LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Muhammad Ali was on the ropes for refusing induction into the Army, and Jim Brown wanted to help. But first, the NFL great wanted to hear the boxing champion's reasons for not answering the call to military service during the Vietnam War.
So Brown led a group of prominent black athletes who hit Ali with a flurry of questions during a two-hour meeting in Cleveland in June 1967. Ali didn't duck the questions and stuck to his principles, citing his religious beliefs in refusing to join the military.
The dozen athletes, including Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, emerged from the meeting to publicly support Ali at a time when the champ was one of the country's most polarizing figures.
"People got the answers that they wanted," Brown recalled Saturday.
Nearly 50 years after the meeting, now known as the "Ali Summit," several participants including Brown and Russell were at Ali's side again Saturday night in the boxing champ's hometown. Brown received a lifetime humanitarian achievement award bearing Ali's name.
While posing for photos with the 72-year-old Ali, Brown leaned over and whispered to the seated former heavyweight champion. Later, Brown said he told Ali: "You're the greatest of all time."
The lineup of Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award winners included Academy Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon and Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Common. Other award winners included a half-dozen young adults from around the world honored for their humanitarian roles.
But much of the spotlight was on that meeting decades ago in Cleveland when Ali, was at his most vulnerable, and how the group of athletes joined Ali's corner in the fight of the champ's life. Several participants met at the Muhammad Ali Center a few hours before the awards event Saturday night. Ali, who is battling Parkinson's disease, met the group shortly before the awards show at a downtown hotel.
"No one had really sat down and listened to him and given him the respect of having him tell his point of view," Brown said in recalling the 1967 meeting.
Former NFL player John Wooten, another meeting participant, said Ali's questioners "came at him with everything." The man known for his brashness in the ring was humble when explaining his reasons, he said.
It was enough to win over another participant, former NFL player Bobby Mitchell.
"I came there ready to try to talk him into going into the service," Mitchell said Saturday. "I actually felt that way. He whipped my behind pretty quick, because he can talk. But when it was all over, I felt good about walking out of there saying, 'We back him.'"
Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title in 1967 while in his prime and was convicted of draft evasion. Ali found himself embroiled in a legal fight that ended in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Ali regained the heavyweight title in 1974, defeating George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle." A year later, he outlasted Joe Frazier in the epic "Thrilla in Manila" bout. Ali's last title came in 1978 when he defeated Leon Spinks.
Long before Ali became an icon, the meeting's participants were taking a risk by throwing their support behind him.
"It was the United States government that we were dealing with," Brown said Saturday. "Careers were at stake. And everybody that showed up at that meeting put all of that on the line. That was heavyweight stuff."
Russell, who pulled up a decades-old photo of himself and Ali on his smartphone, said the legal battle came down to citizenship rights. Russell had known Ali for years and never doubted his sincerity when citing his reasons for refusing military service. Russell said the legal fight transformed Ali.
"He became a hero to a lot of young folks in this country, black and white," the basketball great said. "Because what he was talking about was citizenship. And my citizenship, or Jim's ... is not a gift from other citizens. It's a right of birth."
Brown, an outspoken civil-rights advocate who remains active in efforts to stem violence, improve education and uplift neighborhoods, said he didn't want to compare the role of athletes today and in his era.
"I'm here to motivate as many people as I can in this country to take a look at the violence ... and the inferior education that a lot of our kids are getting," he said.
Former NFL star Ray Lewis, who joined the players from a previous generation Saturday, said Ali's principles still resonate with young people today.
"He did stand for something, and that something changed generations of young men, realizing that we all have a true freedom, a true opportunity to do what you're going to do, say what you're going to say," he said. "And if you believe strongly in something, truthfully in your heart, follow it."
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