“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
— Muhammad Ali
What better way to start this list? One of Ali’s most famous quotes came when he was just 22-years-old.
The year was 1964, and Ali (then Cassius Clay) was preparing to face off against former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami (there was a real fear at the time that Liston might actually kill Ali during the fight).
Liston had been taunting Ali, an underdog, all week. But Ali’s confidence was unwavering. Per Bustle, Before stepping into the ring, he turned and uttered his now-famous quote used to describe his fighting style:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”
Ali went on to not only win the fight but to become one of the best and most influential athletes the world has ever seen. He became a three-time heavyweight champion, and an activist who spoke out about civil rights, racism, religion, and the Vietnam war.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. On June 3, 2016, after a period of hospitalization for illness, Ali died of septic shock. He was 74-years-old.
Millions mourned his passing, and a great number of athletes, politicians and celebrities expressed their sorrow.
“Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released following the death of Ali. “If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d “handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail. But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.”
“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
— Vince Lombardi
As head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, Vince Lombardi led the Pack to five NFL championships in seven years and won two Super Bowls in 1966 (the inaugural bowl) and 1967. Today, the trophy awarded to the winning team at the Super Bowl is named for him.
Lombardi never had a losing season in all his years of coaching.
“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
— Jim Valvano
Jimmy Valvano, or “Jimmy V”, was a big fan of the previous coach on this list. Valvano so idolized Vince Lombardi that he attempted to personify the coach in a speech to his team during his first ever game. The story goes that Lombardi waited until just three minutes before his Packers were to take the field, and then walked in, paced the locker room and said “Gentleman, we can be successful this year if you can focus on three things: your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers.”
Going over Lombardi’s speech in his head, a 20-year-old Valvano waited until three minutes before the start of the basketball game before attempting to barge through the locker room doors — only to find them locked. After being let in, he told the Rutgers men’s basketball team: “You can be successful if you focus on three things: your family, your religion, and the Green Bay Packers!”
Jimmy V’s first introduction as a coach may have been a gaffe, but he left behind a cherished legacy: he lead North Carolina State University to win the 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament, in what went down as one of the biggest upsets in the history of college basketball. The winning shot comes with just five seconds left on the clock:
Valvano was diagnosed with bone cancer in June 1992, and died of his illness in April 1993. Two months before his death, Valvano accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the ESPYs, and gave one of the most famous — and inspirational — speeches in sports history. The entire speech (around 10 minutes) is worth the watch:
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan
There’s no denying Michael Jordan was an insanely talented player. But, no matter you’re level of athleticism, there’s no reaching greatness without putting the work in.
Jordan actually spoke these words as part of a Nike commercial, and the message is undoubtedly one he carried with him throughout his career.
It’s hard to believe today that Jordan was once a 5’10” high school sophomore who couldn’t dunk a basketball nor make his varsity basketball team.
Who says hard work can’t get you anywhere?
“Whenever I was working out and got tired and ﬁgured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” Jordan told Newsweek. “That usually got me going again.”
Jordan was selected third-overall in the 1984 NBA Draft (Hakeem Olajuwan and Sam Bowie were selected first and second, respectively) and went on to win five MVP Awards, 10 All-NBA First Team designations, 14 NBA All-Star Game appearances, was a six-time NBA champ, six-time NBA Finals MVP, and saw his jersey number (23) retired by three separate organizations: The Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and University of North Carolina. In 2009, LeBron James famously stated any NBA player donning a No. 23 jersey should choose another number in honor of Jordan.
“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
— Babe Ruth
Aren’t all of us as in awe of The Great Bambino?
The quote was widely attributed to Ruth, especially following the release of the now cult-classic film The Sandlot,where main character Benny Rodriguez is encouraged by The Babe to do the right thing even if it means facing his fear (in this case, retrieving an invaluable baseball from the guard of an especially scary dog, nicknamed “the Beast.”)
We’re not sure if Ruth actually uttered these words, but the attribution makes sense. Ruth became the first MLB player to draw heavy media coverage and a constant fascination from the public — he was as well-known for his home runs as he was for his personal life.
One great thing about these quotes is the concepts of dedication to a goal, working as part of a team or community, and pushing yourself to the limits resonate even for those who are not athletes. For that reason, we love this quote (which is actually attributed to the Great Bambino):
“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
“You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”
— Arthur Ashe
It was hard to include just one quote from Ashe. One of the greatest tennis players of all time and the only African-American man to win a singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, or the Australian Open, Ashe exemplified what it is to be a great athlete — and that was by being a great person first.
Ashe’s mother died at just 27, leaving his father to raise both Arthur and Arthur’s younger brother, Johnnie. Growing up in a segregated Virginia, Ashe wasn’t allowed to play against White players during the school year, nor could he play on the Whites-only indoor tennis courts.
Ashe became the first Black player selected to the US Davis Cup Team (1963) and over the course of his career won three Grand Slam titles. Ashe was just as vital a figure outside of sports, becoming a noted author and civil rights supporter.
Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993, at age 49 (it’s believed he contracted the disease from a blood-transfusion). In a letter written by then-President Bill Clinton, Ashe was described as
“[representing] the very best of America.”
Today, Ashe’s legacy is widely celebrated both in and out of the sports world. The 22,547 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest tennis stadium in the world. In addition, every year the ESPYs give the Arthur Ashe for Courage Award to an athlete “whose actions transcends sports.” Both Jim Valvano and Muhammad Ali have been recipients.