Farewell to the Champ-the Greatest
Many years ago my wife and I used to travel to sports memorabilia shows all over the country. We would target shows that had the biggest, brightest names in sports and then make a vacation out of the event-the focal point of the few days away would be the chance to enhance our memorabilia collection.
At one show we were able to meet Sandy Koufax, Johnny Bench, Joe Namath, and Muhammad Ali. I can’t explain the feeling in the room when each of those mega stars entered individually to greet adoring fans and memorabilia collectors. Each held a special place in the world of sports.
The biggest thrill of the entire day came late in the morning. Suddenly, an announcer introduced The Greatest. Muhammad Ali walked slowly into the auditorium to thunderous applause. Frankly, I had never experienced such excitement. The place was rocking. Some people were actually in tears. Muhammad had a presence unlike any I had every seen in my life. There he was-standing right in front of us. Muhammad Ali.
My wife and I were very lucky that day. Ali took a place standing on the floor as opposed to the stage. We were right in front of him. So close we could shake hands with him. But we didn’t. He was way too busy for that. He looked at my wife Lynn and gave her a huge, huge smile and a wink. His smile could melt an iceberg. And then he did his magic tricks. He was so proud of his magic tricks. And they were pretty good. He didn’t speak. He just did his magic, smiled and then proceeded to the table to sign memorabilia.
He signed a beautiful picture for us of himself in the ring. In addition, he signed a boxing glove. Both are on display in a prominent location in my office. Every time we look at those two items it brings back such wonderful memories of that fabulous show. I shut my eyes and see that smile and wink. He was a special, special person.
Late in his life Ali lived in Phoenix. He was a central part of the community. He sponsored a charity event called “Fight Night.” There were no fights at “fight night.” Instead, celebrities gathered to put on a dinner for charity. Basically, it was to help with research for Parkinson’s Disease-the disease Ali carried with him for years. It is the disease that robbed him of his speech and his motor skills. But it never took his heart. He had such a huge heart. Helping people. Being there for people. Speaking out against hatred and bigotry. Ali was bigger than life.
In his lifetime and during his boxing years he sounded boastful. That was his “schtick”. Few people can live up to their claims of greatness. But Ali was just that…great. In so many ways.
I remember the relationship he had with the late Howard Cossell-the sportscaster foil for Ali’s “schtick”. Those two played word games with each other for years. But it was easy to see the respect they had for one another. Cossell helped make Ali. Ali helped make Cossell.
On several occasions Ali would show up at Diamondbacks games. When he was introduced the crowd went totally wild. Ovations lasted for several minutes. He was a living legend. The fans adored him and let him know it. He elicited the most resounding response I have ever seen and heard at a Dbacks games. More than Randy Johnson. More than Senator McCain. More than anyone I had seen there. The stands would almost shake from the response to The Greatest. On a couple of occasions I was fortunate to be in his presence at the ball park. I reflected on the New Jersey memorabilia show and he gave me that big, wonderful smile. No card tricks though. Just the smile.
Now Muhammad Ali is resting in peace after a long battle with health issues that impacted his quality of life. But he was gracious and kind. He was the Champion of the people-all people. He was courageous and caring. He was a boxer and a showman. But more than anything, he was giving and sharing and generous. In fact, one might say he was well— The Greatest. And, that he was. Rest in peace Muhammad.
Thank you for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff and for reading my baseball scouting reports at TodaysKnuckleball.com.
That’s it. I’m done.
Very well put, Bernie. Ali was unlike any other athlete — hell, any other person — I’ve seen in my 65 years on this earth. I became a huge fan during my late teens on into my thirties, watching every Ali fight I could until he finally retired. Later, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him back in 1983, while working on a TV commercial meant to run the following year during the Olympics in LA. He did those magic tricks — which were great — then posed with me for a photo, with both of us squared off in the classic boxers stance. At that moment — his big left fist cocked at my jaw — his face suddenly turned serious, and with a menacing glare he asked: “Did you call me nigger?”
I froze for a long, incomprehensible moment, trying to understand what the hell was happening.
“Oh,” he said, as the playful grin returned, “you called me bigger.”
The whole set erupted in laughter. It was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget — and of course, the photo has been hanging on my wall ever since.
Love your blog — all the best!