Priority One Alert: Muhammad Ali 1942-2016

There are a great many people and things that Star Trek Debriefed has allowed me to talk about and wax poetic about, and even more to come. However, this weekend, one of the people I have most enjoyed writing about, Muhammad Ali, died this past weekend (I’m sure you heard about it). I’ll spare a recanting of Ali’s backstory since I covered the basics in last year’s Ali/Liston II post, but that post was really only the beginning. I’ve yet to talk about his conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War, or his brave condemnation of America’s inherent racism, and really, the entire larger legacy that the man left.

Yes, Muhammad Ali was an incredible athlete, and an epic trash talker, but it’s what he did-and how he did it-outside of the ring that is why his passing was such huge news. Ali not only stood up to power, he punched it in the face with the same ferocity as his opponents in the ring. In defying the Draft Board, he correctly and bluntly explained why no person of color ’60s America would ever want to fight in any war, much less Vietnam. It wasn’t so much as objecting to the war as it was objecting to an entire corrupt society. Not shockingly, most everyone in the establishment turned against Ali, who was widely loathed for his religion and his brash behavior.

However, Ali never buckled, and took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, and won in a unanimous decision. The Muhammad Ali of the ’70s was not only wiser, but more emboldened: he cast himself even more strongly as someone fighting against the corrupt, white system and his foes were even more brutally dismissed as Uncle Toms (with Joe Frazier getting the worst of it, being dubbed “The Gorilla”). The irony, of course, was that Ali had more whites in his entourage than most of his opponents, to say nothing of his famous friendship with Howard Cosell. However, it was also during the ’70s that Ali took the physical punishment that most agree resulted in the Parkinson’s that slowed him down in the last three decades of his life, as a result of his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy.

Ali’s greatest impact, though, may have been on hip hop culture. His interviews and press conferences were biting and filled with rhymes, and seemingly crafted on the fly. That, of course, is the very definition of freestyling, one of the cornerstones of rap and hip hop, especially on the streets. LL Cool J even admitted to Ali’s influence, and Public Enemy definitely continued with his condemnation of the white establishment. (This, of course, is one of the things that people are trying to whitewash out of remembrances of Ali.) In fact, calling Ali an influence is grossly understating things: he was a part of hip hop culture, and quite arguably started it himself.

There have been far too many words said and written about Muhammad Ali in the past week, but it’s vital that we remember him as a revolutionary figure. Whitewashing his image (if you’ll pardon the pun) or downplaying the sheer influence of Ali outside of the ring is cheating history of its true shape. Yes, he was a superb boxer, but he was so much more.

Next week, it’s time to discuss a Supreme Court decision whose most visible legacy was its effect on TV cop shows.

Mirror, Mirror: Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA on CBS

It’s time for the NBA Finals, and today that means Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But for most of the storied history of the National Basketball Association-and especially in the 1980s, the Finals meant that either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics would be playing for the title, and for most of the decade, they would be doing it against each other. And for the nation, the games were televised not on ABC, but on CBS.

When CBS acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games in the late ’70s, the deal because quickly seen as something of a poison pill: ABC, who had broadcast the league’s games for some time (and who were quite rightfully known for their superb sports coverage) started aggressively counter-programming against CBS’s coverage. This was bad enough, but a number of events also conspired to sap the league’s popularity: a lack of superstars (and then, when the rival American Basketball Association folded into the NBA, the New York Nets were forced to move to New Jersey and give up Julius Erving, the league’s biggest star), a dearth of success for the biggest market teams (the champions from 1977-1979 were the Portland Trailblazers, the Washington Bullets, and the Seattle SuperSonics, in that order), a change in scheduling that caused the Finals to shift from its usual June time frame to the middle of May sweeps, and most fatally to the league’s reputation, violent brawls were all too common in the NBA. The nadir was a now-infamous fight between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets where Lakers forward Kermit Washington punched Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich. Tomjanovich was severely injured (his skull was so damaged that he could taste spinal fluid during his five-month recovery), but the damage to the league’s reputation was sealed, and CBS started tape-delaying games, even those of the NBA Finals.

Salvation for CBS and the NBA came in the form of two men who could not be more different: Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The two had faced off to much hype in the 1979 NCAA Tournament Final, and they found themselves on the two most storied teams in the league: Bird with the Celtics, and Johnson with the Lakers. Both players fit their teams like gloves: the Celtics were a hard-working, blue-collar team playing in the decrepit Boston Garden, while the Lakers were flashy and watched by numerous movie stars in the fabulous LA Forum. Magic was a flashy passer running Pat Riley’s vaunted Showtime offense with a perpetual smile on his face, while Bird was a gritty defender capable of shooting the lights out known for his continuous stream of trash talk, which he backed up with cool efficiency. Their teammates fit them just as well. On the Lakers: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, master of the Skyhook (who famously appeared in the classic comedy Airplane!), bearded, goggles-wearing “Big Game” James Worthy, defensive stopper Michael Cooper, Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes, and popular everyman Kurt Rambis, who was likened to Clark Kent because of his glasses and average ability. On the Celtics: the Chief, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, perhaps the most unlikely two-sport athlete in history, bruising Sixth Man Kevin McHale, and the perpetually underrated Dennis Johnson.

