Excerpt

03.12.16 5:01 AM ET

When Cassius Clay Came Out as a Muslim

After Clay beat Liston for the heavyweight championship, the first thing that began to fray was his friendship with Malcolm X.

The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.

—James Baldwin

Outside his dressing room, Dee Dee Sharp waited patiently with her mother. After recording “Slow Twistin’” with Chubby Checker and releasing such hit singles as “Mash Potato Time” and “Do the Bird,” the attractive and coquettish Sharp was at the top of her recording career. During the previous few months she had seen Cassius off and on as their schedules permitted, but their relationship had not yet bloomed into a full-scale romance. She was just one of the “foxes” that seemed to form the wallpaper of his life. George Plimpton suspected Cassius’s use of the word foxes was “half affectionate and half suspicious: he feels that girls can be ‘sly’ and ‘sneaky’ and are to be watched warily.”

Dee Dee saw herself as more than just another fox, and she had plans to spend the evening with the new heavyweight champion of the world. So she waited, crammed among the other well-wishers who claimed they knew all along that Cassius would win, and every once in a while she would call out to someone squeezing in or out of the dressing room, “Tell Cassius that Dee…” She called him Cassius around others but in private she used his middle name, Marcellus. “A beautiful name. I can say it over and over,” she told Plimpton.

Perhaps Dee Dee thought she would go to the Fountainebleau Hotel with Cassius. Sam Cooke, friends with both Cassius and Dee Dee, was staying there, although it took a virtual sit-in by his manager for the front desk to find him a suite. Several of the members of the Louisville Sponsoring Group had even talked about a victory celebration for Cassius at the most luxurious hotel in Miami Beach. Champagne, showgirls, cakes—the celebration would be first class.

The scenario, Dee Dee Sharp on his arm and champagne at a luxury hotel, conjures images of heavyweight championship style—Jack Dempsey and Estelle Taylor, Joe Louis and Marva Trotter, and, from baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. That was the way it was supposed to be. By fighting blind in the fifth round and battering Sonny Liston in the sixth, Cassius Clay had earned the title of champion and his share of the good life.

While Dee Dee waited, Cassius was in his dressing room holding court. He had told the reporters that he was going to win—told them loudly and often. Now that he had their full attention, he gave them another chance. After castigating them for their lack of faith, he demanded “Who’s the greatest?” A few browbeaten scribes surrendered and said, “You are.” Only then did the new champion smile.

It was after midnight when he came out of his dressing room. Accompanied by his brother and a few friends from the Nation, he pushed through the mob of photographers and newspapermen. Standing on her toes, Dee Dee waved, calling out “Marcellus! Marcellus!” She didn’t even receive a glance as he swept past her.

From the arena he headed north toward the Hampton House and a small, private celebration with Malcolm X and a few other friends, including Rudy, Howard Bingham, Sam Cooke, and Archie Robinson. A joyous crowd had packed the Hampton House’s luncheonette by the time Clay’s party arrived. Cassius and Rudy, the two victorious boxers, sat in places of honor on the center stools at the lunch counter, surrounded by loud, talking, joking black men who had attended the fight or turned up to shake hands with the new heavyweight champion. Cassius’s victory dinner was a large bowl of ice cream, which he wolfed down in a matter of seconds. While Cassius ate, Malcolm and Howard Bingham snapped photographs—Malcolm whispering in Cassius’s ear, his hand resting on the champ’s shoulder; Malcolm bursting with laughter while Cassius teased him; Malcolm and Cassius exchanging knowing glances. It was the happiest moment they had ever shared together.

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The two appeared inseparable. Malcolm seemed to take as much satisfaction from Clay’s triumph and Hampton House victory party as the fighter himself. In his mind, after all, Cassius’s victory was his as well. Associates had remarked that they seemed as close as brothers. During the raucous stage of the evening he called writer Alex Haley, with whom he had become close during their collaboration on Malcolm’s autobiography.  Clay was like Malcolm’s “little brother,” Haley recalled. “[Malcolm]  was very, very proud of him.” During the phone call, over the loud voices in the background, “Malcolm was boasting how his little brother had done marvelously well.” Showing more excitement than he had displayed at the match, he called to Cassius to holler something to Haley, which he did. It was as if the big brother called the shots and the little brother amiably went along.

After a short public celebration, the inner group moved to Malcolm’s bedroom for more serious conversation. The bubbly, playful banter was left behind at the lunch replaced by a more somber mood. Now that Cassius was champion, Malcolm had urgent matters to discuss. He thought it was time for his friend to play a more active role. Cassius, Malcolm, and Jim Brown, the National Football League’s premier running back, began talking about the future of the black man. Sympathetic to many of the Nation of Islam’s goals, Brown was as respected by “race men” as he was by professional football players. He did not believe in heroes, but he admired Malcolm’s confrontational mentality. Like the combative minister, the outspoken football star insisted that blacks must demand their rights, fight for them, and defend them at all costs. Distrustful of white men, Brown questioned passive resistance and nonviolence. “I am skeptical of white men,” he would later write in his autobiography, “because even the best of them want me to be patient, to follow Martin Luther King’s advice and turn the other cheek until God knows when.”

Listening to Brown, Malcolm could tell that he was sincere in his beliefs. Malcolm clearly shared his view that famous black athletes had a responsibility to join the freedom movement. For Cassius, then, the heavyweight title was a prelude to more important accomplishments, ones that transcended sports and crossed over to politics. “Well, Brown,” Malcolm asked the football player, “don’t you think it’s time for this young man to stop spouting off and get serious?”

Brown agreed. The title was not an end in itself; it was a platform from which to advance far more urgent matters. The plan called for Cassius to use the title for his purposes, not to be used and consumed by it.

Cassius also understood that his victory over Liston marked the beginning of a new stage in his life. There was nothing left to conquer in the world of boxing. His athletic achievements now matched his worldwide fame. His actions had vindicated his boasts, certifying his incessant claims that he was the greatest. Listening to Malcolm’s plans, Cassius didn’t brag or rhyme. He paid attention and, as far as Malcolm could tell, agreed.

Malcolm said that they talked for several hours, which is doubtful given the time line of the evening. But they did converse long enough to hit the points that were important to both of them. Finally, exhausted from a day that had included a wild weigh-in, action-filled title fight, post-fight ring antics, and several press conferences, Cassius said he needed a nap. Stretching out on Malcolm’s bed, he went to sleep.

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But he didn’t sleep long. While Malcolm  was somewhere else, Cassius awoke and had a meaningful tête-à-tête with Jim Brown. They talked about race in America, the politics of the Nation of Islam, and the feud between Malcolm and Elijah. As he listened, it was clear to Brown that there was a serious disconnect between Malcolm’s plans and Cassius’s. He recalled that Clay had already made up his mind: he could no longer follow Malcolm. The Messenger would not allow it. “Elijah was a little man,” Clay told Brown, “but extremely powerful, and had always supported him.” Cassius “loved Malcolm, but from that day on, he would never again be his friend.”

Had Clay made that choice by the early morning hours of Feb. 26? When he ate vanilla ice cream and Malcolm whispered in his ear, had he made the hard political decision that would inevitably alter both men’s lives? Was it possible for Jim Brown and Malcolm X to have such different interpretations of Clay’s intentions that morning? Given Cassius’s avoidance of personal disagreement and his reluctance to say anything in a one-on-one personal exchange that would disappoint a friend, he might have allowed Malcolm to hear and believe what the minister desperately wanted to hear and believe. Or he may have told both Brown and Malcolm versions of the truth and kept the full truth to himself.

Huston Horn of Sports Illustrated reported on some of the post-fight events, though he knew nothing about Clay’s conversations with Malcolm and Brown. But the thought that Malcolm was even there led to a sagacious conclusion. From Cassius’s activities at the Hampton House two things were certain, Horn wrote: “His tastes are just as simple, and his thoughts on life just as murky as they have been for years.”

