My brush with The Greatest: An afternoon with Muhammad Ali

June 5, 2016 - Picnic Time

For about 15 months a dozen years ago, we took a mangle from a newspaper’s fondle dialect — also famous as Sports — and attempted my palm during news reporting.

However, when a sports-related news object would cocktail up, we was customarily a contributor tapped for a assignment. It apparently finished sense; during a time, we had accrued 15 years as a sportswriter before creation a shift. Plus, we still desired a theme matter (so many so that I’ve been behind in fondle land for 11 years now).

Yes, infrequently in those 15 months that meant not a grittiest of sports stories — possibly it be unresolved around a packet depot for a man-on-the-street piece, or maybe a always-popular politicians personification horseshoes article.

None of it ever unequivocally worried me, though. we could always find an angle with sports, and could always conclude foe during any turn — from covering a high propagandize championship, to a New York Rangers playoff game, to city legislature members removing vehement over a ringer.


On this one Saturday afternoon in late Sep of 2004, we perceived word of a coverage during Richmond County Bank Ballpark for a corporate picnic. “OK,” we suspicion to myself, “I’m certain they’ll be some good images we can put down in disproportion … association executives proverbially relaxation their ties and removing in three-legged pouch races with a Average Joes … a fun in a faces of youngsters using around a outfield of a minor-league stadium. we can work with this.”

“Wait … what? Muhammad Ali is going to be there? That’s a misprint, right?” we suspicion to myself as we looked serve down on a assignment sheet. “That can’t be right. Muhammad Ali during a association cruise on Staten Island?”

Indeed, it was true. “The Greatest” was going to be there, an act of reciprocation for something Pratt Industries authority Anthony Pratt had finished for Ali’s foundation.

And we was going to be one of a beneficiaries of this favor.


As we was pushing to St. George for a event, we had a thousand questions floating like butterflies in my brain, though we also knew that Ali was already about 20 years into his conflict with Parkinson’s Disease — a effects of that were transparent usually from examination a press conferences for his final few pro fights in a 1980s. It was equally as severe conference him pronounce after his hitch opposite a imperishable Trevor Berbick as it was observant him remove in a ring.

Still, we wasn’t wholly certain how many a “Louisville Lip” had slowed. we had seen his physique shake as he illuminated a Olympic flame in Atlanta 8 years prior, though had also listened to him inverse during a low nonetheless heard tinge in some interviews.

When we reached a ballpark and finished my approach onto a field, a initial thing that struck me initial was … “Wow, it’s unequivocally him!” Then, how challenging a figure he cut. And yes, he face was still well-spoken and pretty. And a many apparent pointer of Parkinson’s Disease, a jolt of his physique (especially his hands), didn’t seem intensely pronounced.

But any suspicion of seeking him about his classical fights — opposite Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton and a rest — forsaken faster than Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Ali’s responses were small whispers, to a indicate where after usually a few questions we stopped. There was no reason to press a emanate and put possibly of us in any ungainly situation.

Fortunately, his wife, Lonnie Ali, spoke eloquently on his interest for a afternoon, responding any inquiries trimming from his participation during a picnic, to his foundation, to his health.

Then, something enchanting happened.


Here was this iconic personality, who was tangible as many by his voice as for his punches — possibly he was vocalization out about a Vietnam War or trash-talking a likes of Earnie Shavers — who was now substantially speechless.

Yet, it didn’t make a difference.

I witnessed grown group cry as they walked adult to Ali, revelation him of stories when they were kids and watched his fights on TV. He responded behind with kind nods of a conduct and comfortable smiles.

After connecting with Pratt employees and family members on a margin for about 20 minutes, he finished his approach over to a seats down a right-field line … though not before interlude behind to see me nearby a dugout, where we had been holding these moments in.

Being a sincerely vast chairman — we was substantially some-more of a super heavyweight when it came to poundage, to go with my 6-foot-3 1/2 support — we was sought out by Ali to be his ridicule competition for a minute. The Champ got into his fighting position and we traded jabs, any punch rupturing by a early autumn air, with a attempts of a afterwards 62-year-old still many crisper than mine.

After that notation of shuffling his feet with me on a ballpark grass, Ali finished his approach into a stands, sitting a few seats into a row, about 5 rows adult from a field. Meanwhile, we took my position still nearby a dugout, looking adult into a stands, holding records in my reporter’s pad.

For around a subsequent dual hours, Ali acted for cinema and sealed autographs for everybody who finished their approach to see him. The many noted time was spent with a children, for whom Ali drew these elementary nonetheless extraordinary landscapes for.

“For him, they’re refugees from heaven,” his mother pronounced during a time about Ali’s adore of children. “They’re innocent, naive. All they wish we to do is adore them.”

For one adult fan, Ali not usually sealed a fighting glove presented to him though combined a blueprint of a craft mountainous into a star-studded sky over water.

“I’m withdrawal on a outing for Jamaica shortly … and we didn’t tell him that,” pronounced a man. “It’s flattering weird, it was roughly like he knew it.”


In a center of doing these perplexing doodles, Ali saw me holding records and forked to me again.

“Does he wish to go another round?” we was thinking.

Instead, Ali motioned to my reporter’s pad, so we gave it to him. we saw him take out a coop before returning a pad to me a notation later.

While we was anticipating for an strange square of artwork, Ali gave me something else — his designation on 3 apart pages. we waved to him and said, “Thank you,” afterwards resumed examination a communication with his fans.

A while later, we walked out of a track with Ali and his wife, thanking them again and wishing them well. As we got behind in my automobile and headed to a Advance newsroom to write adult a story, we remember during a time being a small bittersweet about a experience.

But now as we demeanour behind on it 12 years later, we comprehend it was another instance of a energy of Ali’s personality. How many people can be attacked of one of their biggest talents — a voice, that railed opposite misapplication and entertained a masses — nonetheless still be accepted shrill and clear?

Ali always had a ability to enthuse and pierce people, and on that Sep day in 2004, he did so but unequivocally observant a word.

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