He was one of ours. That’s what always hit me.
And a little bit mine.
As a kid in Kentucky, and a giant sports fan in a state where the high school basketball tournament, an absolute cultural connection for almost everyone in the Commonwealth had only recently been integrated, all we ever thought of was how Cassius Marcellus Clay was our guy.
Although I missed badly on my first chance at him and it’s something I’ll always regret.
Almost every introduction to sports I’d ever had, to college football and basketball, the Reds, Knothole baseball, the state tournament, the Indianapolis 500, came with my dad, Dr. Mel Weber, a family physician in Northern Kentucky and a huge sports fan when his busy schedule would allow him.
But on this day, a Sunday back in the day when we rarely were able to see NBA playoffs, the Celtics were playing somebody. And the game was on TV. And for the first, maybe only time in my life, when my dad asked me if I wanted to tag along with him that day, I passed. Basketball on TV was a big deal.
It’s something I’ll always regret. For the first time in history, Northern Kentucky would host the Kentucky State Golden Gloves Championships. And the host committee, the Knights of Columbus, had asked my dad to be the ring physician and do all the pre-fight exams of the fighters.
And on his return home, he just shook his head and smiled at his dumb young son with the comment that: “You really messed up not going today . . . I just saw the greatest fighter in the world.”
We talked about this young man from Louisville Central High School and thanks to my dad’s bringing home the Louisville Courier-Journal every day from a newsstand at the hospital, I was able to follow Cassius Clay’s career from 100 miles away. And follow it I did.
And I got to know him from afar, Kentucky's greatest genius and the most original sporting and cultural icon in American history. He made us smile. He made us laugh. He made us care. He made us follow him. He took us with him, as uncomfortable as that ride might have been at times.
The Rome Olympics were wonderful. I could tell everyone my dad had called the shot. That first Sonny Liston fight, listening on the radio, I was as scared for Cassius as the announcer was – could that have been Howard Cosell? Not sure. Anyway, I remember being in Louisville the next spring with my dad and there was Cassius, at the corner of Fourth and Broadway, big as life, crossing the street.
He’d changed his name by then and I wasn’t pleased. The original Cassius Clay, cousin of the famous Kentucky senator, Henry Clay, was a noted abolitionist 100 years before Clay and a man who had risked as much in his lifetime as his namesake did. It was a cool name, I thought, not a “slave name” as Clay called it, but it’s hard to say his choice of Muhammad Ali wasn’t the way to go. It’s a name that will live on forever.
Sure, the whole Nation of Islam thing and the draft resistance wasn’t all that popular with many of us. And I may have been irked that in their zeal to tell the story of that tumultuous and terrible time in American history, a moment whose discrimination impacted Cassius Clay in ways we never had had to suffer, some forget that the man who introduced Ali to boxing was a white Louisville policeman after Ali’s bicycle had been stolen. And the men who pooled their resources to launch his professional boxing career were white Louisville businessmen.
He had the ability to bring people together. Somehow. Some way.
And yet his stand was so obviously courageous. And principled. And Ali stood behind it and took every consequence that came his way – from his heavyweight title being taken away to his exile from boxing.
But you didn’t have to be a boxing fan to love Ali’s athleticism in the ring. Poetry in motion is the all-time sports cliché that in his case could not have been more true. His hands and feet were as beautiful – and quick – as his wit. And his smile.
He wasn’t perfect. But he was real and engaging and enduring.
And I finally caught up with him at his last major public gig. The Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was my only chance to cover the Olympics. And I got to write the early column the night of the Opening Ceremony. And we were all guessing who it would be to light the torch. Ali was my pick. But it wasn’t certain.
And then there he was. And the tingle we all felt could not have been more real. And then he was gone. And for those in the press box, the thousands of writers from around the world, we were the lucky ones -- close to the finish line for the track events. But not in the enclosed section that would become the baseball press box.
And then the rains came. And for all the writers working on deadline, this could be deadly for their exposed laptops and notes. So having finished my column, I volunteered to head back to the covered press box where they had plastic sheets to bring out to protect the writers. And as the rain came harder, I ran faster. Even when I got inside. Time was of the essence.
By the time I’d gotten up a head of speed, it hit me. I’d done this once before as night stadium superintendent at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium when I hit a double-swinging door with one of those small windows leading into the press box dining room without checking whether there was someone on the other side.
There was. And getting ready to come through the doors for their postgame Reds concert were The Beach Boys. I think it was Carl who caught the flying door. I will say he took it well, actually. But just in time to slow me down, that thought flashed in my mind before I hit a similar door in Atlanta.
And I checked to see if the coast was clear. It wasn’t. There on the other side, all by himself, still in his white outfit, a bit unsteady already from his Parkinson’s, was Muhammad Ali. Why he was all by himself, I’ll never know. Maybe he was headed to the rest room from a private box. Who knows? But there he was. And there I was.
As I looked through that window, the most familiar face in all the world was looking back at me. Waiting for someone, it seemed, to open the door. And so I did. And held it. Just me and Ali. No one else around.
And as he passed, nodding and smiling, I was able to nod and a smile back while barely getting out: “Hello Mr. Ali . . . and thank you. That was great.”
And it was. Just as he was, No, check that. It was much more than that.
It was, and he was, “The Greatest.”
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