Sometime shortly after 2 a.m., while Cassius was nodding half-asleep in bed, someone informed him that a score of neighbors were waiting in his yard for him to return to his bungalow. “They are the people I mean something to,” he said before dressing and departing the Hampton House. Once back at his house, he spent 15 minutes or so shaking hands and signing autographs before announcing that he was calling it a night. He had another press conference in the morning and wanted to get at least a few hours of sleep.

If Cassius had gotten to sleep, a doubtful proposition, he hadn’t been in that state for long when a loud knock at the door disturbed everyone in the champ’s bungalow. Three Los Angeles reporters—Brad Pye and Doc Young of the Los Angeles Sentinel and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times—just happened to be driving up in “Colored Town” and by chance saw a single bulb glowing through a frosted glass window.

All three knew Clay, and they seemed blissfully unconcerned about the propriety of the visit.

Stretched out on a couch, wearing only white undershorts and gray socks, Cassius politely ignored the time and the intrusion and said, “Come in.”

This was no scene out of a Hollywood boxing movie, thought Murray. In The Champion, the Kirk Douglas character wins the title and immediately moves uptown—the best booze, broads, and clothes that money could buy. In Cassius’s low-rent dwelling, however, there were “no crowds in mink and cigar smoke, no clink of glasses, no loud music and louder sycophantry.” There was just the exhausted boxer and a small circle of half-asleep friends.

Tired, occasionally rubbing his stomach, Cassius began to talk, “slowly, like a man on his first visit to a psychiatrist.” He talked about Sonny—“I jes’ played with him, jes’ played with him, is all.” About Angelo pushing him out of the corner for the fifth round—“This is for the heavyweight championship of the world. Get out there and fight.” But mostly about God and his own providential journey to the title. “I’m not around rich people. I’m the champ now and God wants me to be champ.” God, he believed, had a plan for him.

At 2:30 Archie Robinson arrived, looking angry that a white reporter (Murray) was taking up Cassius’s time. “What’s this? A press conference at 3:30 in the morning?” he said without checking his watch.

“I’m the boss here,” Clay said in a near whisper.

“Oh, I know, I know,” Robinson responded. But the reporters departed nonetheless.

“That man sure puts a pall on a place when he comes in to see Cassius, doesn’t he?” Pye said.

“For a fact,” Young answered.

Around Malcolm X, Cassius bubbled with life, a mixture of pleasure and mischief. But Archie Robinson prompted a wholly different vibe. It was like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cassius seemed like one of them. One of the pod people.

The result of the the Clay-Liston match shocked reporters. Some even mused in their columns about the possibility that the fight might have been fixed. But the history of boxing is full of upsets, and Clay’s victory over Liston was no more improbable or unexpected than James J. Braddock’s 1935 defeat of Max Baer. What was more startling than the result, however, was the traditional day-after press conference with the champion.

During Joe Louis’s reign, such events had been relaxed affairs. Joe would show up at Mike Jacobs’s Madison Square Garden office, take a seat in the large red leather chair, leaf through the morning’s funny pages, eat an apple, and field reporters’ questions. Joe never really said much, but he managed to give the sportswriters at least a germ of a story. As often as he tried to explain what it was like to be the most feared fighter in the world, he could never exactly convey how it felt to be Joe Louis.

There was nothing informal or cozy about Clay’s late-morning press conference on Feb.26. Less than 12 hours before, just after defeating Liston, Cassius had enough energy left to take on the press, excoriating them repeatedly “in a rude arrogant speech” for backing the wrong fighter. In several mean, bitter tirades, he’d told the writers that they should hang their heads in shame, repent for their literary transgressions, and beg him for forgiveness. “You hypocrites,”  he had shouted. “What are you going to say now?”

Clay’s words prompted reporter Jack Kofoed to respond, “He probably never will become a great fighter because a man with his ridiculous egoism isn’t likely to learn. This man is neither a credit to the game he plays nor his race.”

