BOSTON - When he stood on the victory stand in Mexico City, his head bowed and his fist raised, Tommie Smith didn't allow himself to think about racial progress in the United States, when a black man would be elected president or when Smith himself, once-reviled, would be honored on a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.
"I didn't think about what was possible, or what wasn't," Smith said Monday, more than 40 years after he was exiled from the Olympics for raising a Black Power salute on the medal stand. "I didn't think getting off the podium was possible for me at the time, with all the death threats I had received."
Smith won the 200 meters in world-record time at the 1968 Games, then was expelled from the Games along with bronze medalist John Carlos when they bowed their heads during the Star-Spangled Banner and raised their gloved fists in protest. They returned home to threats and found themselves ostracized.
Olympic hero honored
Four decades later, Smith was in Boston to be honored during the Celtics' game against the Phoenix Suns and to be inducted into the "True Heroes of Sport" Hall of Fame at the Northeastern Center for Sport and Society along with Carlos. On the eve of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, Smith saw his protest as part of a movement that isn't quite finished.
"It means somebody heard my steps - besides people in the races I ran against," Smith said. "It's a great stride forward, just because we have a person with hue, and with an African-American background. That doesn't mean our job is over; it means it's just begun. I don't mean people of color, I mean everybody in the nation."
Smith met with the team captains before the game. Carlos could not make the game because of a speaking engagement, but his wife, Charlene, was recognized in his absence.
The Celtics, who play in Miami tonight, took a team vote to fly out early on yesterday morning so they could arrive in time to see the inauguration on TV, even though Rivers had 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."
Meeting Smith was, for some of the players, a similar thrill.
""The state of the world, and where it was, and what they did - it was monumental," Celtics’ Kevin Garnett said. "And I think it will always be monumental. It was a very key moment in sports and in life."
After asking his age, Smith gave a big smile. "Whenever I run into guys like I will tonight, I will tell them that the game has just begun. Although yours ended, you have another, lifelong game. It's called the future," Smith said. "This is a new turn, and this turn can be remembered more than anybody in any race, especially me in the 200 meters.
"So we've got to keep on going," he said. "The race is on."