What set Muhammad Ali apart from Michael Jordan and NBA’s current stars

Muhammad Ali , left, is pictured with NBA star Wilt Chamberlain in this 1967 photo taken at an ABC television studio in New York. (AP)

SAN FRANCISCO – They began lining up in the dark at Nike’s flagship store in downtown San Francisco the other night. There was a new shoe model coming out – Air Jordan 11s low "Cherry," specifically – and they wanted to get theirs as soon as physically possible.

So they gathered on folding chairs and huddled under blankets against the cool Bay Area air and waited to get the new shoes in the morning, proof that the power of Michael Jordan remains strong even nearly two decades after he won his last NBA championship.

With the passing of Muhammad Ali on Friday, Jordan likely inherits the mantle of greatest living sports figure, at least in the North American division. His credentials are without question. As he dominated the NBA he not only earned nearly undisputed recognition as the greatest basketball player of all time but as the individual most responsible for the NBA’s explosion in global popularity. He became a financial goliath along the way, rich enough to buy his own NBA team. If Jordan, his agent and Nike didn’t wholly invent the idea of the athlete-celebrity as a brand unto himself, they perfected it.

All those that come after him owe Jordan a debt for paving the way to making more away from their sport than they could ever make while sweating.

But Jordan stands for something else too, the contrast never more evident than on the occasion of Ali’s death at age 74 after decades batting Parkinson’s disease.

In his more than 30 years in the public eye the former Chicago Bulls star seemed to make a point of removing himself from any kind of political cause or social stance that could potentially hurt his brand and earning power.

Most famously in 1990 when his celebrity was beginning to peak, he was asked to endorse the candidacy of Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat attempting to unseat longtime Republican North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, widely thought a racist who opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and alleged to have whistled “Dixie” – a song that fondly remembers slavery – to antagonize black members of the state senate.

Jordan declined to publicly support the democratic candidate and reportedly told a friend that it was because "Republicans buy sneakers too." The quote has never been directly attributed to Jordan but it has stuck to him – proof of his commitment to commerce over causes – and the six-time NBA champion has never made the effort to retract it.

It might be unfair to compare Jordan to Ali. The fighter rose to fame at time when the world seemed to be turning inside out. He was asked fundamental questions modern athletes almost never hear – about race, religion, civil rights and freedom – and despite significant cost to himself answered in ways that consistently left him on the right side of history, eventually being revered as much for his character than his athletic feats. It’s a legacy no athlete will likely ever match, because no athlete is likely to be threatened with jail for taking a philosophical stance against a foreign war.

Which brings us to the NBA Finals. Even with a potentially pivotal Game 2 looming Sunday between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, Ali’s legacy was the issue on the top of mind of everyone on Saturday. Pick and rolls and help defence never seemed so secondary. Even among a generation of players and even coaches too young to have known Ali as the livewire athlete every bit as unique and gifted as anyone playing basketball or any other sport today, his is a name that connects them to their pasts, their families and their history.

"As a kid I gravitated towards him because he was a champion, but I only knew as a kid of what he did inside the ring," said Cavs star LeBron James, clearly moved by the moment. "As I got older and I started to be more knowledgeable about the sport, about sport in general and about the guys who paved the way for guys like myself, I understood that he is the greatest of all time, and he was the greatest of all time because of what he did outside of the ring.

"Obviously, we knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20 per cent of what made him as great as he was. What he stood for, I mean, it’s a guy who basically had to give up a belt and relish everything that he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. It’s a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk in the streets."

There was no question of James’ sincerity and he spoke for all his peers, it seemed. Yet it’s interesting that over time the athlete whose example seems to be most relevant is Jordan, rather than Ali.

One of the storylines this NBA Finals is supposed to decide is whether James or the Warriors’ Stephen Curry was basketball’s best player. It’s a popularity contest being played out by proxy by the two stars’ respective shoe company sponsors, with Curry’s ‘underdog’ Under Armour brand making inroads into Nike’s long-held hegemony.

Until Ali’s passing there was never any thought that Curry or James would use basketball’s brightest stage to make a stand in favour or against a particular issue. It would be nearly shocking if they did. While Ali became an icon because of his willingness to fly in the face of mainstream opinion, it is Jordan’s example as the perfect pitchman that is a template superstars adhere to today.

Curry spent most of youth in Charlotte, N.C., where the state legislature recently passed laws perceived as restrictive of the rights and freedoms of the LGBT community. The NBA is considering moving the 2017 All-Star Game as a result. A devout Christian, Curry has spoken out when asked on the issue, although mainly in platitudes, arguing for tolerance, falling short of wading into the fray in his home state. Ali’s activism was real and visceral and came at a dangerous time.

To the extent athletes embrace being a role model today it’s about the safe ground of being a good example rather than agitator for change.

"I mean, it depends on how you see your platform and why I’m sitting up here and why I get blessed with the ability to impact people, whether it’s how I play or what I say," Curry said when I asked him if being expected to speak out on issues is unnerving. "I don’t take that lightly. Obviously I have certain beliefs and certain things that if you ask me, I’ll tell you.

"[But] … It is very tricky at times because you’re either on one side or the other," Curry said. "And you’re going to offend somebody or not. But it kind of just comes with the territory. Whether you think that’s important or not, that depends on the person."

James has been more outspoken than Curry, though he tends to tackle issues tangentially, rather than head on. He helped organize a tribute to Trayvon Martin – a black teenager shot without cause while wearing a hoodie – by gathering his then Miami Heat teammates for an Instagram post with their hoodies up and the hashtag "We Are Trayvon Martin." He wore an "I Can’t Breathe" T-shirt before a game in Brooklyn last season to recognize the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City police. As a son of a teenaged single mother raised in the tough part of Akron, Ohio, he recognizes that things could have – maybe should have – worked out very differently for him.

He’s active in a number of charitable causes – most notably his pledge to pay for a college education for 1,100 kids from his hometown. With James you get a sense that there’s more he’s prepared to give when the moment presents itself, but that he remains cautious about veering from his lane.

"I just think it’s in you. If it’s in you, then it will be brought to light. If it’s not, then it won’t. I would never compare myself to Muhammad Ali because I never had to go through what those guys had to go through back in those times," he said.

"Yes, I’ve had some adverse moments in my life and, yes, I’ve had to deal with a lot of things as a professional, and I’ve spoken up on a lot of issues that other athletes may not speak upon, but I feel it’s my duty to carry on the legacy of the guys who did it before me."

Athletes are a product of their time. Who knows what Ali would have stood for and been known for if he emerged as global icon today? In his time the greater culture forced tests on him that many couldn’t have passed. Forced to choose between his religious and personal beliefs and maintaining his career and his riches at the peak of his powers, he stayed true to his convictions. It was a choice that made him the most universally respected athlete, ever.

It’s unlikely any modern athlete will ever have to choose between his beliefs and his career, between wealth and truth. This is a good thing because it offers hope that the world (or at least some parts of it) has – however awkwardly at times – moved past the need for those choices to be made.

But if there is a lesson in Ali’s passing it’s that the athlete with the greatest legacy in modern times earned his less for what he did in his sport than for the strength of character he revealed when buffeted by forces outside of it.

Ali will always be revered, even though no one ever lined up for his shoes.