His race—it was that, even more than his words, that lent a cutting edge to the conference. That morning, in an article about Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, Mike Handler had reported in The New York Times that Clay was “a Muslim and a close friend of Malcolm.” Printed in the journalistically conservative Times, a paper that prohibited its reporters from editorializing in their articles, the statement carried added weight. Although it was widely known that Cassius was sympathetic with the Nation of Islam, he had not yet admitted publicly that he had formally joined the organization.

He arrived at the Veterans Room at the convention center punctually at 11 a.m., looking and acting as if he were applying for admission to Princeton University. Dressed in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and a white button-down Oxford shirt, he answered questions in a singularly non-Cassius Clay manner. Instead of displaying his usual 150-watt eyes and P.T. Barnum mouth, he began talking in a quiet voice, his eyes focused on his feet, speaking barely above the sound a soft wind makes rustling through the leaves of a tree.

“Speak louder, Cassius. We can’t hear you,” several reporters called out. “In the past no one had to give that sort of urging,” Arthur Daley wrote in his column. Clay’s personality pivot shocked him. This was the day for the fighter to crow and preen, to tell the world once again that he was the greatest. Instead, Clay wore “a discernible cloak of humility,” eschewing the sound and fury of the day before and now speaking with a “quiet modesty.”

“I’m through talking,” he began. “All I have to be is a nice, clean gentleman. I’ve proved my point. Now I’m going to set an example for all the nice boys and girls. I’m through talking.” It was as if the Louisville Lip had died, or had never existed at all. It had just been a role Clay played, a part he created and mastered, but it was not who he was. He did it to breathe life into his sport and to promote his career. “My mouth overshadowed my ability,” he admitted.

He confessed that he did not even enjoy boxing. “I only fight to make a living, and when I have enough money I won’t fight anymore. I don’t like to fight. I don’t like to get hurt. I don’t like to hurt anybody.” All he wanted was to be the champion for the people, especially the dispossessed—“the poor folk and the drunks and the bums.”

“I just want to make people happy.”

The reporters had heard variations of Clay’s statements before: the desire to do good, make a difference, get out of the brutal sport before it robbed him of his senses. They were promises other fighters had made and failed to keep.

For a while, Cassius discussed the odd twists and turns of the match. He admitted he had wanted to quit before the fifth round and actually felt sorry for Liston. “You people put too much load on him. You built him up too big and now he has such a long way to fall.” As he talked, the older writers nodded their heads and smiled in agreement. “If he sticks to this pose, he… can win a vast amount of popularity,” Daley wrote.

Soon most of the sportswriters had what they needed and departed the room to attend Liston’s press conference or to file their stories. The bombast and poetry was all an act, they would write, and the real Cassius Clay was a clean-living, thoughtful young man whose only harm was playing a role too well.

When the room was less than half full, a younger reporter asked an essentially forbidden question. “Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?” For a moment Clay looked shocked, then angry. The unwritten code of the sports world ruled some questions out of bounds. Unless the athlete raised the subject, reporters did not ask questions about politics, religion, drinking, or marital infidelities. Now someone was asking Clay if he belonged to what most white Americans and some black Americans believed was an extreme religious cult.

Immediately Clay’s countenance shifted from quietly respectful to pugnaciously defiant. “Card-carrying, what does that mean?” he challenged. It sounded like he was being accused of belonging to the Communist Party.

Then, without directly answering the question, he defended the Nation of Islam and addressed the expectations of white Americans. “I believe in Allah and in peace. I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a Christian any more.” As for the Nation: “I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see? I see that there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor. And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go there.”

Robert Lipsyte’s New York Times report captured the moment when the worlds of sport and politics collided. “There was a trace of antagonism when [Clay] refused to play the mild and socially uninvolved sports-hero stereotype, and began to use the news conference as a platform for socio-political theory.”

