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Our American icon: remembering Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali must be the greatest. The American Icon passed away last Friday at age 74.
Ali, the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal-winner, was a three-time heavyweight champion and remarkable philanthropist. Has there ever been an American male athlete who sacrificed more of himself for what he believed in his heart was right for social change?

During the three years from age 25, after being drafted by the U.S. to serve in Vietnam, Ali said no, he would not go. Most men, as we know, get drafted into Armed Forces service from age 17-20. Why did the Armed Forces select him so late? Because he was a champion? Because they could?larry-fitzgerald-6-9-2016-1

Ali, strangely, was selected at age 25 shortly after he had soundly beaten Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali was defiant, standing tall for what he believed in.
In my view, his Supreme Court victory years later was the single greatest victory for social change in American history: a Black man with the courage and conviction to fight for his life and sacrifice his accomplishments and not just settle because America said you have to do this because they said so. He started it by changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

In the turbulent 1960s, our leaders Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson, all fighting for us, stood in support of Ali’s right to not serve based on his religious belief as a Muslim and a member of the separatist Nation of Islam. So many Whites in this country hated Ali for that decision. The mainstream media castigated him, and award-winning columnists like Red Smith slammed Ali in print.

They called him defiant and no more than another punk protesting against his country and the war through demonstration. It set the tone for St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood battling baseball and the reserve clause. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

NBA star Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and said, “I may be 7 feet, 2 inches, but I nelarry-fitzgerald-6-9-2016-2ver felt taller than when standing in his [Ali’s] shadow.” Over the last 10 years I got to know Ali and his wife Lonnie better through the remarkable Foundation “Fight Night” in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve attended many events as Ali raised millions of dollars for Parkinson’s disease. His dad had it also; it had nothing to do with boxing.

My son Larry Jr. stars for the Arizona Cardinals. He connected me with the Cardinals’ team physician, Doctor Wayne E. Kuhl, and he has been my physician. He has been Ali’s personal doctor as well for many years, and several times while I was visiting with the doctor on my health issues, his next patient was the greatest Ali on the same day.
I can’t tell you how many times I pinched myself and looked to the heavens. Me and Ali with the same doctor — unbelievable.

Ali was the man for me throughout my 37 years of reporting. He set the tone, and through his sacrifice for right he taught me and millions that life is about having the courage to fight for what is right and hold those who are shortsighted and wrong accountable. Thank you, Champ. It’s no secret you are the Greatest of All Time. And always will be.

Before the finals: Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves vision

Golden State vs. Cleveland in the NBA Finals — I can’t wait. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as being on the inside watching two great, gifted teams loaded with talented players that worked into a position in the NBA Finals’ best of seven seeking NBA glory.

Kevin Love, once the face of the Timberwolves, was traded away two years ago by Flip Saunders to Cleveland. He will have a chance to help LeBron James, the first player in 50 years to reach the NBA Finals six years in a row, win the first-ever NBA Championship or title of any kind by Cleveland in 52 years.

Before my NBA Finals journey, I visited with Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves’ new president and head coach. His general manager is Scott Hayden. Their job is move the organization out of the lottery 12 years in a row and into the NBA mainstream.

The following is from my conversation with Thibodeau (TT), former NBA Coach of the Year who won an NBA title with Boston before leading the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs five years in a row.

LF: Welcome, Tom, to the Timberwolves, and congratulations on the opportunity to
be here as president and head coach. Talk about that journey to be the Timberwolves’ president and head coach.

TT: It’s great to be here. I’m excited about it obviously. Last year I had the opportunity to take a step back and study the league from a much broader view, and when I was studying the Timberwolves they had all the things I was looking for. They have a very bright young core and a large window here for the team. But there’s a lot of work to be done to make the playoffs.


Photo by Steve Floyd

LF: Talk about this challenge here in comparison to the Chicago challenge.

TT: In some ways it reminded me of Chicago when I arrived there. Derek Rose was 22 years old. Joakim Noah was 25. We had to build a foundation to get going. I was very fortunate. I had a great group of guys that battled like crazy. Unfortunately, Derek got hurt. I have a lot of respect for all those guys there the way they competed.

In coming here, when I started to study the team, I was looking at Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and a number of the other young players. You start looking at Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones and Nemanja.

You have a good young core to build around. When you look at the West, I think things are changing a little bit. Obviously, the teams at the top are incredibly strong, but I think we have to find a way to build our foundation and improve daily. And if we do that, we’re doing the right things. The results will take care of themselves.

LF: Your experience is in the East, and now, being in the West, how do you adapt?

TT: I was in the West when I was with Houston, and then of course going to Boston and then Chicago, you’re in the East. There has been a shift in some ways, too. There are some teams that are playing similar styles to the West.

I think you have to be ready to do both when you study what wins in the playoffs. You see it’s teams that are strong on both sides of the ball. We have to have a good understanding of what goes into winning. And then we’ll take it from there.

I think when you study your team and analyze your strengths and weaknesses, you want to play to those strengths and cover up your weaknesses. We’ll figure out the right pace and what our strengths are, and we’ll play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses.


Lynx come to Minnesota’s rescue

What is the primary purpose of sports? Is it to win? Or is it to perform as beautifully as one can financially and, in doing so, to shine a light on what it means to be human? Sports Illustrated asked that question recently, and it got me to thinking.

The defending WNBA Champions are 3-0 again, and if you look at the calendar, the season started almost a month ahead of last year. In 2015 the Lynx captured their third WNBA title, and early signs look good for Minnesota grabbing a fourth title going back-to-back.

The early start to the WNBA season is because this is an Olympic year, and with four 2016 Olympic players as starters on paper, the Lynx are certainly the team to beat. Cheryl Reeve is the league’s best coach, and she has added some depth. The Lynx look like they are motivated to prove something.

It’s been tough sledding for most of the teams in Minnesota. The Vikings won the NFC North but lost a home playoff game. The Wild made the playoffs for the fourth straight year, fired Head Coach Mike Yeo, and were eliminated in the first round.

The Gophers football team finished 5-7. Head Coach Jerry Kill resigned for health reasons, and men’s basketball under Richard Pitino was awful at 8-23.

I see where the Big Ten increased revenue by 33 percent. They did it by adding three schools — Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska — a $110 million increase over 2014. The holdover 11 schools, includinBasketball imageg Minnesota, got $32.4 million each. I ask, is that winning?

The Timberwolves were in the NBA lottery for the 12th straight season. Losing Flip Saun
ders to cancer in October turned the 2016 season into a year of survival. Interim Coach Sam Mitchell was 29-53, a 13-win improvement over the 16 wins under Saunders. Mitchell, General Manager Milt Newton, and the entire basketball operations staff were fired.

The Twins, after 43 games, are off to the worst start in franchise history, 11-32, and on pace to lose 120 games.

This is year 20 of the WNBA, and the league appears to be stronger than ever with lots of talented players and several really good teams. The Lynx are like a breath of fresh air in this state as the big boys keep falling down and making excuses for player suspensions and injuries, just one failure after another.

The Lynx simply line up and go play. Not only do they entertain us — they also win consistently. They play together, have fun, and have established a standard from which they don’t back off. Fans appreciate hard
work by dedicated professionals who deliver positive results.

From July 23 to August 25 there will be no WNBA during the Olympics Games. We have a long way to go; however, last year’s fast start led to another title.