In Honor of Others

Arif Khatib has devoted the past two decades to honoring overlooked athletes, community leaders, and youth while garnering little recognition of his own.


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Photo by Rich Yee Photography

If there were a hall of fame for hall-of-fame founders, Arif Khatib would be the No. 1 inductee.

For proof, let’s take a look at his stats:

In 2000, he started the nonprofit Oakland-based Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame (originally the African-American Sports Hall of Fame) to honor underappreciated or overlooked black athletes, later including all races and ethnicities.

He has presented 64 awards ceremonies around the globe — 18 in the Bay Area alone — inducting more than 475 athletes in every sport and honoring more than 400 community leaders and youth. He has also mentored more than 350 young people and adults.

And, clinching his hall-of-fame status, Khatib holds the record for being a super nice man. And a bit of a character.

Yes, Khatib — who won’t reveal his age but says he’s an “advanced senior” — has devoted the past two decades to honoring others while getting little recognition of his own. Not that he’s looking for it. He’s more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.

“The idea with [MESHOF] — I wanted athletes to know they were appreciated, that someone cared about their accomplishments and what they’ve given back to the community,” he said at the Montclair Peet’s Coffee, a hint of his Arkansas-born Southern accent coming through.

“I truly believe when I found my reason for being here, things just opened up — probably about 30 or 35 years ago when I began to meditate, talk to myself, go down to the marina and watch the seagulls,” he said. “It was like a voice, saying, ‘You are the perfect person to give, to help someone in need, to inspire.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Indeed, the longtime Oakland businessman has honored athletes — some famous, some not — who didn’t receive the accolades he felt they deserved from existing hall-of-fame organizations: everyone from WNBA star Ruthie Bolton to Oakland Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff and the Golden State Warriors’ Joe Roberts.

And he didn’t stop at mainstream sports. He has recognized players in cricket, tennis, boxing, track & field, even the Olympics. And he didn’t stop at sports, honoring community members for work in after-school programs or public service. He’s held multiple ceremonies in places like New York, Puerto Rico, Houston, Seattle, Cuba, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and four times in Nova Scotia, earning him the title of honorary Nova Scotian.

“He’s made it his life’s work to acknowledge other people as opposed to seeking personal acknowledgement for himself,” said Raymond Chester, a former Oakland Raiders star and a MESHOF inductee who has known Khatib for over 30 years. “I have the utmost respect for that.”

In February, at the Bay Area’s 18th annual MESHOF banquet — where he honored people like San Francisco Giants’ great Juan Marichal, WNBA star Sheri Sam, and Foothill College President Thuy Thi Nguyen, the first Vietnamese-American college president in the U.S. — Khatib surprised the crowd by announcing he’d be stepping away from MESHOF. He’s handing the reigns over to his longtime assistant and mentoree, Michelle Hall. He gave her the radio show, too. Did we mention he has an internet-radio sports blog/talk show? It’s called the National and International Roundtable, boasting 250,000 listeners worldwide.

He’s a bit coy about his next ventures but said he just signed a contract with an electric car company, is meeting with contacts around the globe, and is working on a film. Did we mention he’s working on a film? A documentary about forgotten stories of black athletes, with Danny Glover signed up to narrate, Khatib said. “The important thing in life is to learn more; do something you haven’t done,” he said, turning the interview into a mentoring session. “Try something you have tried. See what comes of it. If something good comes from it, then maybe you can expand on it. That’s how I’ve done the things I’ve done.”

Born Lawrence Smith (he changed his name in 1974 when doing business in the Middle East — not for religious reasons but strictly business: “Smith didn’t get you very far in Saudi Arabia,” he said.), Khatib grew up in rural Arkansas. He moved to Richmond in 1948, following his older brother, starting school in El Cerrito where he got his first look at integration. “Being with white students for the first time showed me we are one kind of person: human beings,” he said.

He’s had dozens of jobs, gleaning life lessons from each: He learned how to loan money as a clerk in a pawn shop and got a taste for travel as a passenger agent/porter for Southern Pacific Railroad. He played semipro basketball in the ’50s. Moved to Oakland in 1954. Ran his own newspaper called The Shovel from 1968 to 1972, covering local entertainment. “I had five writers,” he said. “They all were me under different names.”

From there, he got into the music biz, booking entertainment for local campaign fundraisers. From there, he produced Bay Area concerts for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Ike and Tina Turner. From there, he started his own record label. He’s toured the world, lecturing at business gatherings and black colleges. He’s also been a boxing promoter, a real estate investor, and a business manager for pro athletes and celebrities.

In the ’90s, it was time for another new venture. “I thought, there are four major halls of fame — hockey, baseball, football, basketball — all commercial propositions. No nonprofit. Only inducting athletes for their respective sports. That meant a whole lot didn’t get in,” he said. “I saw what was happening. These halls of fame would induct four or five people at a time, and often only one black when 80 percent of the whole sports world was black athletes.”

So, he founded the hall of fame to honor overlooked African-American players. Later, when more diversity had been recognized elsewhere, the hall evolved to include all races and ethnicities. He’s even honored members of the press, such as former Oakland Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse.

“Arif is truly one of a kind,” Newhouse said. “He does more good globally with less recognition than anyone you can name. He would be unstoppable except that he has been given only one lifetime to benefit others.”

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