By Rick Assad
Dave Kindred's roadmap has taken him all over the world covering many of the grandest events in sports.
Whether camped at the Masters, World Series, Super Bowl, Olympics, NCAA Final Four or a boxing match, the 80-year-old Illinois native filed insightful and graceful game stories and columns for newspapers such as the Louisville Courier Journal, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Sporting News and the National Sports Daily.
Kindred, the 2018 recipient of the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting, is still working, but now his main focus is a girls' high school basketball team in Morton, Illinois, the four-time state champion Lady Potters. Writing for the team's website is a labor of love for Kindred who was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”
Across a nearly six-decade career, Kindred's relationship with Muhammad Ali remains a highlight.
Kindred's initial contact with Ali came in the mid-1960s when he was working at the Louisville Courier Journal. Ali was a subject he would re-visit more than 300 times.
"I was a kid on the copy desk in Louisville in '66, looking for stories to write. Somebody said, 'Clay's in town, go find him.' I found him that day in his neighborhood and spent the day with him. I'd never call us friends,'' he said. "But he knew me, called me 'Louisville,' and I wrote about him the next fifty years.''
Those were exciting times for Kindred, who fondly recalls those early years with Ali.
"I knew him from the beginning when he was a fresh-faced sweetheart, eager to be liked,'' he said of the three-time heavyweight king. "Unlike most celebrities who want to avoid the public, Ali invited everyone in, loved the attention, thrived on it, needed it.''
A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University, Kindred, who also wrote for numerous magazines, believes Ali was the best-ever to lace on a pair of gloves in that division.
"As a fighter, he was the greatest athlete ever in the ring, big, strong, fast, with astonishing hand-eye coordination, all of it,'' he noted. "In the end, coupled with courage and will that few people recognized early.''
Kindred saw Ali develop into the man who would win acclaim around the world. "I've always said the two best heavyweights ever were Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali,'' he said. "Clay was unhittable and you couldn't escape him. Ali took your best and beat you anyway.''
Because Ali was different and not run-of-the-mill, it helped attract gifted writers like Kindred, who has been inducted into various Halls of Fame and has been the recipient of numerous Sportswriter of the Year awards (plus the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism).
"We're taught, perhaps indirectly, but surely, not to debate race, politics, and religion,'' he said. "Ali debated them all, often and loudly in years of civil rights marches and anti-war marches. He was a writer's dream subject, perhaps the most famous man on Earth [second only to the Pope in some surveys].''
Ali had a way of making his point and making it with flair and style. "Even when declaiming on the most controversial of subjects - be it segregation or Vietnam or his own magnificence - he somehow did it with a wink and a smile,'' Kindred said.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Fight of the Century at New York City's Madison Square Garden between Ali and Joe Frazier, two undefeated titans.
It remains a touchstone event for millions and is Kindred's favorite event that he has covered.
"Ali-Frazier I and nothing else is even close. Ali-Foreman is next,'' he said of those two classic confrontations.
Kindred is the author of eight books, including, "Sound And Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship,'' about the relationship between Ali and the bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell.
The 2006 book almost never happened. "I was told no one wanted a book on a black boxer and no one for sure wanted a book on Cosell. But I knew them well away from the spotlight and I wanted to tell their stories the way I understood them,'' he said. "I proposed books on each and could never sell them - but when I proposed doing a dual biography, it worked.''
Kindred went on: "I saw them as unique characters, never seen before, never duplicated since,'' he continued. "They were never friends, they were always partners, and Cosell knew he was the junior partner riding on Ali's coattails, at least in boxing.''
Ali passed away in June 2016, and Kindred recalled the final time he visited him: "I last saw him at his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan, in August of 2003. He was a sad case. Years of punishment, thousands of punches to his head had damaged him badly,'' he said. "When we walked from his office to a boxing gym next door, the greatest athlete I ever saw - the fastest, strongest, most graceful athlete I will ever see - Muhammad Ali steadied himself by holding onto my elbow as he shuffled 30 feet from door to door."
While Kindred, whose most recent book, "Leave Out The Tragic Parts: A Grandfather's Search For A Boy Lost To Addiction," has covered seemingly every major sport, it's boxing that stands apart because of the bravery displayed by the men in the ring.
“In sports, certainly, a prizefight is the ultimate test of an athlete's will and courage,'' he pointed out. "It's the purest form of drama. Before our eyes, one man wins, one loses, with the difference often being so slight as to be invisible. No sport demands more of a competitor. He must play offense and defense simultaneously.''
John Feinstein, the author of 43 books including the two best-selling sports books of all-time, "A Good Walk Spoiled: Days And Nights On The PGA Tour,'' and "A Season On The Brink: A Year With Bob Knight And the Indiana Hoosiers,'' worked with Kindred at the Washington Post.
"He and I arrived at the Post on the same day in 1977 - he a columnist; me a summer intern,'' Feinstein said. "He was a mentor almost from day one - and still is one today.''
"What I learned from reading him was that the best columns are reported: filled with facts that back up your opinions,'' he said. "And, when you have facts to go with your opinions, you don't have to shout. Dave has always been a master of that.''
Kindred passed along to Feinstein another useful bit of information early in his career.
"On a personal level, he helped me figure out how to be better at my job. Example: On the practice day before the 1980 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, my first year on the Maryland [basketball] beat, each coach came over to talk to the media after their practice,'' he said. "I wanted to be sure everyone knew that I knew more about the players and the league than anyone. I asked very good questions that proved that.''
"Afterwards, Dave said to me: 'You don't have to prove you're the smartest guy in the room in a press conference. Do it with your writing. You shared all those answers with everyone. Ask them alone, after the guy is finished.' He was right, of course. Since then, I rarely - except on a very late deadline with zero extra time afterwards - ask questions in a press conference. He's also one of the most generous friends anyone could ever have."
A celebrated writer. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Mentor. Friend. What more could anyone ask for?
Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel