Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!
Arthur Ashe, from the documentary “Citizen Ashe” at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.
Sam Pollard, who directed “MLK/FBI” and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta’ Be Me,” has teamed with Rex Miller— listed as both the Director and Cinematographer—to produce an informative 96-minute documentary entitled “Citizen Ashe.”
The film traces Arthur Ashe’s career as the first and best Black male tennis player. Ashe was the first Black man to win the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. Along the way, talking heads including John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Ashe’s younger brother Johnny, and various luminaries of the sports world talk about this amazing athlete who was born In 1943 and died of AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 49 in 1993. Ashe’s widow, Jeannie Moutoussamy-Ashe was Executive Producer for the film. The entertaining, thoughtful documentary testifies to Ashe’s spoken goal: “I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis.”
Born in Richmond, Virginia to a mother (Mattie) who died at age 27 from heart-related disorders when Arthur was only 6, it is worth noting that Ashe was the documented descendant of a West African woman brought to America in 1735 aboard the slave ship Daddington and subsequently owned by North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe.
Growing up in the segregated South, Ashe was fortunate that his father was in charge of a Richmond, Virginia sports complex, Brookfield Park. The park included basketball courts, a pool, 3 baseball diamonds and 4 tennis courts. Ashe started playing tennis on the courts there at the age of 7 and was ultimately noticed and given instruction by a local physician, Dr. Johnson, a tennis enthusiast who had built a tennis court in his own back yard and had coached Althea Gibson.
Still, Black players were denied participation in many tournaments and could not use the indoor courts in Richmond, so Ashe relocated to St. Louis’ Sumner High School at the invitation of 62-year-old teacher Richard Hudlin to complete his high school education. While there, with Ashe on the team, Sumner High won the United States Interscholastic Tennis Tournament.
Ashe was offered a scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles in 1963 and headed off to Los Angeles, while also involved with ROTC that would lead to 2 years in the Army to help him with college expenses (he was assigned to West Point and put in charge of their tennis program).
In 1963 Ashe was named the #1 player in the world and was #3 in 1965. His entire life changed with the much more accepting nature of racial interaction in California. Other athletes were beginning to speak out against racism, with moments like the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Ashe found himself torn between his own impulses, learned at his father’s knee, [“Don’t do anythingthat will hurt yourself later.”] and his sympathy for the Black athletes who were demonstrating and standing up for their rights. As Ashe said, “If you were a moderate, it was the same thing as being an Uncle Tom.” In an interview, Ashe acknowledges that, “Being the only one, I’m a drawing card, whether I like it or not.”
As a “drawing card,” other Black athletes were pressuring the tennis star to join them in protests against unequal treatment. He responded to calls to boycott the Olympics by saying, “That’s not my way.” But he allowed that hanging back from joining the movement caused him to feel that “I didn’t like myself very much.”
As the documentary puts it, “There was a new breed of Black athlete.” Arthur, as a child, had been taught to return every ball within two inches of the line and never argue with an umpire’s decision, so protest of a strident sort was not his upbringing.
In these years, the country seemed to be coming apart with the assassination of JFK, RFK, and MLK. Fifty thousand National Guard troops were quelling riots in the streets of U.S. cities. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination hit Arthur particularly hard, as he had been with RFK on the campaign trail in June of 1968, just the day before he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
South Africa’s policy of apartheid also became a cause that Ashe invested in, with a sincere admiration and a growing friendship with Nelson Mandela arising from Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment for the cause of equal rights.
Just as President Barack Obama modeled on Mandela, so, too, did Arthur Ashe. It was, he said, a great honor and privilege to get to meet Mandela and to become a personal friend.
Ashe is quoted as saying that he wanted to rebut the commonly held misconception that athletes were “all brawn, no brains.” He did that with his masterfully planned victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon Finals. Ashe countered Connors’ technique of serving the ball by hitting it on the rise by taking the pace off the ball. He gave Connors only soft junk shots (dinks, drop shots and lobs) to deal with. Ashe won the match and the title at the age of 32.
He would retire four years later with 818 wins, 260 losses, 51 titles and $1,584,909 in tournament winnings, plus wins for the U.S. Davis Cup team three years running, in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Ashe coached the Davis Cup team from 1981 to 1985. He had to contend with obnoxious personalities who were the polar opposite of his own, like John McEnroe.
We see McEnroe acting like a jerk in old footage and commenting on Ashe’s supervision of him on the Rider Cup teams. (McEnroeconsistently played on Rider Cup teams for 12 years, while Jimmy Connors refused to do so and even lodged a lawsuit against Ashe at one point over their differing opinions on what the Davis Cup play meant to the nation).
Arthur Ashe’s widow, Jeanne, ends the film sharing Arthur’s words: “We both want to distress the comfortable and comfort the distressed.” Commenting on how losing a kind soul like Arthur Ashe illustrates what a treasure he was during life, Jeanne talked about their adopted daughter Camera, who lost her dad at the age of 7, just as Arthur, himself, had lost his own mother to heart disease when he was only 6.
