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Cotati sports memorabilia dealer recalls cherished time with Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali kisses 8-month-old Justin Hemphill while his mother, Joan, stands nearby on August 5, 1998. (Courtesy of Rob Hemphill)

LORI A. CARTER,

A little bit of The Greatest remains in Cotati.

In a cavernous green and tan warehouse on the west side of town, sports memorabilia dealer Rob Hemphill lovingly safeguards one of his most precious items.

A foot in diameter, it’s a genuine boxing ring bell, signed by Muhammad Ali.

Among thousands of footballs, helmets, jerseys and other equipment, the handmade bell — one of only 225 autographed by The Champ — is special.

“He was so tough, but also so caring,” Hemphill said.

The Cotati business owner met Ali after he retired from boxing, about 20 years ago, he recalls.

Ali, who died last week in Scottsdale at the age of 74, was already slowing with symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease that would ultimately fell the lightning-quick and flashy pugilist.

But the Greatest of All Time still had that mischievous twinkle in his eyes and he gently played with Hemphill’s pre-school sons, Tyler and Justin.

“In not only his capability as an athlete, but in the person and the personality you work with, the word greatness comes out again with him — the overall package of a person being an athlete and a caring individual,” Hemphill said.

Ali signed thousands of items for Hemphill’s National Sports Distributors company, which since 1989 has specialized in autographed memorabilia and unsigned merchandise, and selling it on behalf of athletes.

Hemphill said he dreamed up the unusual ring bells idea to create a commemorative Ali item that would be unique and valued.

It wasn’t unusual to find small replica bells with a boxer’s signature on it, he said. But authentic ring bells were nowhere to be found.

“I had to dig deep to find the old bell manufacturer — a cowbell manufacturer who literally had to dig up any remaining parts in his barn to make me 225 bells,” Hemphill said.

Ali signed every bell by hand, which took about 20 seconds each as the boxer’s motor skills were slowed by the degenerative brain disease.

Still, Ali displayed his playful side.

“He was slow, but if I rang a bell, Ali would quickly go into the fighting stance,” Hemphill said.

If The Champ was sitting, he’d raise his hands up. If he was standing, he’d pivot and get into position.

“He’d have fun with it,” Hemphill recalled. “He was so slow at that point, but when that bell went off, he’d move so quick for those couple of seconds.”

Hemphill has a few pictures of Ali from that time — one of him signing a bell on a bean bag set on his lap, while shelves behind him show dozens more waiting for signatures.

Another two photos show Ali holding up and kissing Justin Hemphill, who was in diapers, with Joan Hemphill in the background, and Ali teasing Tyler, who was about 4 years old.

Tyler is standing on a table, eye to eye with Ali, and has a red boxing glove on his right hand.

“Muhammad Ali is telling him to go ahead and hit him,” Hemphill recalled. “He was always very good with people.”

Ali was fond of drawing, Hemphill said, and once sketched a picture of a beach scene and an airplane for Tyler. It’s still framed on the wall in Tyler’s room.

Hemphill believes a word famous with today’s athletes originated with Ali: GOAT, for Greatest of All Time.

Ali was always known for his good-natured taunting and lyrical self-promotion:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t,” he said before his title fight with George Foreman in 1974.

“I’m young. I’m handsome. I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”

Hemphill said Ali and his agent, a friend of Hemphill’s, were brainstorming ideas of what to call a company Ali was creating.

“Suddenly Muhammad jumped up and said, ‘I’m gonna call it GOAT. Greatest of All Time!’ And it just fit,” Hemphill remembered what his agent friend said. “He said, just write the check out to GOAT.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.