Around Muhammad Ali, all was decay. Mildewed tongues of insulation poked through gaps in the ceiling; flaking cankers pocked the painted walls. On the floor lay rotting scraps of carpet.
He was cloaked in black. Black street shoes, black socks, black pants, black short-sleeved shirt. He threw a punch, and in the small town's abandoned boxing gym, the rusting chain between the heavy bag and the ceiling rocked and creaked.
Slowly, at first, his feet began to dance around the bag. His left hand flicked a pair of jabs, and then a right cross and a left hook, too, recalled the ritual of butterfly and bee. The dance quickened. Black sunglasses flew from his pocket as he gathered speed, black shirttail flapped free, black heavy bag rocked and creaked. Black street shoes scuffed faster and faster across black moldering tiles: Yeah, Lawd, champ can still float, champ can still sting! He whirled, jabbed, feinted, let his feet fly into a shuffle. ''How's that for a sick man?'' he shouted.
He did it for a second three-minute round, then a third. ''Time!'' I shouted at the end of each one as the second hand swept past the 12 on the wristwatch he had handed to me. And then, gradually, his shoulders began to slump, his hands to drop. The tap and thud of leather soles and leather gloves began to miss a quarter-beat . . . half-beat . . . whole. Ali stopped and sucked air. The dance was over.
From The Vault: Every Ali Cover Story
- Cassius invades Britain
- My $1,000,000 Getaway
- Cassius—His Fight And His Future
- The Big Fight: Can Clay Do It Again?
- Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston
- The Fight You Didn't See
- The Big Fight: Clay vs. Patterson
- Cassius Clay: The Man, the Muslim, the Mystery
- The Big Fight: Clay vs. Terrell
- Scramble for Ali's title
- Ali-Clay; the once and future king?
- The Slugger And The Boxer
- End of the Ali legend
- The future is a mist
- The Jaw is broken
- Ali Again
- Muhammad Ali: Sportsman of the Year
- Boxing's New Barnum
- The Epic Battle
- Ali's Road Show Rolls On
- Ali's Desperate Hour
- The Champ Again
- Look Who's Back!
- He's no Liston. He's no Frazier.
- The Last Hurrah
- The man and his entourage today
- 35th anniversary
- Once and Forever
- Battle of Champions: Ali vs. Frazier
- Who's that guy with Howard Bingham?
He undid the gloves, tucked in the black shirt, reached reflexively for the black comb. On stiff legs he walked toward the door. Outside, under the sun, the afternoon stopped. Every movement he made now was infinitely patient and slow. Feeling . . . in . . . his . . . pocket . . . for . . . his . . . key. . . . Slipping . . . it . . . into . . . the . . . car . . . lock. . . . Bending . . . and . . . sliding . . . behind . . . the . . . wheel. . . . Turning . . . on . . . the . . . ignition . . . and . . . shifting . . . into . . . gear. . . . Three months had passed, he said, since he had last taken the medicine the doctor told him to take four times a day.
One hand lightly touched the bottom of the wheel as he drove; his clouded eyes narrowed to a squint. His head tilted back, and the warm sunlight trickled down his puffy cheeks. Ahead, trees smudged against sky and farmland; the glinting asphalt dipped and curved, a black ribbon of molasses.
He entered the long driveway of his farm, parked and left the car. He led me into a barn. On the floor, leaning against the walls, were paintings and photographs of him in his prime, eyes keen, arms thrust up in triumph, surrounded by the cluster of people he took around the world with him.
He looked closer and noticed it. Across his face in every picture, streaks of bird dung. He glanced up toward the pigeons in the rafters. No malice, no emotion at all flickered in his eyes. Silently, one by one, he turned the pictures to the wall.
Outside, he stood motionless and moved his eyes across his farm. He spoke from his throat, without moving his lips. I had to ask him to repeat it. ''I had the world,'' he said, ''and it wasn't nothin'.'' He paused and pointed. ''Look now. . . .''
Black blobs of cows slumbering in the pasture, trees swishing slowly, as if under water rather than sky. Merry-go-rounds, sliding boards and swings near the house, but no gigles, no squeals, no children.
''What happened to the circus?'' I asked.
He was staring at the slowly swishing trees, listening to the breeze sift leaves and make a lulling sound like water running over the rocks of a distant stream. He didn't seem to hear.
And I said again, ''What happened to the circus?''
A man of infinite variety. Medical doctor, jazz connoisseur, sports figure, confidant of the great. -- Excerpt from Ferdie Pacheco's publicity brochure
''This is a painting of myself when I was 30 and living alone and messing around with a German woman who loved it when there was sweat and paint all over me . . . and this is a screenplay that I've just cut down from 185 pages to 135 . . . and this one here is a 750-page epic novel, a very serious look at the immigrant experience in Tampa . . . and this is a painting I did of Sherman's March -- that stream of blue is the Union soldiers . . . and that one is a screenplay I just finished about two Cubans who steal a Russian torpedo boat, and a crazy Jewish lawyer -- Jerry Lewis is going to play the part and direct it -- picks them up in a boat. . . .''
In one way, Ferdie Pacheco was just like his former patient Muhammad Ali: He needed laughter and applause. He led people to each of his paintings, lithographs, cartoons and manuscripts the way Ali once led them to continents to watch him talk and fight. Both worked on canvas: Ali, when his was not near to dance on, used parlor magic tricks to make eyes go bright and wide; Pacheco, when his was not near to dab on, told long tales and jokes, dominating a dinner party, from escargots to espresso, with his worldliness and wit.
