The Muhammad Ali allure
James M. Berklan
The first time I met Muhammad Ali was the most memorable. I wound up in his hotel room with a handful of others, watching him perform magic tricks as numerous jiggling young bombshells showered him with overindulgent praise.
It was 1987, he was 45 years old, retired from boxing and three years into a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. He didn't say much and walked haltingly but, man, were his eyes alert and impish. He even threw a few playful jabs while calling out a reporter friend of mine. TV cameras recorded the pair of handsome, athletic men good-naturedly squaring off.
An entourage made sure he was protected and got where he wanted to go, usually with adoring fans milling about. I was a news service reporter in Washington, D.C., and had caught wind of a promotional event for his new line of Champ Gourmet Chocolate Chip Cookies.
In truth, I thought it was just hangers-on trying to make a buck off his name since Ali seemed interested only in hamming it up with adoring fans, not cookies. Somehow, I was part of a group led from a conference room up to his hotel room, where the three-time heavyweight champion entertained guests by pulling scarves out of his fist. I couldn't have been the only one who saw the bright hankies emerging from a fake thumb, but it didn't matter one bit to the admirers around him.
Such was the power of Ali.
He died Friday at age 74, unclogging a flood of tributes, and dormant memories such as mine. A private funeral service will take place today, while a public procession and tribute will take place Friday in his hometown of Louisville. Former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and sportscaster Bryant Gumbel will be among the celebrity eulogists. Foreign heads of state have been turned away due to program crowding.
Free tickets to the public service were snapped up so quickly on Wednesday that Son No. 1, a veteran ticket scrounger, was shut out. His friend's father was going to grab some tickets so they could drive over to see the historic gathering after classes at nearby University of Cincinnati.
They still might go, if only to soak up the atmosphere or see some of the historic goings-on. I can't say I'd blame him.
Ali has always been able to cast a spell over people. That, in part, was good for Parkinson's researchers. Although the pugilist did not at first embrace his potential for raising Parkinson's awareness, about 20 years ago, he consented to allow his name on the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Over the years, a bevy of A-listers have taken part in events and millions of dollars have been raised.
The center pursues cutting-edge treatment for people with Parkinson's and similar disorders. It treats about 10,000 patients each year.
Officials at the American Parkinson Disease Association couldn't even estimate Wednesday how many long-term care residents might have Parkinson's. But the number is not small, they told me. A spokeswoman said an estimated 1 million people in the U.S. are afflicted. The disease's progression, often characterized by tremors or stiffness, differs from person to person, making diagnosis, treatment and caregiving more difficult than for many conditions.
Ali, who made millions of dollars in his relatively brief boxing and endorsing career, never had to enter formal long-term care. But he did give hope to others with his condition.
Over the final 30 years of his life, Ali continued to delight crowds however he could. That included things like lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, fundraising and accepting awards — lots of awards.
I met him for the second time in 1992. He was receiving a lifetime achievement award in Chicago from Ken Venturi's Arete Courage in Sports Awards program.
Despite the other, more current Olympic athletes and luminaries, the crowd of 700-plus in the luxurious ballroom really had eyes only for Ali. And vice versa. He did not speak onstage, as I recall, but afterward stood in front of the stage and handed out dozens of pamphlets explaining the Nation of Islam church of which he was so devoted.
Did I mention the pamphlets were autographed? Not by machine, but by hand. Last winter, my sons discovered the pamphlet I had casually received from my old friend and now insist I put it in a safe deposit box.
My hunch is it's not worth too much, given how open Ali could be with the public. Maybe we'll see some day.
What I really wish I still had was a bag of his cookies.
I remember leaving the hotel suite at some point simply because I had to get back to the newsroom to write a story. I'm pretty sure it wasn't even going to be about the cookies. (One source I've seen pegs the cookies back to a Chicago business manager of Ali's, supporting my hunch that they weren't the boxer's idea.) I was in Washington, after all, and serious issues always beckoned. I was popular back at the newsroom, however, since I had asked for and received a couple of extra bags of Champ Gourmets to take with me.
The cookies were good — very Pepperidge Farm-like, and in a similar bag — if memory serves. But nothing so good as to supplant the big sellers of the day.
Apparently, I was right because I never heard of them again. Nowadays, an online search shows just a few stories heralding their nationwide rollout in July of 1987 and an autographed bag up for sale.
They might be just about the only thing people aren't talking about when they reminisce about the poetry-spewing Louisville Lip this week.
Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.