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April 11, 2024

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Athletes react to Obama’s inauguration

WASHINGTON – Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson had prime seats at the Capitol. LeBron James watched from a hotel room in Los Angeles with his two sons. Across the country, coaches rescheduled practices, and even the Super Bowl had to take a back seat yesterday to the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“This day means a lot to inner-city kids, to African-American kids, to everyone,” said Cleveland Cavaliers star James, who contributed $20,000 to Obama’s campaign but couldn’t attend the swearing-in because his team is on a West Coast road trip.

“This day will last forever. It will be in books. It will be in schools. It will be in classes. It will be on test questions. It means a lot not only on this day, but for the rest of the days to come and the years to come.”

It takes a lot bring the sports world to a standstill, but there was no ignoring the magnitude of the moment. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pushed back his first pre-Super Bowl news conference one hour so it wouldn’t conflict with the inauguration.

“What we’re doing here today pales with what’s going on in our nation’s capital,” Tomlin said.

The Boston Celtics, on the way to Miami for a road game, voted to change their flight schedule and arrive in time for the players to watch the ceremony from their hotel, even though coach Doc Rivers offered to tape it for them.

“They said, ‘No, we want to see it live. We think it’s that important,'” Rivers said. “One of them said, ‘Twenty or 30 years from now, I want to say I saw him speak live when he came in.’ I guess it will be like JFK in a lot of ways. I’m glad our guys have the awareness of real life.”

Guard Ray Allen upped them all, attending the inauguration in person with Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca before rejoining the team in Florida.

Pagliuca said he was proud to represent a Celtics team that was the first in the NBA to draft a black player and to hire a black coach.

“It was people coming together; kind of a peaceful feeling came over the crowd,” Pagliuca told The Associated Press. “The crowd had a hope and a joy. For that many people to be that peaceful was very moving.”

In Fairfax, Va., George Mason men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga used “Yes, we can!” as his thought for the day when practice began at 11:30 a.m. He pulled his players off the court 27 minutes later and took them to the locker room to watch the swearing-in and Obama’s speech. The players broke out in applause several times, then returned to finish practice.

Even ESPN deviated from its sports programming to broadcast the swearing-in, and ESPN Classic followed with a 10-hour “Breaking Barriers” marathon featuring African-American athletes such as Arthur Ashe, Jack Johnson and Eddie Robinson.

Sports metaphors were heavily in play. Louisville basketball Rick Pitino, who campaigned for Rudy Guiliani during the primaries, said he was thrilled by Obama’s speech but noted the challenges the new president is facing.

“I think, unfortunately, he’s taking over a bad program with bad players right now,” Pitino said.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards watched the inauguration under the same gloomy cloud millions of Americans share – worried that he’s about to lose his job. His team went 6-26 over the last two seasons.

“I think the country has been waiting for something like this,” Edwards said. “We should all embrace it, regardless of our background – religious, economic, heritage, it doesn’t matter.”

Baseball players found it easier to attend the inauguration because their sport is out of season. Free agent reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who had a seat about 100 yards from the Capitol, said he thought of his grandmother, who died in 2006, as he watched Obama take the oath. He said the sports world paid more attention than usual to Obama’s rise because of the high proportion of African-Americans on many teams.

“It has to do with race,” Hawkins said. “A lot of African-American people feel now they can relate to someone in the White House, and that somebody in the White House can relate to them. He can understand their struggles. He can understand what it means to be black in the United States.”

New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya also had a good view, not far from singer Alicia Keys.

“I hope all kids will look at today and realize how great a country we have,” said Minaya, who was appointed this month to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports by outgoing President George W. Bush.

On the other side of the world, tennis star Serena Williams followed preinaugural events on television during the Australian Open, although she felt it probably was wiser to tape the inauguration rather than watch it live at 4 a.m. local time.

“I try to stay politically neutral, don’t get involved in worldly matters,” said Williams, who doesn’t vote because she is a Jehovah’s Witness. “For me, because I am black, seeing that happen, I would be blind if I didn’t take interest in it.”

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