As a young boy who grew up wanting nothing more than to be a famous sportswriter, I read everything I could get my hands on that had to do about sports: Books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters. If it had to do with sports, I read it.
I always awakened a half-hour early when I was in school. I’d get up, run to the driveway and grab the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the morning newspaper, and read the sports section before heading off to school. In the afternoon, I’d get the Pittsburgh Press, the city’s afternoon paper, and do the same before heading out to do whatever a kid does in the best days of his life.
As I moved into my teenage years, I found myself seeking out reading material more often on one subject: Muhammad Ali.
Ring Magazine. KO Magazine. Boxing Illustrated. Sports Illustrated. Sport. Inside Sports. Life. Look. Time. Newsweek.
If it had an article about Ali, I would buy it and read it. Some of them would still refer to him as “Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali,” even though he’d legally changed his name to Ali years earlier. He was a regular on the late night talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others. Sometimes, he appeared on the daytime talk shows like the one hosted by Mike Douglas. If I knew Ali was on, I would watch. I’d have to beg my mother to awaken me if Ali was on “The Tonight Show” or Cavett’s show because it was long after bedtime.
I learned to love a man I’d never met, whom I’d vigorously defend against the many I knew who never hesitated to take shots at him.
And so, six years ago on Friday when he died in a Phoenix, Arizona, hospital at 74, I paused for about 10 minutes before finalizing the obituary I’d written about him and wept unabashedly. In many ways, my life is what it is because of Muhammad Ali.
Because of my love of reading, and of the voluminous amounts written about this unique man, I, in fact, did become a sportswriter.
He taught me to stand up for what I believe in, to treat people with kindness, to ignore the color of their skin and the God they worshipped and take the true measure of a man.
He taught me to have fun, to enjoy the many curiosities I’d find in the world, to love talking with others and sharing a good time. Ali was at his best when there were people around.
He attended, as did I, the 2000 welterweight bout in Los Angeles between Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley. Ali entered the Staples Center during the undercard, when the late Diego Corrales was fighting Justin Juuko.
In the media section, I became aware of a commotion behind me. I turned around and saw people in the upper deck of then-Staples Center standing, looking down at something going on. I figured there was a fight in the stands they were watching.
I soon found out how wrong I was, as the familiar chant picked up.
“Ali!” the crowd screamed. “Ali! Ali! Ali!”
It was thunderous as the nearly 20,000 fans recognized him, surrounded as ever by a massive entourage, and chanted his name repeatedly for what was only about a couple of minutes but seemed like it was hours.
That was a scene that happened everywhere he went. When he was picked to light the Olympic Cauldron to start the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, it was a tightly guarded secret and few knew he’d be there.
Swimmer Janet Evans raced up the ramp with the lit torch to hand it to the person who would light the cauldron. From behind a curtain, out walked Ali, his Parkinson’s making his arms noticeably shake. Evan reached her torch to Ali’s and she lit it. There was a gasp from the crowd as the surprise was real, before, of course, the place erupted to celebrate this unique man’s life and what he meant not only to our country but to the world.
“Look at him!” NBC’s Bob Costas said. “Still a great, great presence. Still exuding nobility and stature. The response he evokes is part affection, part excitement and especially respect.”
He was at one point the most famous man on Earth, as recognizable in the middle of Africa or on an island in the South Pacific as he was walking down the middle of a busy street in Manhattan.
He was a man with flaws, many of them, in fact. But he grew and he learned and he evolved. He made statements that were racist in his early years, but in his later years, he risked his life to fly to Iran to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini to rescue a group of hostages and bring them home.
He was an iconic athlete, at his peak the absolute best to do it in his sport. But he was more a man of the world whose impact went far beyond his ability to beat up another man.
At his funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, President Obama delivered a powerful eulogy that always stuck with me. In particular, a couple of sentences Obama said put Ali in the proper context for those who may not have been alive when he first burst onto the national scene.
“I actually think the world flocked to him in wonder precisely because, as he once put it, Muhammad Ali was America,” Obama said. “Brash, defiant, pioneering, joyful, never tired, always game to test the odds. He was our most basic freedoms — religion, speech, spirit. He embodied our ability to invent ourselves. His life spoke to our original sin of slavery and discrimination, and the journey he traveled helped to shock our conscience and lead us on a roundabout path toward salvation. And, like America, he was always very much a work in progress.
“We’d do him a disservice to gauze up his story, to sand down his rough edges, to talk only of floating butterflies and stinging bees. Ali was a radical even in a radical’s time; a loud, proud, unabashedly Black voice in a Jim Crow world. His jabs knocked some sense into us, pushing us to expand our imaginations and bring others into our understanding. There were times he swung a bit wildly, wounding the wrong opponent, as he was the first to admit. But through all his triumphs and failures, Ali seemed to achieve the sort of enlightenment, an inner peace, that we’re all striving toward.”
There’s never been anyone like him.
Six years since his death, 41 years since his last fight, nearly 44 years since his last championship victory and 62 years since his Olympic gold medal triumph in Rome, I still miss him.
I miss him with all of my being. As long as I draw a breath, he will always be in my heart.