Hours before the death of boxing great and sports legend Muhammad Ali, ESPN spoke with LeBron James on what made Ali such a transcendent figure. As word spread Friday that Ali had been hospitalized in Arizona, the Cavaliers star reflected on what made him so important not just to fans, but athletes as well.

"The reason why he's the GOAT is not because of what he did in the ring, which was unbelievable," James said, referring to the acronym commonly attached to Ali, which stands for "greatest of all time."

"It's what he did outside of the ring, what he believed in, what he stood for, along with Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor -- obviously who became Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] -- Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. Those guys stood for something. He's part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We're free. They allow us to have access to anything we want. It's because of what they stood for, and Muhammad Ali was definitely the pioneer for that."

"People forget what you did as a professional," James said. "People forget the championships and all the other things you were able to accomplish. But they will never forget how you made them feel. That's a Maya Angelou quote, but I'll transcend that into what Muhammad Ali was able to do. So it's very important."

Source: LeBron James says Muhammad Ali a big reason why African-American athletes can enjoy fame, opportunities.

Much of the NBA community joined in the public mourning of one of sports' greatest athletes.

Commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement Friday night:

"Muhammad Ali transcended sports with his outsized personality and dedication to civil rights and social justice. He was an inspirational presence at several major NBA events and was deeply admired by so many throughout the league. While we are deeply saddened by his loss, Muhammad Ali's legacy lives on in every athlete who takes a stand for what he or she believes."

Was one of the most special moments of my life. R.I.P to the one and only @muhammadali #GOAT #hislegacylivesforever

A photo posted by Karl-Anthony Towns (@karltowns) on

Anyone who knows me knows that this guy is my hero #rip #muhammadali #thegreatest #mood

A photo posted by Rudy Gay (@rudygay8) on

RIP ALI the most high. Striving to be like you.

A photo posted by Jabari Parker (@jabariparker) on

R.I.P to the Greatest thanks for all you done for the WORLD ..Way more then a boxer #Muhammadali #Champ

A video posted by Hassan whiteside (@hassanwhiteside) on

Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer. #muhammadali

A photo posted by Taj Gibson (@tajgibson22) on

Muhammad Ali, dead at 74, was honored by NBA players Friday. USATSI