Arthur Ashe’s funeral attracted 6,000 mourners. Then- Governor Douglas Wilder allowed his body to lay in state at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, where an additional 5,000 mourners paid their respects. Andrew Young, who had married Ashe in 1977, buried him after a service held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center on February 10, 1993. Ashe was buried next to his mother, Mattie.
The action shots of Ashe and tennis contemporaries in action were well-chosen. His demeanor in all recorded interviews or appearances illustrate how a champion should behave A clip is included in the documentary that shows Obama saying that the two athletes that he most emulated and admired were Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. It’s a great way to learn about this fabled athlete.
Proudfoot attended film school at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and, in partnership with the New York Times, Breakwater Films has helmed “The Queen of Basketball,” the story of Lusia “Lucy” Harris Stewart. Skillfully interweaving film footage with Lucy’s own observations and with charming background music, this is a very well-done and insightful short documentary.
As Proudfoot says of his documentary, “The visual legacy of Lusia “Lucy” Harris, as told from memory in her own voice, painted a portrait of one of the most important American athletes of the 20th century.”
Ben and his team digitized nearly 10,000 film negatives and 16,000 feet of film that had lain in the college vaults for 50 years to produce this 22 and ½ minute documentary. The film had its World Premiere at 2021’s New York Tribeca Film Festival. It won Best Documentary Short at the 2021 Palm Springs Film Festival, which is an Oscar-qualifying film festival.
Told in her own words, Lusia “Lucy” Harris, #45, from Cleveland, Mississippi, is living testimony to the inequities in women’s versus men’s sports that Title IX started to address in 1972. Lucy, at 6’ 3”, was a gifted athlete who led Delta State and Memphis State to three consecutive national titles with the AIAW (Association for Inter-collegiate Athletics for Women). Lucy was also on the women’s U.S. Olympic team the very first year that women’s basketball was admitted to the Olympics, snagging the silver medal and scoring the first-ever basket for women at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Lucy, the 1976 Amateur Athlete of the Year, was the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Coached by Margaret Wade of Mississippi’s Delta State, the Lady Statesmen played to a packed 4,500-seat fieldhouse for the women’s basketball games, double the men’s following. They also flew to their games, while the men took the bus. The biggest rivalry, documented in Proudfoot’s film, was Immaculata College, which had been the two-time national champion before Delta State beat them 90 to 81.
And yet nobody today knows Lucy’s name.
As Lucy muses in the documentary, “If I’d been a man, there would have been options for me to go further” (after graduating from college). There were none. Instead, Lucy married her high school boyfriend, George, and turned down a try-out offer from the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
Instead, Lucy had five children, endured mental problems (including a nervous breakdown) after her playing days were over, and worked at her old high school (Amanda Elzy Panthers) as head coach.
This short documentary comes at the perfect time in history, when women are demanding equity in pay and opportunity. In much of the world, that seems to be happening, but in a world with Honor Killings and young girls like Malala mortally wounded merely for wanting to acquire a good education, a film like this is more than timely. It is necessary.
Filmmaker Sally Aitken took the glorious 16 millimeter film of Valerie May Taylor and her husband, Ron, and has made it into a 95-minute exploration of the fearless team, who braved the oceans of the world to study and photograph the alien world beneath the water, especially focusing on sharks.
It was not their original intention to become conservationists for the dwindling species of sharks, but that is what happened after the two first made their mark at spearfishing. Ron was four-time Australian champion and world champion in the sport and the beautiful blonde Valerie was a Pamela Anderson of the underwater oceans, inhabiting a male culture of the fifties and killing one Great White shark before she realized that the animals were beautiful in their own killing machine way and should be preserved.
In fact, Peter Benchley’s (“Jaws” author) widow Wendy offers up the sobering news that there are only 10% of the world’s sharks still swimming, since 100 million a year have been being harvested for the past 20 years.
Valerie, now in her eighties, tells us that “It’s not that I didn’t want children. I wanted to do other things. I waned to have my own special life.”
That she survived and much more. A polio survivor, she and Ron traveled the world, trying to make a living at what they loved doing most: diving. In 1974 Peter Benchley, who knew about the pair’s exploits, wrote a book about a shark (which his wife did not think would “work”). It became “Jaws” with 29-year-old Steven Spielberg directing in only his second major film.
Spielberg wanted the shark to be 25 feet long, although Valerie and Ron told him that Great Whites were normally only about 13 feet long. “That’s okay,” said Spielberg, “we’ll just make the diving cage half-sized.” This they did, hiring a half-sized actor to play the diver in the steel cage. Unfortunately, the very small man was not a diver and not a shark enthusiast. When he saw a real White Shark, he said, “I should have asked for more money!”
Give-it-a-go Valerie, as she was sometimes called because of her fearlessness, is shown hand-feeding a Great White Shark off the back of a boat and her changed attitude towards preserving sharks is credited with the fact that 80 to 100 bull sharks are now back at the reef off the island of Fiji.
Now widowed after Ron’s death from acute myeloid leukemia, Valerie shares the thought that she will never give up diving and that she will “probably be diving from my wheelchair.”