That was exactly what Cassius and Malcolm had discussed—using the title as a venue to address political issues, not as an accomplishment to curry favor with white America. Floyd Patterson made liberal Americans optimistic about the future when he spoke quietly of the need for peace, cooperation, and integration. He played by the existing rules of the sports world, presenting himself as an acceptable role model for black and white youths. Clay refused to play that part in the heavyweight morality play. “In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers are with tigers, and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds,” he said. “That’s human nature too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”

Cobbled from the teaching of Elijah Muhammad and rhetoric of Malcolm X, Cassius had made variations of this speech before, but never as the heavyweight champion, a position of some authority. Taking advantage of the moment, he spoke his mind freely and boldly. He defended Malcolm: “If he’s so bad why don’t they put him in jail?” He addressed his support for Malcolm’s teachings: “I catch so much hell, why? Why me when I don’t try to bust into schools or march around or throw bricks?”

Clay’s rambling defense of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was an example of his main point, one that Lipsyte used in his lede the next day. Glancing at the group of mostly white reporters—some angry, others shocked, a few supportive—Clay asserted, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”

It was a revolutionary statement, announcing his emancipation from the prescribed role for “Negro” athletes. In a shockingly radical declaration that amounted to a manifesto, he said that he was neither a “Negro,” a Christian, nor an advocate of racial integration. He was black, a Muslim, and a separatist.

Shortly after the press conference ended, Rudy Clay and Sam Saxon arrived together at the Chicago Coliseum for the Saviours’ Day Convention. About 2:30, the celebration began with Louis X, Malcolm’s replacement as master of ceremonies, introducing a procession of speakers honoring Elijah Muhammad. Rudy was not an impressive orator nor was he considered an important figure in the Nation, but on this day—the day after his brother became heavyweight champion of the world—he found himself center stage, standing at the podium just a few feet away from Elijah. “Cassius sends the greetings of As-Salaam Alaikum to all his brothers and sisters at Saviours’ Day,” Rudy announced. “He said he’d like to thank each and every one for the prayers they have said for his success in winning the heavyweight title.”

Rudy’s speech was part of Elijah Muhammad’s carefully orchestrated plan. Placing Clay’s brother on the dais, surrounded by the Nation’s officials, conveyed a clear message: Malcolm believed that he and Cassius shared a brotherhood, but Elijah intended to make Cassius and Rudy feel like they were part of the royal family. Muhammad reminded the five thousand followers in attendance, “I have been given the keys to your salvation and I can send you to either [heaven or hell].” When he announced that Cassius belonged to the Nation of Islam, the crowd roared with cheers and applause. Elijah beamed with pride. “I’m so glad that Cassius Clay admits he is a Muslim.”

Before the fight, Muhammad had made no public announcement supporting Cassius. He had believed what most boxing experts believed: Liston would not only defeat Clay, he would pummel him. No one from Muhammad Speaks was sent to Miami to cover the fight. The last thing Elijah wanted was for the Nation to be disgraced by a follower laid out on his back. When Malcolm first asked Muhammad for permission to attend the fight in Miami, the Messenger answered, “Yes, [but] if you do go, it will be as a private person. You will not in any way be representing us, because it’s impossible for Cassius Clay to win.”

The day after Clay won, Muhammad confessed something that no one had heard from him before. The deaf, dumb, and blind “wanted [Cassius] to get his face torn up, but Allah and myself said, ‘No!’” Then he delivered a message meant for Malcolm: “Clay had confidence in Allah and in me as his only messenger.” His faith in Allah and his inspiration from Muhammad—not Malcolm—“assured his victory and left him unscarred.”

Around 8 o’clock the next morning, Malcolm met Cassius for breakfast at the Hampton House, where they read Muhammad’s announcement in the papers. Cassius had become a pawn in a power struggle between Malcolm and Elijah, and the Supreme Minister had just made a bold move. Now it was Malcolm’s turn. He realized that he had to do something to lure Cassius; he had to offer him something that Muhammad could not.

Time, Malcolm realized, was running out. Elijah would not wait much longer before he made another move. At that moment, Robert Lipsyte observed, Malcolm “understood that he had not really, totally” reached Clay. When he finished reading Muhammad’s statement, he folded the paper and tossed it onto the counter, knowing that he had to keep one eye on Cassius and the other on Elijah.

