“Guess what Cassius Clay’s done now?” blurted my dad from behind his evening paper. It was early March, 1964 and I was just five years old. My dad wasn’t prone to blurting, which is why, I suppose, this memory persists.
What Cassius Clay had done – following a brief stint in which he dropped his “slave name” to be known as Cassius X after meeting Malcolm X and joining the Nation of Islam – was change his name to Muhammad Ali. A “holy” name, which took time for people to get used to.
But get used to it we did and now, more than 50 years later, we just think of him as Ali. “I am the greatest,” he boasted, all the time, but the respect and awe I detected in my dad’s voice for Ali seemed to outweigh the braggadocio Dad told me to avoid.
Over the years, both inside the ring and out, Ali more than proved his greatness. Charismatic, hard-working, giving and bound by faith, Ali became what Jerry Brewer, writing for The Washington Post, calls “the legend of all sports legends”. How? Says Brewer, “Mostly, he did it with heart, which was evident in the way he fought epic battle after epic battle in the boxing ring, in the way he didn’t use celebrity as an excuse to ignore his beliefs and in the way he simply cared about people.”
Oddly, I know firsthand how Ali cared about people. I literally ran right into the man one day.
Now, I’ve talked about miracles before, how you should stay open to them, how you should tweak your definition of the word “miracle” to get more of them going on in your life. But my chance encounter with Ali The Greatest is truly of the bonafide variety. Here’s what happened.
I read an article about how you should really think about famous, influential people. Who would you like to meet? What would you like to say to that person? Ask that person? Now, I didn’t write Ali’s name down or anything, but it made me think about not being star-struck, of having a conversation of some value with someone like Ali, should I happen to run smack-dab into such a person. I mean, even though that person is a star, that person is still a person, right?
Then, my son Jay, in grade seven at the time, had to write a speech. Speech-writing was big in our household. We discussed topics well in advance, I proofread rough copies, and then there would be a couple of weeks where each child had to come out onto the “stage” – we have a sunken living room, so they entered stage left and stood on the lip – to be critiqued.
Jay picked Ali that year. Jay’s father, my late husband Hugh, and I both loved Ali and followed boxing – Hugh even trained a bit as a boxer himself when we were first married. And there were resource materials on Ali: a Sports Illustrated article and the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Jay did a great job on the speech, got a good mark and was even asked to deliver it in the gym to the whole student body.
A short while later we were in Bahamas. It was a family vacation, yes, but Hugh and I had been doing some construction business there, at Atlantis, so we took everyone over – our kids, one of the kid’s friends and Hugh’s parents – for a tour one afternoon. I was leading the way, my head turned back to speak as our group came down the stairs toward the impressive Great Hall of Waters – a floor to ceiling aquarium – when BANG. I ran right into Muhammad Ali! Oh my. The hand I stuck out? It disappeared, right into that warm, giant, strong mitt. I said, clearly, “Mr. Ali. What an honour to meet you, sir.” You must understand. This was a few years after Atlanta and the shaky torch-lighting. But I didn’t have time to think about Ali being sick, with Parkinson’s Disease, the same thing my paternal grandfather died of. I have to say, Ali was sharp, with it, not shaking at all. Then I said, into his right ear – it was loud there, with everyone milling about as he handed out autographed pictures of himself – with pride, “My son just did a speech on you! And he got a really good mark.”
Ali started looking around. “Where is he? Where’s your boy?”
I pointed Jay out and, like my hand into Ali’s mitt, Jay’s whole self disappeared into Ali’s bear-hug.
We chatted with him for a bit as he gave us photos. I will admit, I walked away feeling star-struck from that brief connection, but I also felt grounded, by Ali’s humanness. It was like he imparted greater wisdom on greatness. “What a NICE man!” I kept saying.
Ali had the ability to transcend so many Earthly challenges in his lifetime – opponents, race, refusal of the U.S. draft and its consequences, illness. He is proof that belief in greatness, and then working hard toward such a lofty goal, can make it so. May he rest in peace.