The film has astounding underwater footage, remastered from the original film shot by Ron Taylor, interspersed with television appearances the duo made on talk shows around the globe. The scenes of a Great White shark getting hung up in the boat apparatus during the filming of “Jaws” is riveting (we learn that it was not in the script, but they used the footage) and the entire project reveals a world beneath the waves of which Valerie May Taylor, herself, said, “It was a different, alien world. I was just a visitor.”
Scottish bicyclist tries to qualify for the Tour de France after a 2-year ban, at age 37.
Two documentaries showing at SXSW deal with the difficulty of being an athlete and hanging it up (i.e., retiring). Those two are “Time Trial” by Finlay Pretsel of Scotland and “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” directed by Robert S. Bader. Cavett is 81 now and traveled to Austin with the documentary.
Scottish director Pretsel shot film of Scottish bicyclist David Millar’s final attempt to qualify for the Tour de France after a 2-year suspension for doping. It was shot, colorfully, from the point-of-view of the cyclist. We learn that Millar got his first road bike at 15 and, while he only wanted one win at the Tour, he has competed there 12 times.
Robert Bader, director of “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes.
Millar won in 2003, but was later shown to have used drugs. He was banned for 2 years for using EPC. He has felt himself a cheat since that time and this is a story of redemption.
Millar’s trial is Pelleton, a tough gig and, ultimately, Millar is cut from the tour by Charlie, the team leader, and we see him shedding tears in a moment of extreme vulnerability. I, for one, felt he had the look of a haunted man, and I wondered if Lance Davenport looks this way when you meet him.
The director of the bicycling documentary said, “I feel like I’ve had this in the back of my mind for many years. The only UK cyclist in the Tour de France—the best Scottish cyclist ever.” He did share with us that he considered the film to be capturing “this bizarre sport in a microcosm” and that the rest of the crew that Millar rode for and with was not that supportive.
At the end of the colorful documentary, Pretsel was to take questions, but he was down the hall watching “Heredity” so the bicyclist, himself, got up and said, “Oh, well, I can talk about the film.” He was 37 when they shot the documentary and is 41 now. It was very late this night; Millar had the haunted look of a man who could benefit from counseling as he said, “I’m a very twisted human being.”He added, “I wish there was a film that existed of me winning.”
When I asked what he plans to do now, at 41, his cycling career over, he said, “I hope to do things that are worth telling stories about.”
Muhammad Ali & Dick Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes
In the Dick Cavett/Muhammad Ali tapes we also see a champion—-the only fighter to ever to win the Heavyweight Championship crown three times—who is loathe to stop fighting when he should. Cassius Clay’s early history is portrayed, and then the documentary moves on to the friendship between Ali and Cavett that developed because, as Ali said, “You’re the only one who ever asks me on when I lose.”
After one particularly brutal beating, Ali’s cheeks are as round and bulbous as a chipmunk’s. He is a gracious loser, giving credit to the fighters who have bested him. He calls Cavett his “main man” and the two are shown at Ali’s training camp, where, at one point, Cavett even dons green trunks and dances around in the ring.
There is also a notable tape where Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali are both on Cavett’s show together and they literally pick him up, physically. All-in-all, the appearances, shown together like this, are like a time capsule of the sixties and the turbulent era of the Vietnam War, which Ali opposed. When Ali converted to Islam and would not fight in Vietnam, he was stripped of his title and lost years of his fighting career, after which he was no longer “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.” I saw him on campus at the University of Iowa when he was not allowed to fight, and the Union was jammed with students like me who had come to hear what this icon had to say.
Both films treat the difficulty of a pro athlete adjusting to hanging it up forever. However, regular human beings also have to hang up their cleats at some point, in terms of giving up their day jobs, jobs which have also defined them. The thing that helps make it more palatable for a professional bicyclist or a professional fighter has to be the tremendous paychecks some made during their heyday, not to mention the adulation of the crowds, which we see in both documentaries.
The downside is that a sport like boxing can doom those retired from it to diseases like Parkinson’s Disease, which Ali suffered from during the rest of his life. The film is a powerful argument for more stringent protection for athletes in all contact sports. The image of Ali lighting the Olympic torch, arm shaking visibly from the effects of the debilitating disease, is both touching and historic.
I’d recommend the Ali/Cavett documentary to anyone who was alive in the sixties and remembers them, or to anyone who wants to learn what was happening in this country during that turbulent era.
Well, because of the idea that installing a Windows 10 would be an “improvement,” I’ve been without ANY Internet service in Chicago since October 28th. A technician came out on a Saturday, but he needed access to a closet that is kept locked and can only be accessed by the building manager. (We have a building manager, but only Monday through Friday).
I was able to get a board member of the building to let us in, but more bad news awaited us in that he needed to “put a ticket in” to AT&T to do some sort of “upgrade” and, long story longer, he is coming back on November 14th to (hopefully) put an end to my computer woes at the condo and exponentially increase the speed of my new computer while reducing my bill by half. (I’ll believe THAT when it happens.) When he left, he didn’t make it clear that he had left me high and dry with no Internet AT ALL, so I was pretty much up a creek without a paddle unless I wanted to find a Starbucks. Since I was waiting on Deborah Riley Draper (director of “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice”) to respond to my questions, I decided to wait until returning to East Moline, 3 and 1/2 hours away, to continue with movie reviews.
