Many years ago, the newspaper I worked for sent me in search of Muhammad Ali.
Ali lived in those days in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a quiet, almost sleepy little town of fewer than 2,000 people about 25 miles north of South Bend, Indiana. The question the paper wanted me to answer was why perhaps the most famous person on the planet had chosen to live in such a secluded spot.
The townspeople in Berrien Springs told me charming stories about the former heavyweight champ. The best ones came from children.
They were too young, even then, to remember the days when Ali roamed and ruled both the ring and the world's stage. They saw him not as a celebrity, but as a kind of silly old uncle, the kind who came to their school to do magic tricks and make them laugh.
When Ali, body shaking, lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the folks in Berrien Springs didn't see the Greatest up there. They saw their neighbor. They wept the tears of friends.
A few years later, I met Ali.
It was in Washington, D.C. The American Civil Liberties Union honored him with an award.
His wife Lonnie delivered his acceptance as he stood behind her on the stage. She made a little joke about him. He pointed his finger toward his skull and twirled it – "she's coo coo" – while she rolled her eyes.
It was a well-practiced, but still charming, routine.
They left the stage after that and the crowd surged around him, the man's magnetism moving in waves through the big room. He was just a few years older than I am now, but he looked and moved like an old, old man, the Parkinson's disease that afflicted him keeping his limbs and nerves in constant agitation.
The people in the room didn't care. He was Ali, the man and fighter who "shook up the world."
As I stood before him, I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first or the last time, what it must be like to live with that kind of fame, to have one's character and contradictions both reduced and expanded into caricature.
Because Ali was such a larger-than-life presence, it could be easy to forget the human being within the myth.
The crying little boy who first wanted to learn to fight to get even with the person who stole his bicycle and the brash young man who boasted he was "too pretty" to beat. The eloquent advocate for strong families and the serial womanizer. The warrior for racial equality and justice who disparaged rival and friend Joe Frazier in the most racially charged terms. The gliding, graceful young champion, a man whose movements were as smooth as polished ice, and the trembling, prematurely old man who stood before me.
They all lived in the same skin and skull.
They all were Ali.
Muhammad Ali died Friday. He was 74.
He lived within the enveloping and perhaps smothering bubble of fame as celebrity, icon and brand name for the last 50-some years of his life.
In these hours following Ali's death, I find myself thinking about his time in Berrien Springs and the question the paper wanted me to answer: Why did such a famous man choose such an out-of-the-way place to live for so many years?
The answer, I think, was that the people there saw him as part of the landscape, another face in the town.
He could pass the time in the local stores without having to be the Champ. He could visit the local schools and be goofy with the children, doing silly little magic tricks even the youngest kids could see through.
In fact, it was a kind of magic trick that brought him to Berrien Springs. He'd lived with captivating and crushing fame for so long, through both triumph and decline, that being able to slip out from under the yoke, even for an instant, must have felt as liberating as a blessing.
That's why Muhammad Ali lived there.
It was a town where he could be a human being, not a celebrity.
It was a place where the most famous man on the planet could disappear.