The original GOAT has died and the world has changed because a man who changed it is gone from us. Muhammad Ali died on Friday in a Phoenix-area hospital. He was 74.
Even to the few opponents who managed to beat Ali were in awe of Ali. He truly was The People’s Champ because he was the champion, in some way, of every single person.
Over the past two decades, at least, he had battled Parkinson’s Disease, which robbed the world of one the most gifted tongues and minds God ever assembled. But there was more there than the public saw.
During a spring training baseball game in 2002 in Phoenix, I was making my way to the Oakland Athletics clubhouse in the seventh inning when I noticed a loooooooooong line of fans that stretched from the middle of the stadium to the outer concourse. I asked an usher what the line was for.
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“Muhammad Ali is sitting down there signing autographs,” he said.
Never had I wanted to wait in a long line like this before. I have but few autographs, but this one - this one I wanted. But I didn’t because that’s a media no-no.
I continued down to the clubhouse where I proceeded to interview one or two members of the A’s. The clubhouse was quiet, and by this time many of the starting members of the team had showered and left.
And then in walked The Greatest of All Time. Everybody in that room was speechless - there was Muhammad Ali.
As I looked around I noticed that both the handful of reporters and the players could not suppress a grin or close their mouth. It was Ali. I guarantee that the few of us in the A’s clubhouse that afternoon has recounted this story already today.
This was before camera cell phones and no one in the clubhouse that day had a video recording device, or a camera for that matter.
Ali proceeded to slowly walk to the back of the room where he began to perform a few magic tricks. We were all amused because the tricks were actually pretty clever, and because for a man who had Parkinson’s he spoke a better than we could have imagined.
His speech was not perfectly clear, but it was better than a mumble. For instance, when he playfully dropped the “N-word” everybody there understood it, only we were not sure if we should laugh even if that was his intent.
Much like Foreman or Frazier, he visibly fought Parkinson’s. As Ali sat there performing tricks, he would take his left hand to stop the right arm from shaking.
Then he stood up to perform another trick as part of the show, and his whole body began to shake. Shake a lot. And then Muhammad Ali fell down.
It was a reminder that he was not some mythical figure but rather just a human being who was trying to live the life he knew, and loved.
He was helped up and he kept right on going, fighting, performing and making people happy. I was sad for him, and then I could not help but be impressed - Parkinson’s knocked him down but he got back up.
The “show” ended a few minutes later and then he proceeded to sign scores of baseballs that were handed to him by the Oakland A’s clubhouse guys.
At one point he told the clubhouse guy, “You’re taking advantage of me.” He signed them anyways.
I didn’t get one and this was my only “meeting” with The GOAT.
Instead, my Ali keepsake is of watching him perform tricks for a small audience, and fight not Holmes or Liston but Parkinson’s. Ali may not have won, but he put up a hell of a fight.
Rumble young man, rumble.