Lee is more than just a fan, though. He makes movies about black people. Actually, they're films about people, in which the lead characters are usually black, so a lot of folks call his movies "black films." One of those films was about Malcolm X. You might recall that the epic biography ends with several small black children – some from Harlem and some from Africa – standing up and proclaiming their identity.

"I am Malcolm X!" each one shouts.

My generation is commonly referred to as Generation X. How fitting is that? "X" represents the unknown. The day before he died, Malcolm X summed up his fundamental beliefs.

"I'm man enough to tell you that I can't put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now," he said. "But I'm flexible."

Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame."