Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes.
I was too young to remember him in his prime, but my father would tell me stories. I loved watching old videos of his fights, but what I loved even more were his interviews.
As a kid, I think the attraction came from him having a funny name like me, the very cool rhythms he used when he spoke (my favorite was “Float like a butterfly sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!”), and the way he could pick the rounds in which he would knock out his opponents. He had that effortless cool most iconic personalities possess. All of these attributes made him a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
The highlight of my 2002 All-Star appearance was Ali sitting courtside and having my picture taken with him. In later years I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of Ali’s personality, like his courage — not just in the ring but in his commitment to his beliefs — and his resilience. We often celebrate champions for winning, but what we tend to overlook is the championship spirit that drives them to get up when they’re knocked down. Ali always got up — inside and outside the ring.
Yet probably the most endearing thing to me about Ali was his boldness. He was bold enough to dance, to tell the world he was pretty, and to call himself the greatest long before he actually was. He had a vision for himself and his life — and he wasn’t afraid to proclaim that vision, even when he was the only one seeing it.
My father used to use a similar tactic with me when I was younger. He would always say to me, “You’re the best, Shareef. Don’t ever say anyone’s better than you.” He had such an overwhelming belief in me and a vision for my life, and he wasn’t afraid to proclaim that vision long before I was even good at basketball.
He was planting his own seeds in my mind, which encouraged me to become better on the court and in life.
Like most of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about current events and how we’re relating to each other in our country. I’ve been watching the news a lot, too.
It’s so easy to watch the news and focus on all of the problems we see — the way people are rioting and looting and fighting against each other. The struggle seems to be everywhere.
But there has never been a more important time to define our vision for the kind of communities, country, and world we want to live in — and then proclaim that vision out loud.
We need to take the same approach with our communities and our relationship with humanity as we would with any other goal or milestone we’re trying to accomplish: we need to imagine what we truly want, hold it in our vision, and work toward it every day.
The current state of the world is handing us a great opportunity to stop and reflect — to take the time to reimagine what community looks like to us, what community means to us, and how we can create a society that’s more socially just.
My experience as an athlete has taught me that if you go into anything thinking you can’t do or achieve something, you won’t. It was the dreaming and the envisioning I did — plus knowing where I wanted to end up — that helped me reach my goals. It literally created my success.
The same goes for our communities and our world. It’s critical that we spend time dreaming and envisioning, too, and to define what kind of community we’re working towards. It’s the only way we’ll ever create the kind of societies that work for everyone, regardless of race or any other factor.
It all begins in our minds. The way we think and the way we allow ourselves to think has a powerful effect, not only on us but on others and on our community.
If we’re focused on the problems and spend all of our time thinking about and speaking about those problems, we’re inadvertently creating a community that has more of them.
When we’re focused on the vision we truly want for our communities — and spend our time thinking about and proclaiming that vision to the people we meet — we’re helping to bring that vision into reality.
May we all spend time thinking about our vision for how we truly want to live, and let our thoughts and our proclamations bring it into being.