(My friend Jeremy Gray is the Assistant Athletic Director at Indiana University and I knew that he had met his hero, Muhammad Ali, once or twice. After Ali's death on Friday, I asked him to write about it. These are Jeremy's words. -RH)
The year was 2000 and I was 24. Along with my good friend from work, Corey Mann, I had been invited to meet my childhood hero at his home. After receiving this invitation, I’d thought for more than what could be described as healthy about what I’d say to him, what questions I’d ask, and what I’d wear for pictures that I was certain would remain framed and perched in my house until my own final days. I had a plan.
We were seated on the edge of a boxing ring in his house in Berrien Springs, Michigan where we awaited the most famous person on the planet to return from his trip to the dentist. Through the glass doors at the top of the stairs we see one of the indelible figures of the 20th Century step out of his large SUV. Seemingly unaware that two local media personalities from nearby South Bend were waiting for him in his gym, he nodded agreeably as his assistant informed him that we were there to meet him and maybe get a few pictures taken. We see him approach the doors, and both of us generally averse to being starstruck, were still playing it cool. Then he shoved open the doors, ran angrily toward us waving his railroad tie-sized fists in our face, and asked us stridently if we had called him the most venomous racial slur ever born in America. We both leaned back, utterly petrified, and whimpered “no.” Then he asked if we had called him a “tramp.” Again we answered in the negative. He replied, “That’s right! You called me Champ!
Knowing that he had made us lose our balance like he had Sonny Liston in a ring in Lewiston, Maine many decades before, Muhammad Ali bent over in hysterical laughter at our expense. It was clear that the first casualty in this battle of wits was my plan.
We traded jokes, he performed a magic show, and answered our many fanboy questions. Even those banal questions he had answered thousands of times yielded magical answers. Yes, he was terrified in the ring during every fight of his career. His forever-to-remain-confidential response to whether he could’ve taken Tyson in his prime was an illuminating insight into why he remains America’s true competitive genius.
Then he asked if we wanted to watch him box. We responded reluctantly in the affirmative. Who wouldn’t want to watch “The Greatest” give a private demonstration of his gift? But part me worried that we were going to watch Michael Jordan airball some free throws or listen to Aretha Franklin sing out-of-tune. Maybe it would be best if our only images of him boxing were against George Foreman on ESPN Classic. He read that reluctance.
After changing into workout clothes in plain view, Ali brought us over to the speed bag where he flailed a few times as it sputtered back and forth. Parkinson’s and a lifetime of punishment dealt by the deepest heavyweight division in history had taken a clear and heavy toll on his speech and motor skills. He saw us sink and politely smile. Then he winked, and took after the bag with lightning quick efficiency as the bag rebounded back and forth in a blur. He ripped the last swing through the bag and brought his fist past both of our noses and proclaimed “I’m still the Greatest!”
The skills of the greatest heavyweight of all time were long gone, but make no mistake: at 60 years of age he was still a man not to be trifled with.
After the workout, he sat us down and discussed Malcolm X, the teachings of the Bible and Quran, his three years in exile, and growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. He told us to remember that “Love is the net that catches hearts like fish” and that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven in the afterlife.”
He then had his assistant grab a copy of a speech he called the “greatest speech of all time” titled “The Source of Man’s Distress.” He asked us to read it aloud and it argued that Allah/God created a perfect universe, that humans ruined that universe through cruelty, ignorance, and greed, and the only way to restore it was through kindness, generosity and prayer. He signed the copy of the speech and handed it to me. I wept like a baby. This was not the plan.
He took photos, told some more jokes, signed some items for each our friends and relatives, and thanked us for coming. In total disbelief of what had occurred, we broke all traffic laws to get home as quickly as possible to call relatives in the pre-cell phone era to tell them what had transpired. It remains the most surreal experience of my life. I doubt it will ever be surpassed.
I met my non-relative hero. He was side-splittingly hilarious. He was a rascal. He was defiant and proud. He was kindly and deeply spiritual. He remained a fierce advocate for what he believed in. He was generous in every way. He exceeded all expectations.
I was lucky enough to encounter him a few more times that year. There was a private preview screening of the Michael Mann film “Ali” that I was fortunate to attend with my family. He yelled taunts at the screen during the fight sequences to uproarious laughter from the audience. He also flirted gently with my mother, and my father who had rooted for him in real time during the 60’s and 70’s didn’t mind one bit.
But it was a summer morning visit in the year 2000 that encapsulated the experience of meeting Ali the most.
He brought cupcakes to the radio station where we worked to give to Corey for his birthday. Ali's wife told his assistant that she was worried about what the junk food would do to his blood sugar levels and instructed her to not let him eat them. He then snuck into a corner and snarfed down three of them. His assistant caught him with his chin covered in cake and frosting. He was laughing uncontrollably and the entire office joined in the uproar.
After he was done with his visit, he went out to his car as the sun was rising. Hearing that Muhammad Ali was at the radio station, there was a crowd gathered outside the offices in the industrial park that housed the station. Among that group was an African-American family and some members of the local Muslim community.
He spoke with them alone. Taking pictures, holding their children, embracing them one by one, and joining them in prayer.
Almost everyone who ever met him was excited to meet Muhammad Ali. But he was keenly aware of what it meant for THEM to meet Muhammad Ali.
He was a giant among us. Imperfect, controversial, at times cruel, polarizing, but a giant nonetheless. A hero of so many struggles, I watched him stand quietly in the distance with strangers for whom he was always their champion as the orange sun glowed behind them. It was beautiful. As he told us all along, so was he.