Seeing Cassius talk with Malcolm made reporters ask the new champion if Muhammad’s statement about his membership in the Nation was accurate. “That is true, and I am proud of it,” he answered. “But what’s all the commotion about?” The commotion was all about the country’s fears—fears of a religion most Americans knew little about; fears that the Muslims were a black menace lurking in the shadows; fears that Elijah Muhammad intended to lead a violent uprising; and fears that Cassius Clay was the bogeyman in the closet.

Sportswriters wanted to know why he had joined the Black Muslims. “You call it Black Muslims, I don’t,” he asserted. “This is a name that has been given to us by the press. Yet people brand us a hate group. They say we want to take over the country. They say we’re Communists.” None of it was true. The Muslims, he said, didn’t carry knives or guns. They were peaceful people who avoided confrontation. He joined the Nation because the Muslims offered a sanctuary, a utopia free from racial violence. “I want peace and I do not find peace in an integrated world,” he explained. “I don’t want to be blown up. I don’t want to be washed down sewers. I just want to be with my own kind.”

A childhood friend later explained to Jack Olsen that when Cassius talked “about race—when he says, ‘I don’t want to be bombed. I don’t want to be set on fire. I don’t want to be lynched or have no dogs chase me’—he’s expressing a general fright more than a real racial attitude.” Cassius “finds it safer to be with Negroes, his own kind. It allays his fear of all those things his father used to tell him the whites’d do to him. He keeps this tight little Negro group around him, and he’s scared to death to venture away from it.”

Clay maintained that it was only “natural” for blacks to live among blacks and for whites to live among whites. Sounding like Malcolm’s assistant minister, he said, “We believe that forced and token integration is but a temporary and not an everlasting solution to the Negro problem. It is merely a pacifier. We don’t think one people should force its culture upon another.” Malcolm grinned as he listened to his pupil deliver one of his favorite lines: “A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.”

As he listened to Clay’s answers, he heard his voice grow stronger, bolder, and more defiant. There was no other athlete in America who so audaciously challenged the politics of the sports world. “Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known,” Malcolm asserted, “the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him. He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man’s hero. But Cassius is the black man’s hero. Do you know why? Because the white press wanted him to lose. They wanted him to lose because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability.”

White men were not the only ones blinded by Cassius. In their private moments together, between the minister’s lectures and lessons, during their conversations and laughter, Malcolm came to believe in their friendship, their brotherhood, their bond. He rarely trusted any man, and few ever visited his home for family dinners the way that Cassius did. Malcolm fell for Clay’s boyish wonder, his innocence and charm. Never did he imagine that Clay would hurt him. He trusted his own eyes, seeing only what he wanted to see: a magnetic young black man full of conviction and sincerity.

But Malcolm failed to apply the key lesson from his relationship with Elijah Muhammad: things were not always what they seemed. Later that day, Malcolm and Cassius made plans to see each other again soon. They shook hands, Malcolm congratulated him once more, and then he departed for the airport.

As he waited for his flight to New York, Malcolm probably thought about Clay and how their friendship had evolved. He’d never felt closer to him than he had during the days between his suspension and Clay’s title celebration. They had known each other for only a little more than a year and a half, but in the past month their relationship had matured swiftly, as swiftly, almost, as it would crumble.

After Malcolm left, Rudy and Sam Saxon returned from Chicago. They arrived with a message for Cassius. During the Saviours’ Day Convention, Saxon told Captain Joseph all about Malcolm’s maneuvering in Miami. Joseph shook his head in disgust, convinced that the suspended minister was trying to manipulate Clay. Elijah, he told Saxon, had already determined that Malcolm would never return to the Nation. Malcolm was an outcast, a marked man with one foot in the grave. Send word to Cassius, Joseph instructed: he better not get too close to Malcolm.

Excerpted from Blood Brothers: The fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, published by Basic Books and reprinted here with the permission of the authors and the publisher, who retain all rights.

Randy Roberts is distinguished professor of history at Purdue. He has written biographies of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bear Bryant, and John Wayne. Johnny Smith is assistant professor of American history at Georgia Tech. He is the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball.