Athletes Ready For Obama Inauguration

January 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hall of Fame coach John Thompson calls it "the greatest thing to happen to African-Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation," and there's no way he's going to miss it.

"It hasn't been able to seep in," the longtime Georgetown college basketball coach told The Associated Press. "I will have tears in my eyes when that boy raises his hand."

From Tiger Woods to Muhammad Ali, Dave Winfield to Dikembe Mutombo, a sports world that has paid more attention to politics than usual the last few months wants to be part of the party when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the nation's first black president on Tuesday.

"The Emancipation Proclamation freed our bodies," said Thompson, referring to Abraham Lincoln's landmark document that sought to free slaves in the rebellious South in 1863. "This emancipation frees our minds to know there's no limits as to what you can accomplish. Sometimes the mental incarceration is worse than the physical."

Thompson, who has a ticket to the swearing-in ceremony, endured racial taunts when he first fielded a predominantly black team at Georgetown. He later became the first African American coach to win the NCAA title and boycotted two games in 1989 to protest an NCAA rule he felt would hinder minority athletes.

By contrast, Woods has been as apolitical as they come, keeping his views firmly to himself during his rise to become the world's top golfer. It was only after Obama's election in November that Woods expressed his excitement over "a person of color in the White House." On Sunday, however, he was part of the celebration, speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the inauguration festivities.

Woods' two-minute speech during the "We Are One" concert paid tribute to the military and referenced his father, Earl Woods, who did two tours during the Vietnam War with the U.S. Army Special Forces.

"I am the son of a man who dedicated his life to his country, family and the military, and I'm a better person for it," Woods said.

Woods told the many thousands gathered on the National Mall to "always stand by and support the men and women in uniform and their families."

During the fall, professional athletes in locker rooms across the country said they were paying more attention to the presidential race than usual, in part because of the nature of Obama's candidacy and in part because of eight polarizing years under outgoing President George W. Bush.

"I watched all the debates. I went from in-between to Obama's side," said Washington Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels, who put himself on three waiting lists in November before eventually paying $500 for two tickets to the inauguration for himself and his wife. "You think about all the people who came before him, you think about Martin Luther King, all the people who fought for us.

"At the same time, I didn't feel like I was going to vote for him because he was black. I felt we were eventually going to have a black president one of these years, but it was perfect how things unfolded. He just came along at the right time."

Houston Rockets center Mutombo, who's been politically active in African causes for more than a decade, will attend the inauguration with wife Rose, oldest son Reagan, and his father Samuel, who is flying to Washington from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mutombo was born.

Mutombo will squeeze in the trip by flying straight from a game in Denver on Monday and will return to Houston immediately after the ceremony.

"We have the son of an African man, not from a second or third generation, from the first generation. That brings so much joy and so much pride for me," said Mutombo, who had breakfast with Obama in Washington just before the then-Illinois senator officially announced a run for the presidency.

"Now I can tell my son, 'You cannot tell me you can't be the next Bill Gates or the next senator.' I'm feeling good about my children," Mutombo said. "I know I'm going to cry a lot, but I want to be there."

Boxing legend Ali, who turned 67 Saturday, is scheduled to be an honored guest at Monday's Bluegrass Ball, a celebration sponsored by the Kentucky Society of Washington. That same night, Hall of Fame baseball player Winfield is narrating a documentary on the Negro Leagues that will air on the MLB Network, coinciding with the King holiday.

Winfield also plans to be at the swearing-in -- or perhaps the parade, depending on the tickets he was expecting to receive.

"It's just a unique time and place," Winfield said. "My wife and I felt we should be a part of this one."

One sports figure doesn't have to fret at all about tickets or invitations. Oregon State men's basketball coach Craig Robinson is Michelle Obama's brother, so he'll have a prime spot at the Capitol to witness the historic moment.

Of course, it's easier for retired sports figures and those whose sports are out of season to make the inauguration than those who have a packed schedule of games to work around. New York Knicks and former Chicago Bulls guard Chris Duhon, who used to play pickup games with Obama in the Second City, is one of many basketball players frustrated that his day job won't allow him to attend the ceremony in person.

"It was something I was looking forward to," Duhon said. "If I had the time, I would have gone. But again, my obligations are to this Knicks team. I'm just going to sit on my couch to watch it."

Viewing parties and ad-hoc get-togethers are planned for teams and fans wherever they happen to be Tuesday at noon. The Chicago White Sox even sent out a release proudly announcing that their mascot, Southpaw, has a spot on the Illinois float in the inauguration parade.

On Sunday night, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was trying to change the team's Tuesday morning flight from an 11 a.m. departure to 8 a.m. so they could watch the inauguration on TV.

"We can land at 11 and then rush to the hotel," Rivers said, according to the Boston Herald. "That gives them the opportunity to watch the speech."

The Celtics host the Phoenix Suns on Monday night before traveling to Miami to play the Heat on Wednesday night.

For the truly bizarre, there is Philadelphia 76ers guard Andre Miller, who couldn't be bothered to vote and has a "whatever" view of politics. Yet, because some friends of his ended up with tickets, he said he is planning to skip practice Tuesday -- risking a probable fine from his team -- to attend the inauguration and one of the balls later in the day.

"I'm conservative. I'm whatever, basically," Miller said. "Yeah, I would have voted for Obama. But I keep my views to myself. I'm still excited."