NEW YORK — What must it like to be an athlete in Cleveland, from Akron, and have Jim Brown say about him: “I approve in all of the things he does.”
That’s what’s like to be LeBron James.
James, Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell were formally honored Monday night by Sports Illustrated at the magazine’s annual gala — James accepting the Sportsperson of the Year for 2016 and the others the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.
The red-carpet and awards dinner was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
It was of little coincidence that Monday HBO announced that James and business partner were producing a documentary about Ali, the champion boxer and civil rights activist who died earlier this year.
From James’ $2.5 million donation for the Ali exhibit at the Smithsonian, to his role in the unnamed documentary for HBO about him, to James being among the athletes who lent his voice to social activism in 2016, James continued to cherish being named Sportsperson of the Year at the same time three athlete-activist giants in Brown, Russell, and Abdul-Jabbar were honored in the name of Ali.
“This award is for the great Muhammad Ali,” James said in remarks given off the cuff, in acceptance of the award. “For Bill Russell, for Jim Brown, for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because at the end of the day I’m not standing up here if you four gentlemen … don’t sit at that table in the 1960s. It wasn’t about you guys, those four dominant athletes at that time, didn’t care what happened to them. They sacrificed everything that could have happened to them … their calling and their reasoning for doing what they had to do, was for a night like tonight.
“That in 2016, in Brooklyn, New York, we all can sit up here as African-Americans, as white Americans, as Mexicans, as people from the Dominican Republic … Puerto Rico, that we all can just sit in one room and say wow, this is an unbelievable night, not only in sports but in life.”
James, 31, is just the second athlete (Tiger Woods) to win Sports Illustrated’s award twice. He previously won in 2012. James was introduced by rapper, business friend, and mogul Jay-Z, who without naming names chided Knicks president Phil Jackson to use “posse” to define James and his business associates.
“Yeah, that’s right, we know where we came from,” Jay-Z said as the crowd groaned. ” The only difference between us and someone with an MBA from Wharton, or Sloan, or Berkeley or Stanford is opportunity.
“LeBron James has provided his friends with that opportunity. Very few businessmen are better than Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Randy Mims and the rest of his posse.”
Russell did not attend the event, and Abdul-Jabbar was whisked away on the red carpet before he could speak to cleveland.com and the Akron Beacon Journal.
Brown, 80, walking with his Cleveland Browns cane down the carpet, said
“I think LeBron is a unique champion.” It was Brown who was the last star to bring a championship to Cleveland (in 1964) before James led the Cavs to the NBA crown in June.
It was also Brown who hosted Ali and other prominent black athletes in Cleveland in 1967 to discuss with Ali his conscientious objection to fighting in Vietnam that James mentioned in his speech.
Brown said “I approve in all of the things that he does and I marvel at the ability to think about how to be a great team player.
“How to use your money and your fame in the correct way by helping others, by being a good family man,” Brown said. “He represents what it’s all about, in my opinion. I really applaud him for it and it’s God-given because the selfishness that goes on today should’ve touched him, but he is certainly unselfish.”
Brown still marvels at James’ saluting of him during the Cavs’ 2015 playoffs.
“You cannot buy that,” Brown said. “You must feel great about it because this guy is a champion, I’m an old guy that’s showing up at a game watching him play and he’s recognizing me. But the Muhammad Ali award is so great to be able to say LeBron and Muhammad Ali. That’s fantastic. Those are champions.”
James said Brown was “just a guy that paved the way for me.
“He paved the way for all of us athletes to be able to have a voice outside our respected sport and for us to be able to play the respective sports that we want to,” James said in a brief interview on the red carpet. “They all lived in a time when there was places they weren’t allowed, there was places where they were criticized for what they did. For Jim Brown to be a staple in (not only) northeast Ohio and Cleveland, but for sport in general, it means a lot.”
Comedian J.B. Smoove hosted the ceremony, taking the stage doing his best impression of James’ famous, pregame chalk toss.
“I don’t know how you do this every game,” Smooth said as he choked on the powder. James, of course, hasn’t done the chalk toss in nearly two full seasons.
Among the star athletes in attendance were Indians All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, recipient of the Rising Star award, 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps (honored as the greatest Olympian of all time), former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Ray Lewis, and just-retired Red Sox star David Ortiz.
Lindor, who said on the red carpet that he had never met James but would like to, said on stage: “The people in cleveland, LeBron James, salute to you. The way you guys got behind us and the way the city got behind us was unreal. I never could’ve guessed how fun it would be to play in Cleveland.”
The Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Chicago Cubs in extra innings. James and the Cavs were publicly supportive of the Tribe attending multiple playoff games and addressing the Progressive Field crowds.
“As I stand up here as the recipient of the 2016 Sportsperson of the Year, this isn’t about me,” James said. This is much bigger than me and I just want to say thank you to everyone who showed up tonight.”