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 Tuesday 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 outdid them all, attending the inauguration in person with Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca before rejoining the team in Florida.
“It was so overwhelming. … Sitting right in front of the Capitol, all people kept doing was looking behind them,” Allen said.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.