We were hanging around in Chicago during the World Series hysteria. (In fact, my son drove all the way to Cleveland from Pittsburgh and was present at the 7th game last night; ticket price $998; and my husband and son bought rooftop seats at Wrigley for Game #4 for $1008 apiece.) The priorities quickly shifted from movies to baseball and I’m not sure if we are driving back to Chicago now for the homecoming or what. (Keep in mind, Chicago has waited for over 100 years for this!)
I am now using my desktop (Windows 7) in the basement, since it is not involved in the upgrade (yet) or the slow speed I had always blamed on my Vista computer when it seems it may have been the fault of the building’s Internet provider not being as fast as possible. While I have a laptop, it was affected by the same issues in Chicago and it is a Windows 10, which I am still learning how to fully operate.
No, I do not currently like it, but that’s par for the course for me and new technology, which is ironic when you consider that I owned and operated a Prometric Testing Center (computers) from 1995 to 2003 (along with Sylvan Learning Center #3301 in Bettendorf, Iowa).
I just got home and working on “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” which is now up. It opens in December on HBO. I asked Deborah Riley Draper (its director) if it was “okay” to run with a review now and she was more than positive on that idea, but she also has not sent back her responses to my 10 questions and my last words to her were: “I’ll wait to hear from you to write up the film.”
I’ve now given up on “waiting” for her, so I can get on the review, and I’ll do “Heartstone: from the film festival, as well, and I may write something on “Hacksaw Ridge.”
So, it’s been All Baseball, All the Time here. The son and heir got roughly 3 hours of sleep after deciding on the spur of the moment to drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland for the game, with no ticket to get in. He then flew back home to Austin today and just called us from St. Louis.
Meanwhile, we will be flying to Austin on Nov. 15 to close on a house there that started being built for us in July. (No, we’re not selling the other 2).
“Fantastic Lies” is an ESPN film directed by Marina Zenovich that explored the Duke Lacrosse case that exploded into the public consciousness 10 years ago. Most television viewers or newspaper readers know that the 48 white, privileged Duke Lacrosse team members had the bad judgment to hold a party at their rented house in Durham and hired two African-American females to dance and strip at the party. The girls were contacted through an escort service and were to be paid $400 each. What happened after that, if anything, was the crux of the criminal case that almost saw 3 young men go to jail for 20 to 30 years for a crime they did not commit. The female who accused the young men of rape was emotionally unstable. She had had treatment for same in 2005. She was also the single mother of 2 young children. When she showed up at the Lacrosse party high, she and her fellow dancer performed for less than 10 minutes, then locked themselves in a bathroom. Later, the woman making the complaint, Crystal Mangum, got drunk and passed out. She made a visit to the emergency room with minor injuries and a rape kit was administered. That visit might have led to questioning her line of work and her failure to be a proper parent, with possible loss of her 2 children to DCFS, so charging the team with rape may have seemed like a way to deflect authorities from knowledge of her line of work. [In 2013, Mangum ended up in jail for the second-degree murder of her boyfriend.] The 28-year-old Crystal is described by her former Sunday school teacher as “someone who made up reality as she went along.” Crystal was not emotionally or psychologically stable. She was used as a pawn by the District Attorney’s office to gain publicity for the re-election campaign of prosecutor Mike Nifong. Nifong was not only fired for his railroading of the three boys, but was disbarred and spent one night in jail. Many peripheral truths are revealed in the documentary. The presumption of guilt of the 48 players—none of whom had sexual contact with either woman—was drummed to a fever pitch by TV talking heads like Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly. One of the boy’s parents said, “It was as though a Molotov cocktail landed in the community.” Reporter Ruth Sheehan wrote an article saying, “We know. We know you know,” suggesting that the team members needed to rat out the three suspects within their ranks who were allegedly guilty. She later wrote an apology for making an assumption that is proven to be totally false. Three young men from the team were ultimately selected from a photo line-up (a line-up which violated the North Carolina Durham Police Department’s own rules, as there were no non-lacrosse players pictures in the mix) by the accuser. She singled out Collin Finnerty, team co-captain Reade Seligmann and Kyle Dowd as the three who had raped her and claimed to be “100% certain.” The chief investigator on the case, Detective Mark Gottlieb, doctored Crystal’s initial descriptions of her assailants to fit the three she selected from the pictures. Mark Gottlieb left the police department in 2008. He committed suicide in 2014. During his career, he had a long history of overly aggressive prosecution of alleged criminals. The three families of the accused, most from Northern locations like Long Island, now entered the fray to try to save their young sons’ lives. Said one parent, “This was an all-out war that had to be won.” As one of the defense attorneys said to the defendants, “Whatever life you had before March 13th (the date of the party) is gone. That life is never going to happen.” One young man’s father is quoted: “Had they gone to a North Carolina prison for a week, they’d either be dead or wish they were.” The three families “lawyered up.” Teams of lawyers began poring over the DNA evidence, the cell phone records of both the accused and the accuser, and other evidence. The three law teams worked together for their clients.
A neighbor testified that the women had arrived at midnight. The cell phone records proved that one of the defendants, Dave Evans, was not even in the house when the attacks were supposed to have occurred (he was at an ATM machine and is seen on the video) and the other boys accused were on their cell phones when Ms. Magnum claimed they were assaulting her, (as was she.) Sixty-three days after the party, Dave Evans, co-captain and one of the three defendants, said, “You have all been told some fantastic lies. This case has been taken out to the news media by a person seeking public office.” Even Mike Nifone’s campaign manager said, “I knew in my heart that day that all of this was a lie.” The case really fell apart when one of the attorneys cross-examined the DNA expert. This particular attorney (Bradley Bannon) had bought the equivalent of a “DNA for Dummies” book and was absolutely obsessed with understanding and making sense of the over 2-foot high pile of papers involving DNA results dumped on the defense during discovery. This young attorney was able to get the DNA expert to admit that the District Attorney told him to exclude any evidence except that which would convict the accused. There were physical DNA traces of between 7 and 11 other men on fingernails. There was more DNA from the DNA analyst, Brian. Meehan, who conducted the tests, than from all of the 48 members of the lacrosse team combined. When Brian Meehan admitted in court that there was no DNA evidence linking any of the lacrosse team to Crystal, “all of a sudden a central truth erupted. They had to work to get the place where these kids were.” Brad Bannon, the attorney who had made it his mission to understand the electrofarrigam charts of DNA evidence in a marathon week-long session, capably cross examined Mr. Meehan and said, “I felt like I was in a sports movie.” This was a reference to the fact that none of the defense team was aware that the DNA expert for the prosecution was going to be testifying that day, and only Brad had studied up on the DNA to such great lengths to be able to point out where the tests exonerated his clients. As they left the courtroom after Brian Meehan’s testimony, Judge Smith staring at District Attorney Mike Nifong sternly, the defense attorneys said, “He (Nifong) seemed to not realize that a calamity had just occurred. I wondered if he knew his case had imploded.” A JOURNALISTIC TRAGEDY As one of the accused boy’s fathers said, during testimony, “There are no Walter Cronkites or Edward R. Murrows any more.” Even the local paper admitted, “We should have tamped our outrage and waited to see.”
Another telling quote from the film with political ramifications this presidential season was this: “None of it was true, but it got reported as truth over and over and then it became true.” Said another parent, “They wanted it to be true.” The usual suspects who come out of the woodwork—Jesse Jackson, Bill O’Reilly, Nancy Grace—were all over the case and all were wrong in rushing to judgment. The team was forced to cancel its entire season and they had been an NCAA contender. Lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler, who stood by his team, was forced to resign; he had been at Duke for 16 years. None of the lacrosse team members accused would be interviewed for the documentary, although their parents were quoted. Dave Evans, the co-captain of the team who spoke for his teammates during a press conference, said, “My ultimate aspiration moving forward is to make everyone know that they defended the truth. The facts are the facts. The truth is the truth.” The University settled out of court with all members of the lacrosse team. The three accused players have become involved with the Innocence Project, which seeks to use DNA evidence to prove that criminals were unjustly imprisoned. Already, a former conviction of District Attorney Mike Nifong, a man who had served 20 years in prison, was exonerated by DNA evidence. Authorities are looking back over all of Mike Nifong’s cases to see if he railroaded more than one innocent person.
Wisconsin’s Big Ten team knocked off the unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats in a frenzied finish that saw the Wisconsin Badgers emerge as the ultimate winners who will face Duke for the national NCAA championship on Monday, April 6th.
As we were in Cancun, the bar of the Royal Sands represented a cross section of fans from both Kentucky and Wisconsin, but I’d have to give the nod to the Wisconsin fans, who came with their red and white shirts and cheered noisily throughout.
Fifty years ago today (February 25, 1964), Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston (aka, “the Big Bear”) to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was “the Scowl” versus “the Mouth” in Miami.
Muhammad Ali and me: Iowa City, 1968:
When I read that today was the 50-year anniversary of the Clay/Liston fight (Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, what he called his “slave name,” until after the fight), I remembered the day Muhammad Ali visited Iowa City, Iowa and spoke at the Iowa Memorial Union. I was there. I was one of many students crowded into the room.
His anti-war message against the war in Vietnam was what drew me to his speech. At the time, it did not make Muhammad Ali popular, just as the student protests at Berkeley had made student protest leader Mario Savio much reviled in 1965, three years earlier, when I was a student on campus at the University of California at Berkeley. Today, there is a statue of the (now-deceased) Mario Savio on the campus grounds, and Muhammad Ali’s name is known and revered around the world. And, yes, perhaps reviled by some for being “mouthy” and proving he was as “good” and as “pretty” and as “fast” and as “great” as he always claimed to be. [It’s amazing the insights that time gives to events happening in the immediacy of the present.] Like many young people of the sixties, I thought it was unfair that speaking out against the war might land the heavyweight champ in prison. (He was facing 5 years in jail and a $10,000 fine for refusing to serve in Vietnam). Ali was also denied the opportunity to do what he did best—box— and 4 of his prime athletic years were taken from him. He was stripped of his title and banned from fighting from age 25 until he was 29. (March of 1967 until October of 1970). Many sports experts have speculated about how that might have affected his legacy, since he did mount a comeback and fought well past his prime, winning the coveted heavyweight boxing crown three times.
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay)
Ali’s standing up and speaking out on principle emboldened even Martin Luther King, Jr. to push more strenuously for human rights and racial justice and equality for African-American citizens. Ultimately, the Supreme Court overthrew the previous court decision that denied Ali conscientious objector status, and he was able to return to boxing in 1970, beating Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970. But when I heard him speak, “live,” his future was very much up in the air. Soon after his return to the ring, Ali lost to Joe Frazier in what has been dubbed the Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. I still remember my husband’s excitement when he came home from the closed circuit grainy televised match. Time frame of Ali’s Iowa City Speech
Ali’s speech on campus happened between March of 1967 and March of 1968, although the University archives say it was 1969. I am fairly certain this is wrong. (I was married and living in the Quad Cities by March of 1968. Ali’s appearance in Iowa City had to have taken place during the first semester of 1967-1968 when I was still on campus and living at 229 Iowa Avenue. I remember being present. I am certain I didn’t drive BACK to campus from East Moline, so it was in the fall semester of school year 1967-1968). I always tried to take in speeches and concerts by any Big Name speaking on campus, which led me to hear Saul Bellow speak, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio play, and Booker T and the MGs perform “Green Onions” and Johnny Mathis (remember him?) sing in the Union. Many years later, I did drive back, to hear former President Bill Clinton speak and to hear Ben Folds (without the Ben Folds Five). I remember Ali’s message, which was characteristic of the anti-war message he was delivering at a number of colleges across the nation during the time he was not allowed to fight in the ring, but was fighting in court to stay out of jail, be allowed to resume his career, and urging equality for citizens of color. His rhetoric, which sounded very anti-white, was scary to his elders, but the students of the sixties on campus at Iowa, anyway, embraced his message of liberty and justice for all, just as our forefathers had embraced such radical notions in 1776. It’s unclear whether Ali’s reception was as warm and fuzzy in the South, but I can tell you that it was a very closely packed, interested, respectful and enthusiastic crowd that listened to him speak at the Iowa Memorial Union that day. I remember the room was crowded with students who turned out en masse to see the fighter we saw on television “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Ali’s Legacy
Young Cassius Clay, later to be renamed Muhammad Ali.
His strong suit not being humility, Ali had self-described himself as “the Greatest.” He wasn’t far off in this early self-assessment of his own boxing prowess. Muhammad Ali was named one of the most recognizable sports figures of the past 100 years, with only Babe Ruth coming close to the universal recognition that Muhammad Ali earned. Ali was also crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated magazine and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It’s safe to say that boxing will never see a fighter so good who was so controversial, entertaining and larger-than-life than Mohammed Ali/Cassius Clay, and whose stance on so many important issues of the day resonated in such important ways. He was a showman. The sport will not see his equal and, in fact, seems to have withered and died in favor of WWC and cage matches and other televised fare. History changed forever when the 6’ 2” good-looking, outspoken fighter with the 80 inch reach bested the rough-and-tough gangster-related Sonny Liston [who would later be found dead from a possible heroin drug overdose on December 30, 1970.] The intimidating Liston was heavily favored to knock Cassius Clay’s block off. I remember thinking that Clay probably didn’t have a chance against a thug like Liston and hoping he wouldn’t get hurt too badly. Some even wondered if the brash youngster would even show up for the fight. Clay took pride in his good looks; the general feeling going into the fight was that Clay might have a hard time preserving his handsome good looks against the brutal beating Liston was about to administer.
The Fight Liston was a 7 to 1 favorite. Clay had not really beaten any professional boxers of note, but, instead, had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Rome Olympics. In his 1975 autobiography, Ali claimed he threw the gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service in a white diner in Louisville. Others dispute that version of events, saying he merely lost the medal. [Ali was issued a replacement medal 36 years after the fact, and it was presented to him during a basketball intermission at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an Olympics where Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch. Talk about a national change of heart!]. Clay, prior to the fight that would launch his career as the only heavyweight to win 3 lineal World Heavyweight Championships (1964, 1974, 1978) on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the world, in a typical display of the psychological trash talk for which he became known, said that Liston “smelled like a bear” and that he was “going to donate him to a zoo” after defeating him In the ring. Prior to the fight, he recited this poem: “Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat. If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat…”
At the time, nobody thought the good-looking 22-year-old kid from Louisville, Kentucky, had a chance against the hardened ex-con, who learned to write his name while in a Missouri prison— a career criminal who had been arrested at least 19 times. Liston told Sports Illustrated, “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother, and a father who didn’t care about any of us. We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”
Ali’s pattern of confidence and taunting his opponents before fights would continue in his career as he took on other fighters, like George Foreman. Ali was also confident and colorful before the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. He told interviewer David Frost, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!” He told the press, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Ali was wildly popular in Zaire, with crowds chanting “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) wherever he went. The Boxer and the Beatles
When Liston was offered a chance to pose with a new British band touring the United States at the time (and causing a sensation) Liston refused to pose with “those sissies,” meaning John, Paul, George and Ringo, who were appearing on Ed Sullivan’s TV show on February 16th and February 23rd. Cassius Clay (who would change his religious affiliation and his name to Muhammad Ali after the fight) DID accept boxing promoter Harold Conrad’s offer to pose with the Beatles, bursting through the door of his 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach and shouting to the mop-topped group, “Come on, Beatles! Let’s go make some money!” The Conscientious Objector Issue
Then came the difficult years. As an outspoken black man advocating black pride and opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam, Muhammed Ali’s topics of choice were not popular. He spoke at the Memorial Union, attired in a suit. He had just been denied status as a conscientious objector and stripped of his heavyweight title (1967). He did not fight between March 22 of 1967 and October of 1970, years when he was 26 to 29 years old. That was the period of time when I heard him speak at the Iowa Memorial Union. Every state denied him a license to fight.
After his title defense against Zora Folley on March 22, Ali’s title was stripped following his refusal to be drafted into Army service (on April 28, 1967). His boxing license was immediately suspended by the state of New York and he was convicted on June 20, 1967 (by an all-white jury) and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for draft evasion. While his case was on appeal, he was free on posted bond, traveling the country giving speeches like the one I attended, in which he made statements against the Vietnam War and urged that blacks be given racial equality in America. Ali’s conviction was overturned on appeal and, (as he was out on bond despite the threat of 5 years in jail), he served no jail time. He did, however, lose 4 crucial years of boxing eligibility during his athletic prime.
Among statements Muhammad Ali made, woven into his college addresses, were these:
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” (He would add that no Vietnamese had ever called him the “n” word)…No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people simply to continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end…Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?..My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong…You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America because of my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, when you won’t stand up for my religious beliefs at home?”
In 2014, fifty years later, when the film Twelve Years a Slave is a major Oscar contender for Best Picture at the March 2nd Academy Awards, these words ring as true as ever. Boxing Talent
Ali probably had the fastest hand and foot speed ever for a big fighter. Jimmy Jacobs, who co-managed Mike Tyson, measured young Ali’s punching speed (using a synchronizer) versus Sugar Ray Robinson, a welter/middleweight often considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in history. Ali was 25% faster than Robinson, even though Ali was 45 to 50 pounds heavier. (Ali had once asked Sugar Ray to manage him, but the former champion declined.) “No matter what his opponents heard about him, they didn’t realize how fast he was until they got in the ring with him,” Jacobs said. The effect of Ali’s punches was cumulative. “Ali would rub you out,” said Floyd Patterson, who fought Ali on November 22, 1965, right after his two fights with Liston. “He would hit you 14,000 times and he wouldn’t knock you out; he rubbed you out. It’s very hard to hit a moving target, and (Ali) moved all the time, with such grace: three minutes of every round for fifteen rounds. He never stopped. It was extraordinary.”
Of his later career, Arthur Mercante, (boxing announcer), said: “Ali knew all the tricks. He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching. Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out. Ali was so smart. Most guys are just in there fighting, but Ali had a sense of everything that was happening, almost as though he was sitting at ringside analyzing the fight while he fought it.”
Taunting: the Louisville Lip
Speaking of how Ali stoked Liston’s anger and overconfidence before their first fight, a sports writer commented that “the most brilliant fight strategy in boxing history was devised by a teenager who had graduated 376 in a class of 391.” Ali knew that what he said outside the ring, taunting his opponents as “ignorant” (Frazier) or comparing them to an animal (Liston) did psychological damage to his opponents when they were in the ring. Ai got under their skin, and that was his intention. When Ali referred to Joe Frazier as “ignorant” on national TV, Frasier wrestled Ali to the ground while live television cameras broadcast the unexpected outburst. The animosity towards Ali, from Frasier, lasted until Frazier’s death on November 7, 2011.
Considering that I’m a small-town Iowa girl from a hometown of not quite 5,000 people, I’ve had the good fortune to be in several places when events were taking place that would turn out to be turning points in history—or, at least, important historic events that one might even call a milestone. Among them were events such as the beginning of the Free Speech movement on campus at Berkeley in 1965 and the student riots that year; Ted Kennedy’s last speech inside the DNC in Denver in 2008 nominating Barack Obama; in Grant Park in 2008 when Obama spoke to a cheering crowd on election night; at Invesco Field in Denver when Obama accepted the nomination for president from his party; at the very beginnings of the Tea Party movement inside Ron Paul’s Rally for America in Minneapolis in 2008; at a concert at the Savoy Hotel in Birmingham, England by a band (using a light show) which would go on to become Pink Floyd; in the 7th row of the Beatles concert at the Cow Palace near San Francisco in 1964; at a concert in Paris given by James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1965; at the Howard Dean Scream Heard ‘Round the World at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines in 2004; at concerts by the Rolling Stones, Prince, Dave Matthews Band, John Cougar Mellencamp, U2, and a host of other memorable live acts, including Taylor Swift on May 8, 2010, at the IWireless Center (formerly the Mark of the Quad Cities) when my daughter worked for 13 Management, Ms. Swift’s organization.
