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As Muhammad Ali began his shuffle, and indeed it was a shuffle, his feet moving forward no more than 6 or 7 inches at a time, the fear was immediate. Ali would be hit and he would fall. The man who once could float like a butterfly now had feet that scraped the concrete floor of the San Jose Convention Center. Parkinson’s was taking over his body.

It was May 27, 1989, and the word spread at the sports autograph show.

Ali is on his feet!

All the signature seekers, it seemed, all at once left Hall of Fame baseball players like Mike Schmidt and rushed to Ali. They formed a crescent around the man. Hundreds of them. Ali had handlers, but he could have had SEAL Team Six around him and it wouldn’t have mattered. They were pushing and shoving as if someone dropped a winning lottery ticket.

There Ali stood, offering the same resistance to contact like a baseball placed on a tee.

And then it happened. The most amazing, heart-rending never-to-be-forgotten thing happened. Without words of instruction, Ali shuffled forward and the crowd parted. Slowly, as if on cue to match the gait of Ali, they moved aside to form an aisle of exit. As he moved through the crowd, the people went silent, knowing it would have been disrespectful. This ain’t no circus clown, you know.

Then the arms came up, reaching over and sometimes on shoulders. No one looked back in irritation. The hands extended and then only a single finger. That single finger, one after another, touched Ali on the shoulder. Lightly, quickly. The people knew. Ali was vulnerable. They touched him with the greatest respect I have ever seen an athlete treated.

As he walked, Ali handed out a religious pamphlet on Islam that contained his signature. No one screamed, “Get outta here, you bum!” No one threw it to the ground in disgust. This was Muhammad Ali, a man of peace. He knocked out 11 opponents in his career, 22 more by technical knockouts, bloodied many, re-arranged noses of others, yet he will be remembered more for his humanity.

“Come in (to this restaurant) and have some lunch,” Ali said to a couple sportswriters. “It’s on me.”

I was thinking of having my oil changed …

I sat as close to Ali’s right as possible without someone having to call the fire marshal. He spoke so softly I wondered if my hearing, and not his voice, was the problem. I didn’t know a lot at the time about Parkinson’s. It had only been five years since Ali announced he had the disease. He was only 42 then. I never thought of him as human. I didn’t remember him as frail.

In 1975, while I was writing for the Fort Lauderdale News, I interviewed Ali in Angelo Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym in Miami. The entire interview was conducted with Ali performing one workout routine. I asked a question, he replied — all the while doing sit-ups. With hands clasped behind his head, Ali would curl forward and twist. His right elbow would touch his left knee. Recline. Left elbow to his right knee.

Over and over. For 30 minutes. And Ali is answering the questions with the same effort you would need to carry on a conversation with your spouse over the morning cup of coffee. Amazing. He was 33. He was supposed to be past his prime.

That was the Ali I remembered. This was the Ali had to accept. The contrast was crippling to see, even more crippling to engage. But journalists are paid to ask questions, even uncomfortable ones.

What I didn’t know at the time, Parkinson’s doesn’t rob the mind. Thoughts, concepts, ideas, whatever, develop and proceed just as effortlessly as the rest of us — until it’s time to express them.

I was encouraged by what he said earlier in his autograph session at the San Jose Convention Center.

“If I didn’t believe in Allah,” Ali said, “I would be dead a long time ago. Some white cracker would have shot me.”

So I took a big breath and waded in with Carl Steward, a sportswriter with the Oakland Tribune.

On how he’s not perfect.

“I got regrets. Even my two divorces. I had to go through two girls (wives) to finally appreciate the third one I did marry.”

On how the light bulb went off that made him change his name from Cassius Clay to Ali.

“I was in Harlem in 1962 listening to Malcolm X. He said you called Germans because they were from Germany. Russians are from Russia. Cubans are from Cuba. Where is there a country called Negro? Right then I said to myself, ‘This is what I always have been looking for.’”

On why he always took time and was never rude to someone who asked for an autograph.

“When I was 18, Sugar Ray Robinson was passing through Harlem. I was on my way to the (1960) Olympics. I asked him for his autograph. He told me, ‘I ain’t got the time, kid.’ I felt so bad I promised I would never do that to another person.”

On why he melts when a kid approaches him.

“The reason I like kids so much is that they are pure. They don’t know racism. They are not conniving. They want no money. Kids, as far as I’m concerned, are on exile from heaven.”

On his place in pop culture.

“When I grew up, Charlton Heston and Elvis were my heroes. Now God has made me more popular than any of them.”

On what was the most interesting thing he ever signed.

“A cigarette.”

Every professional athlete of the past 40 years, every professional athlete to the end of time, owes Muhammad Ali. Until Ali, athletes were chattel, silent chattel. They were treated by their owners as little children once were. Speak only when spoken to. Mind your manners. Be happy what we pay you anything.

Muhammad Ali threw that paradigm in the garbage can. He said Cassius Clay was his slave name and, in essence, all athletes were oppressed. And then Ali opened his mouth. Thoughts followed. So did opinions, and character, and courage, and personality, and, most important, above all, humanity.

Ali thought so much of humanity he gave up three years of peak performance to the ideal. When Ali was at his best we’ll never know. He was kicked out of boxing for speaking his mind. He ain’t got nothing against them Viet Congs. So he was robbed of his prime.

“Turned out I was right, wasn’t I?” said Ali of his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

When an athlete puts principle above personal glory, takes an ideal over his bank account, that’s an athlete who will live forever. That athlete will become mythical, that years from now some people will have to be reminded that Muhammad Ali was a real person. He walked among us, all of us, black and white, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian.

Muhammad Ali made us join hands, is what he did. It’s what we’ve heard these last days, as Ali testimonials have come from near and far. All worthy, all heart-felt, all well-meaning, Ali would have approved. He loved words. Better still was May 27, 1989 when the San Jose Convention Center went silent. That silence said more than Muhammad Ali ever could. Actions speak louder than words and that silence, well, I can still hear it clearly, even to this day.

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