The contrasts extended even to the teams’ announcers. Johnny Most, the perpetually disheveled, gravel-voiced, and curmudgeonly voice of the Celtics openly rooted for the team on air, while the well-dressed, slick-voiced Chick Hearn was as famous for criticizing players for bad play as he was for never missing a single game. But, much as with the teams themselves, Most and Hearn respected their rivals, even as the fans did not. On CBS, broadcasts had a decided Boston flavor in the ’80s: lead announcer Dick Stockton began his career calling Red Sox games, and his on-air partner was Celtic legend Tommy Heinsohn, who was regularly accused of being a huge homer (which, in retrospect, is rather silly, since Heinsohn calls Celtics games nowadays, and is infinitely more biased than he ever was on CBS).

However, every story needs a villain, and the NBA provided a doozy in the ’80s: the Detroit Pistons. Known as the “Bad Boys”, the Pistons were about the dirtiest team that ever walked onto a basketball court, and they seemed  pretty proud of that fact. The worst offender: Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, who over the course of the decade got in high profile fights with not only Bird, Parish, and Kareem, but Philadelphia 76ers power forward Charles Barkley. (As an odd contrast, Magic was good friends with Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, with whom he shared friendly kisses at midcourt before Lakers/Pistons games-something that was savaged in the ever-so-homophobic ’80s.) And games against their division rivals, the Chicago Bulls, often devolved into nastiness, especially once Michael Jordan began to emerge as a superstar in his own right.

And this is where I come in: the 1988 NBA Finals. The Pistons, long stymied by the Celtics, finally made it to the Finals, and as expected, it was a knock-down, drag-out affair. The stakes were their highest: there had not been a repeat champion in the NBA since 1969, when the Celtics had beaten the Lakers at the Forum in Game 7. Moreover, the Lakers had lost five NBA Finals Game 7s without a win since moving to LA in 1960, all in devastating fashion: besides 1969, they had lost to the Knicks in 1970 when an injured Willis Reed started the game, completely psyching the team out, and 1962, 1966, and especially 1984 also saw painful losses to the Celtics in the Garden. Detroit built a lead in the first half, but led by James Worthy (who was named Finals MVP after the game), the Lakers built a big 15 point lead in the third quarter…..only to see it evaporate in the fourth quarter. But the Lakers held on, and they exorcised the team’s demons (much to the relief of general manager Jerry West, who had taken part in most of those prior Game 7s, and is infamously superstitious). Good won, evil lost, and I was probably the only Laker fan in New England.

Next time, it’s back to Star Trek proper, where we’ll meet the show’s most prolific composer.

Guardians of Forever: Nichelle Nichols

When the first regular episode of Star Trek neared filming, the Enterprise‘s communications officer was Dave Bailey, a guest character. And also a white male. While it’s not an entirely shocking development (the communications officer(s) had tiny roles in the pilots), there was a big problem that episode director Joseph Sargent recognized immediately: there wasn’t a single African American in the cast. Joe D’Agosta made a suggestion, and Gene agreed instantly.

D’Agosta’s choice? A singer/actress named Nichelle Nichols. After touring with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as a singer and dancer, Nichols appeared in Porgy and Bess, launching her acting career. In the middle of singing appearances, stage plays, and guest turns on television, Nichols made an appearance on The Lieutenant, in the episode that had gotten that series cancelled: “To Set It Right”. It was this performance that D’Agosta had remembered, as Nichols had not acted well, but had been a consummate professional despite her relative lack of acting experience.

However, what no one was aware of (and it didn’t become widely known until the 1990s) was that Nichelle Nichols had previously had an affair with Gene Roddenberry.

Ignoring for a moment the dual scandals of a Hollywood producer cheating on his wife, and with a woman of color (remember, in the ’60s, such affairs were actually illegal in some states), this was never once discussed publicly until Nichols wrote her autobiography in the ’90s. Furthermore, the affair (which Nichols ended when she saw how much Roddenberry adored Majel Barrett) never affected the casting process. Nichols wasn’t even aware that Gene was involved until she arrived in Hollywood after being diverted from a European nightclub tour. If there was any favoritism, it was Nichols’ salary: $1,000 a day. If she was on set all six scheduled days of a shoot, Nichols stood to make more per episode than William Shatner himself. For 1966, this was even more revolutionary than Nichols playing something other than a maid.

The effect was immediate: Nichols fit in wonderfully with the rest of the cast (even though she was frequently crowded out of episodes outside of opening hailing frequencies), and for black audiences, she was a revelation. Not only was she competent, effective, and respective, but Lieutenant Uhura was drop dead sexy. Part of this was fueled by a different sort of arms race: Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney quickly engaged in a bit of one-upmanship over their legs. The odds were stacked in Uhura’s favor, since she was usually seen in a seated position, while Yeoman Rand was almost always on her feet. It wasn’t a hostile competition by any means, but it was never going to be discouraged on a Gene Roddenberry show. But even greater than that was Uhura’s name, which was drawn from an actual person Nichelle Nichols was reading about in the Desilu waiting room, about an African woman named Uhuru, a named which meant “freedom”. With a simple letter change for pronunciation’s sake, Star Trek not only had a black woman on the bridge in a high position, but she had an authentic African name as well. In a country where most African Americans bore the last names of their ancestors’ slave owners, this was another big deal. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Next time, a trip to the ’80s and one of the all-time great sports rivalries.