CLEVELAND (AP) — Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell looked reverently at the elderly man sitting in the front row clutching his cane and was star struck.
To Mitchell and others, John Wooten is a giant.
“That’s a man who didn’t know if he would be able to see his dream come true,” Mitchell said. “To be a part of the vision he dreamed for. This is truly special.”
On Wednesday, Mitchell helped unveil a public sculpture honoring the Ali Summit, the famous 1967 gathering in Cleveland of some of the nation’s top Black athletes, including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a meeting viewed as a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
The carbon steel art piece depicts the press conference table that Ali, Brown and others sat at following their meeting 56 years ago, a moment captured in an iconic photograph.
Wooten, now 86, took part in the initial summit and Wednesday was the first time the former NFL player and social activist had been back to the site, a revelation that drew gasps from some in the audience attending a news conference.
“Cleveland is a special place,” Wooten said. “It was a special place then and it is now.”
The sculpture, which sits on the same coordinates where the original summit took place, includes 12 microphones representing the participants at the summit — 11 athletes and Carl Stokes, then a state representative who could become Cleveland’s mayor, the first Black to lead a major U.S. city.
In addition to the unveiling, Cleveland’s three professional teams — the Cavaliers, Guardians and Browns, who formed an alliance a few years ago to promote lasting social change in Northeast Ohio — announced they will host an annual summit.
Kevin Clayton, the Cavs’ vice president of social impact and equity, noted the city’s rich and varied history in breaking barriers. From Cleveland’s own Jesse Owens winning four Olympic golds in 1936 at Berlin to Larry Doby following Jackie Robinson’s lead and becoming the American League’s first Black player and more.
“We don’t have to make up history in Cleveland,” Clayton said. “We are history.”
Following the ceremony, Wooten and Jim Brown’s wife, Monique, posed for photos behind the large sculpture. Brown, considered one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, died in May at the age of 87.
“Jim would be so proud,” she said.
Mitchell said he was aware of the Ali Summit and its history. However, seeing and hearing Wooten helped crystallize its meaning.
Wooten explained that in 1967, Brown, his close friend and Browns teammate, summoned other leading Black athletes to Cleveland to meet with Ali, who was protesting military enlistment as a conscientious objector due to his Islamic faith.
“I knew the importance of it,” Mitchell said. “I knew about Muhammad Ali because I went to Louisville, and obviously I knew of Jim Brown. I learned more about Mr. Wooten, and I was just shocked that he was here.
“This is special, especially for a person of color like myself to be around Black excellence. A big reason why we’re even here playing sports is because of what happened here in Cleveland. It’s an honor for me to be a part of it.”
Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff felt the same pride in being able to share the moment with Wooten.
“If there was no you,” he said. “There would be no us.”
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