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.