And I was also at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, when Muhammed Ali stood up and spoke out for his beliefs in 1968.
The documentary “Undefeated” (not to be confused with the documentary about Sarah Palin) played the Chicago Film Festival, depicting the Manassas High School Tigers football team’s 2009 season, as they attempt to win the first playoff game in the 110-year history of the school.
The filmmakers, T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, spent 9 months living in Memphis and soon learned that “There’s a story under every helmet,” as Coach Bill Courtney told them. Courtney began volunteering in 2004 and is quoted throughout the documentary, reminding this Iowa Hawkeye fan of the antics of Coach Bob Commings (Massillon, Ohio), who was immortalized in a John Irving novel as “Iowa Bob.” Commings called the Hawkeyes the “chosen children” and succeeded in winning some memorable games, but, ultimately, was unsuccessful in turning that program around and was fired. Coach Courtney, by contrast, announces he is quitting after the season to spend more time with his own family.
Daniel Lindsay (R) and T.J. Martin (L) at the Q&A for "Undefeated" in Chicago.
Before that, however, we learn a lot about the players on the Manassas Tigers team. Most successful of the lot is probably O.C. Brown, 6’ 3”, 315 pounds and fast. Mike Ray, volunteer coach, says, “That’s a big dude running that fast.” O.C. has some academic problems and, in a real-life plot that echoes “The Blind Side,” ends up moving in with an assistant coach and his family to make sure he remains eligible and is able to claim a college scholarship. After one report card period, the coach asks O.C., “How do you get a 90 in calculus and a 70 in keyboarding?” One memorable quote to the team, “If you will allow it, football will save your life.”
Another player highlighted in the film is troublemaker Chavis, who has one of the most emotional moments in the film as he turns his attitude around. Then there is “Money,” who suffers an injury to his ACL and must miss 8 to 12 weeks of playing time. He begins to miss school after he can no longer play, and Coach Courtney says, “Money is on the cusp of being lost.”
Director Daniel Lindsay takes questions from the audience following the screening of his football documentary "Undefeated" in Chicago.
Really, most of the team is on the cusp of being lost and the filmmakers, in interviews after the game, revealed how many stories they had to ignore to highlight those that are included. There was Jaquim Collins, who had been in 18 different foster homes in 4 years, a defensive lineman. He became too old to remain in the 19th home and was kicked out of the system. Said Director Lindsay, “It was heartbreaking not to be able to tell his story. But ultimately the sum is greater than its parts.”
Money, in the film, is shown looking at an X-ray of his injured interior ACL ligament and asks the doctor, “Is that my brain?” The filmmakers reported that Money was not thrilled that that scene remained in the documentary.
Director Lindsay said, “We just filmed a ton of scenes and then laid them out. None of it was scripted…We were going for a very intimate film. Bill’s trusting us made the kids trust us, but it was really surprising to us how quickly they forgot we were there. The camera became an extension of us.” However, reported the filmmaking duo, “Even 2 to 3 months later, they (the players) still didn’t get what we were doing. They’d ask, ‘So, who’s going to play me in the movie.’”
T.J. Martin, filmmaker, in Chicago.
The answer is that the Manassas Tigers played themselves, and the filmmakers did a very good job of being in the right place at the right time to capture moments in their 2009 season. As Lindsay said of one particularly moving scene involving Chavis (the troublemaker), “Oh, my God! Did that really just happen? We have a movie here!”
The film with plenty of exhortations like, “Please remember discipline. Please remember character, and let’s go kick their ass,” (Bill Courtney). As a former NFL player, invited to address the team by Coach Courtney, tells them, “It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.”
The documentary, which earned great praise from one audience member, in particular, who called it “the best football film I’ve ever seen” will open in February with distribution from the Weinstein Brothers. Said Coach Courtney at one point, “If they don’t win the game, they’re gonna’ win the fight. You gotta’ believe in yourselves. You can come back.”
Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin and Music Supervisor Sandy Wilson.
Sandy Wilson was Music Supervisor on the film, and should be singled out for praise, as well. All in all, with 70 young men on the team, there are some compelling and amazing stories of life in North Memphis and what it means to be resilient and never give up.
In 1988 Universal Studios used a farm in Dyersville, Iowa, as the main location for the movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, Burt Reynolds and Ray Liotta.
Today, that baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield is for sale for $5.4 million dollars. The sellers are Don and Becky Lansing and the 193-acre plot has been used as a tourist stop ever since the movie came out, with the 2-bedroom farmhouse, 6 buildings including a concession stand and the diamond up for purchase.
Realtor for the sale is Ken Sanders who went 29-45 with a 2.97 Earned Run Average for 8 major league teams during 10 seasons in the 1960’s and 1970’s, before he became a real estate agent.