but I wish I had done it earlier, when Muhammad was able to talk better.
So here is how the fateful meeting came about. One of our school’s alums is a veep at the Muhammad Ali Center, right here in Louisville, Kentucky, and he gave our head the news that The Champ was going to be at the Center for photo shoots around noon. Olivia, our fitness teacher and field hockey coach, told her 9th graders she would escort them there, telling them they had to ask permission of their teachers to miss class.
One of my 9th grade physics classes meets just before lunch on Fridays, so a couple of the kids asked me ahead of time if they could go. Several more asked just as class started, and, shoot, I wanted to go, too. So we all signed out to take the downtown trolley (actually, it’s a bus dressed up like a trolley) to the Ali Center.
Except I didn’t quite get out the door with the rest of the group. Besides being the physics teacher, I’m also the technology coordinator, and one of our teachers was having a serious problem with a computer that I had to coordinate — right now. So I told Olivia I would catch up with them after I fixed the computer issue.
Of course, being a Windows machine, the fix took longer than just five minutes. If I missed the chance to meet The Champ, because of some stupid login problem, I intended to quit my job as tech coordinator that very day. Rather than take the trolley, I drove so I would not compound the delay by riding the trolley.
Back when I was a youngster, I was not an admirer of Muhammad Ali. He was younger then, too, and at the height of his cocky, mouthy, self-promoting self. I just plain did not like him. To me, he was a loudmouth and a braggart.
But as I got older, I warmed up to the man. His conversion to the Nation of Islam puzzled me, since I could not relate to religious conviction at the time, but his refusal to serve in the military in 1967, during the Vietnam War, opened a doorway to the inner Ali for me. I understood that his cocky, mouthy behavior was his public persona, not the real Muhammad Ali. Obviously, there was a lot more to this boxer than boxing.
Over the succeeding 40 years, Ali showed he had a deep commitment to peace, brotherhood, Islam and youth. As he aged, Ali mellowed, letting that his natural warmth shine. My admiration for him grew. So, suffice it to say, he became one of those individuals I would most like to meet. He’s a living legend. Call off class to meet The Champ? No problem!
(By the way, while Ali is one of Louisville’s native sons, he no longer lives here. His advancing Parkinson’s syndrome makes it hard for him to travel, so any local appearances are pretty rare. It’s not like you can run into him at the local grocery.)
The St. Francis High group was fortunately still in line when I finally made it to the Center. The Center staff was running the photo shoots like an assembly line. Muhammad was sitting in an arm chair in a corner of the lobby. Individuals or groups took their places in turn beside him, had their pictures taken, then were shooed away to clear the “stage” for the next shot. When our time came, we quickly took our places surrounding his chair, spent the shortest amount of time on record arranging 16 people for a group shot, then cleared out for the next group. All told, we may have spent five minutes in his presence.
Now Ali just did not look well. He had the distant look of a patient on too much medication, or a very tired, elderly person (Ali is only 64). His face did not have the alert, slightly impish gleam I have seen in photos, even ones taken after his Parkinson’s took hold. His expression was impassive, or perhaps just very sad, that of a nearly inert man with a still-intelligent mind surrounded by bustling adults and bubbly teenagers thrilled to be anywhere near him.
Pugilistic Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It takes away your body as well as your mind. My dad’s best friend, whom I called Uncle Barney when I was a child, contracted a similar disease, “regular” Parkinson’s, a few years before my dad died. It’s a progressive disease, and in its later stages, Barney was unable to control his arms’ movements. They would flail around uncontrollably and unpredictably, making it hazardous for his wife to help him walk around. He had trouble talking, too, and was now forever separated from his favorite hobby/profession, testing high end audio components with scientific precision.
So I imagined that perhaps Muhammad has the same problem with his arms, an ex-boxer’s arms, and was so doped up that he maybe was only there with us in spirit. Nevertheless, as we left the photo stage, I told him, “Thanks, Champ!”
And he moved his right arm a bit, as if to wave, and he moved his head just a tad in my direction, as if to say, “You’re welcome.” He did neither, but brother, it was close enough for me. I can tell my grandchildren that I talked to The Greatest, and he — as much he was able — talked back. It was the chance of a lifetime, and I managed not to blow it.