As my life moved into its fifth decade not long ago, I accepted the plain and simple truth that my father and I agreed on very few things. One of our first disagreements was over the man I called Muhammad Ali, the most electrifying sports figure of the time. To my dad, Cassius Clay was a trouble making, loud mouth draft dodger.
He never met Muhammad Ali. I did, many more times than a kid from Lakeview should have expected.
Way back when the New Orleans Athletic Club was in full swing with dual restaurants and a bar, they also had a summer camp.
After camp ended for the day, our group usually ended up by the photo booth and other odd pieces of entertainment. On one particular day in around 1971, as we killed time there, a woman hysterically screamed, “Oh my God! Look everybody, that is Muhammad Ali!”
Along with about twenty Woolworth customers, I left my brothers and sprinted to shake hands with Ali. He was gracious, jovial and spoke directly to each of us. He feigned a couple of punches at me and I did my feeble 10 year old’s version of his famous Ali Shuffle. he laughed and then did his version.
For anyone whoever had the opportunity to meet him, it was always the same. He just made you feel good and included in whatever he was up to.
Fast forward to September 1978 when Ali was in The Big Easy for his historic fight with Leon Spinks at the still new Superdome. Riding home with some fellow Jesuit students, I saw a white Rolls Royce followed by a white Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.
I knew the Fleetwood well. My dad worked and Pontchartrain Cadillac and the dealership had loaned Ali’s entourage the car. I shouted to my stunned friends, “Follow those cars. It’s Ali!” Our high speed chase ended at a modest yellow brick house on Topaz Street near the Lakefront.
Never one to be shy, I told my friends I was going to knock on the door with or without them. Three taps on the door brought a man I would later know as Bundini Brown (The character Jamie Fox played in ALI) to the door asking what we wanted.
When I said we wanted to meet the champ, he pretended to not know who we were talking about. I told him my dad’s dealership had loaned them the car and while he debated a response, a voice from inside the house said, “let ’em in.”
There stretched out on the sofa was the man who would become the first boxer to win the heavyweight crown for a third time. He waived us over and asked about our school and what we were learning. After signing our books and notebooks, he advised us to stay in school so we wouldn’t have to get punched to make a living. We laughed and tried to linger, but Bundini ushered us out. I don’t think any of will forget that moment. He had been as he had been outside Woolworth’s; warm, funny and friendly.
In 1989, I started covering boxing for WFAN Radio in New York and my own syndicated radio shows. It was not unusual for Muhammad to walk into the press room and laugh and cut up for the reporters.
Anyone who met him around that time knew the drill. Ali would say, “Let me show you how Satan can fool you.” He’d then do a red silk handkerchief trick followed by his “levitating” act, which involved him bending his foot in a few places. When viewed from the rear, it did sort of look like he was floating a few inches off the ground. Who knows? Maybe he actually was.
My co-host for my radio shows was the inimitable Bert Sugar, one of Ali’s closest friends. One numerous occasions Bert would have me join he and “The Greatest” in the casino coffee shop for a snack.
When I moved to New York, Bert would call me and tell me to meet the two of them at whatever restaurant or diner they were heading to. By that time the duo was testifying before Senate and House committees attempting to enact laws to protect boxers physically and financially. As always, made me feel like I belonged, though I certainly had no reason to be there.
My work with Larry Holmes brought me closer to Ali. In fact, I hate to say, Ali encounters had become fairly routine. While far from his inner circle, I had access to his wife Lonnie and she made sure that he signed gloves I donated to various charities for silent auctions. Sean Payton’s Black and Gold Gala sold several. Just a few months ago, with his health failing, he signed a few photos for me. On my home desk sit a few signed photos of Ali with Elvis is a Las Vegas hotel suite and few more of him standing over Sonny Liston.
In October I was invited to an event hosted by Sports Illustrated at the Ali Center in Louisville. He was in poor health but his sense of humor and legendary charisma was alive and kicking. That event would prove to be his last public appearance.
Like the rest of the world, I heard that he was near death in a Phoenix hospital. As I texted everyone from Larry Holmes to New Orleans Saints coach Joe Vitt with the news we all hoping we’d never hear. At the age of 74, Muhammad Ali passed gently from this world. I have been invited to attend the ceremonies Friday in Lexington. If I can clear my schedule, I plan to be there as they ring a 10-count for The Greatest.
Unlike any athlete or entertainer, Muhammad Ali transcended boxing to become an international figure who spent most of his life fighting to bring peace to a troubled world. It had become his mission.
He had truly floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Today there is a empty space he once filled. Nobody will ever fill that void because there will never be another Muhammad Ali.