Constable: Libertyville grad's look at Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X becomes a Netflix doc

The highlight of Johnny Smith's personal sports history as a member of Libertyville High School's Class of 1999 might have been his final game as a varsity basketball player, when he dived across the floor to grab a loose ball and scored a basket.

Now a 40-year-old college professor and acclaimed sports historian, Smith is getting a new personal sports highlight. Smith's book, “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X,” which he wrote with fellow history professor Randy Roberts, has been made into a documentary premiering Thursday on Netflix. The book and the documentary explain the love and friendship that developed between two of the most outspoken and important leaders during the early 1960s, and how their relationship ended badly after a few short years.

“Neither man knew how they would play a pivotal role in each other's lives,” says Smith, who appears in the documentary and helps explain how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.

The engaging Malcolm X, a former hustler and inmate who found a new life with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad, met the admiring gold-medal champion Olympic boxer Clay in a Detroit luncheonette on June 10, 1962.

“Up to that moment ... I had never heard of him,” Malcolm X said. “Ours were two entirely different worlds.”

Two of the most influential Americans during the early 1960s, Malcolm X, left, and Muhammad Ali, maintained a deep friendship for a few years. Then it fell apart in spectacular fashion. Courtesy of Netflix

Clay and Malcolm X formed a deep and beneficial friendship, with Malcolm X as a “big brother” recruiting the boxer into the Nation of Islam and also recognizing the value of having a charismatic celebrity as part of the movement, Smith says. In his diary, Malcolm X refers to Clay as his “brother and friend.” Clay, who took the name Cassius X before Elijah Muhammad offered him the name Muhammad Ali, was sweet and affable, and once bounced Malcolm X's daughters on his knee.

Even as a teen in Louisville, Kentucky, Clay developed an interest in the Muslim religion. As a boxer training in Miami in 1960, he often visited a local mosque. He and his brother, Rudy, made the trip to Detroit in 1962 to hear Elijah Muhammad speak but quickly found a “brother” in Malcolm X, Smith says.

Two of the most influential Black people in America in the early 1960s, their friendship dissolved after Malcolm X distanced himself from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, embraced the religion practiced by Sunni Muslims, and was suspended by the Nation of Islam. The last time they saw each other was by happenstance on a Sunday morning, May 17, 1964, in front of the Ambassador Hotel in Accra, Ghana, where Malcolm X was visiting after completing the pilgrimage to Mecca and Ali was in the midst of an excursion planned by Elijah Muhammad.

“Brother Muhammad! Brother Muhammad!” Malcolm X shouted, before running up to the boxer. “Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest.”

Ali, who was with Elijah Muhammad's son, Herbert, made a split-second decision, Smith says.

“You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Ali said coldly. “That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.”

Less than a year later, Malcolm X would be assassinated. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Ali embraced Sunni Muslim philosophy and would go on to be an international spokesman for Islam and for worldwide peace. Much of what the public knows about Ali is symbolized by the image he crafted that culminated with him, shaking from his Parkinson's disease, lighting the flame to open the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“You'll see in the documentary, there is an ugly side to Muhammad Ali,” Smith says, noting that Ali once called his treatment of Malcolm X his “great regret.”

“I don't think it's my job as a historian to make a moral judgment on the decisions these two historic men made,” Smith says. “It's my job to explain how and why they made the decision they did.”

Sports history professors Johnny Smith, a Libertyville High School graduate, and Randy Roberts used hundreds of sources to put together this book on the relationship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Netflix airs a documentary Thursday based on the book. Courtesy of Johnny Smith

In researching the book, Smith and Roberts used hundreds of sources, including the private papers of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, and others; FBI and State Department records; archived news and TV footage; transcripts of interviews; new interviews with people who knew Ali and Malcolm X; and countless newspaper and magazine stories.

“I see sports as not peripheral to American history, but central,” Roberts says. “Sports reflects American society, and at other times, it helps shape American society.”

As a student and later as a colleague, Smith asked good questions and was a quick learner, an accomplished writer and a great teammate, Roberts says.

“When I was a kid, I loved reading the sports sections in the Daily Herald, the Tribune and the Sun-Times,” says Smith, who lived in Vernon Hills until his family moved to Green Oaks near Libertyville.

Smith developed an interest in Black history as a teen. One of his neighbors was an assistant coach for Northwestern University's first Black head basketball coach, Ricky Byrdsong. In 1999, a white supremacist shot Byrdsong, 43, to death, while the coach was jogging with his two young daughters near their home in Skokie. That race-driven murder made an impact on Smith.

As a history major at Michigan State University, Smith found a mentor in Pero G. Dagbovie, an award-winning Black history professor, renowned for his work in African American history. “The first time I wrote about Muhammad Ali was in his seminar,” Smith says.

After studying with Dagbovie, Smith found a way to combine his interests in Black history and sports.

“I had an appetite to confront the country's history of racism, and how African Americans fought for freedom and equality,” Smith says. While getting his doctoral degree in history at Purdue University, he developed a relationship with Roberts. Smith explored race in his first book, “The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball,” which examined how the white coach won championships with Black players such as Lew Alcinder, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during a turbulent decade.

A new documentary looks at the relationship between two icons of the early 1960s. Courtesy of Netflix

Roberts and Smith worked together to write “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War,” and “A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle,” before co-writing “Blood Brothers.”

Smith, the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw professor of sports history and associate professor of history at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, lives in nearby Johns Creek with his wife, Rebecca, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Madison. Making a living teaching and writing about sports history fits Smith.

“Fans, the athletes, we all tell stories,” Smith says. “It's not the games, it's the stories of the games.”

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