In another way, they were not alike at all. Ali lived for the moment and acted as he felt, with disregard for the cord between action and consequence. This allured the doctor, whose mind teemed with consequence before he chose his action. ''In an overcomplicated society,'' he says, ''Ali was a simple, happy man.''
Twenty-five years ago Pacheco was a ghetto doctor in Miami. Today he can be found in his home, white shorts and paint-smeared white smock covering his torso, blue Civil War infantryman's cap atop his head, stereo blaring Big Band jazz, telephone ringing with calls from agents, reporters and TV executives as he barefoots back and forth, brushing blue on three different canvases and discoursing, for anyone who will listen, upon the plot twist he has just hatched for chapter 16 of his latest novel. He receives a six-figure salary from NBC for commenting on fights, has quit medicine, has become a painter whose works sell for as much as $40,000, and has completed 600 pen-and-ink drawings converted into lithographs (17,000 of which sold on the first mail- out order), six books (two of which have been published, including Fight Doctor), eight screenplays (four of which have sold), and a play that may soon be performed in London. He has also formed a Florida-based film production company and appeared across the country as a speaker. ''But on my tombstone,'' he says, ''it will say 'Muhammad Ali's doctor.' It's like being gynecologist to the queen.''
In our time, will we see another comet that burns so long and streaks so fast, and whose tail has room for so many riders? ''The entourage'' some called the unusual collection of passengers who took the ride; the traveling circus, the hangers-on, others called it. ''These people are like a little town for Ali,'' his manager, Herbert Muhammad, once said. ''He is the sheriff, the judge, the mayor and the treasurer.'' Most were street people, thrown together on a lonely mountaintop in Pennsylvania where Ali built his training camp, until they burst upon the big cities for his fights. They bickered with each other over who would do what task for Ali, fist-fought with each other at his instigation -- two of them once even drew guns. And they hugged and danced with each other, sat for hours talking around the long wooden dinner table, played cards and made midnight raids on the refrigerator together. ''That's right,'' said Herbert Muhammad. ''A family.''
Because they were there for Ali, he never had to worry about dirty underwear or water bills or grocery shopping; he could remain an innocent. Because Ali was there for them, they could be mothers and fathers to the earth's most extraordinary child.
For a decade and a half he held them together, took them to the Philippines, Malaysia, Zaire, Europe and the Orient, their lives accelerating as his did, slowing when his did, too. But among them one was different, the one who obeyed the law of consequence. Ferdie Pacheco ejected while the comet still had momentum, and made a missile of himself.
''I had an overwhelming urge to create,'' he says. And an ego that kept telling him there was nothing he couldn't do. ''On napkins, tablecloths, anywhere, he'd draw,'' says his wife, Luisita. ''I shouted 'Help me!' when I was delivering our child. He said, 'Not now' -- he was busy drawing me in stirrups.''
Few knew him in the early Ali days: What reason was there to consult the doctor when Ali was young, physically unflawed and all-but-unhittable? Pacheco was the son of Spanish immigrants, a first-generation American, who had established a general practice in Miami's black Overtown district and become a regular at Miami Beach boxing matches, where he met cornerman Angelo Dundee and began to treat Dundee's boxers for free. One day, a patient named Cassius Clay came to him. And Pacheco became part of the entourage.
''It satisfied my Iberian sense of tragedy and drama,'' he says, ''my need to be in the middle of a situation where life and death are in the balance, and part of it is in your hands. Most people go out of their way to explain that they don't need the spotlight. I see nothing wrong with it.
''Medicine -- you do it so long, it's not a high-wire act without a net anymore. At big Ali fights, you got the feeling you had on a first date with a beauty queen. I'd scream like a banshee. It was like taking a vacation from life.''
The first signal of decline was in Ali's hands. Pacheco began injecting them with novocaine before fights, and the ride went on. Then the reflexes slowed, the beatings began, the media started to question the doctor. And the world began to learn how much the doctor loved to talk. Style, poise and communication skills had become the weaponry in the land that Ali conquered: A member of the king's court who could verbalize -- not in street verse, as several members could, but in the tongue the mass markets cried for -- and foresee consequence as well, could share Ali's opportunities without sharing his fate. The slower Ali spoke, the more frequently spoke the doctor.
Ali reached his mid-30's stealing decisions but taking more and more punishment; Pacheco and his patient reached a juncture. The doctor looked ahead and listened, heard the crowd's roar fading, the espresso conversation sobering. His recommendation that Ali quit met deaf ears. The same trait that drew him to Ali began to push him away.
He mulled his dilemma. Leave and risk being called a traitor? Or stay and chance partial responsibility for lifelong damage to a patient who ignored his advice?
Pacheco followed his logic. He wrote Ali a letter explaining that cells in Ali's kidneys were disintegrating, then parted ways with him and created laughter and applause on his own. Ali followed his feelings and went down a different path.
Today the ex-fighter turns dung-streaked canvases to the wall, the ex-doctor covers his wall with new canvases. In his studio, Pacheco shakes his head. ''I feel sorry for Ali,'' he says, ''but I'm fatalistic. If he hadn't had a chance to get out, I'd feel incredibly sad. But he had his chance. He chose to go on. When I see him at fights now, there's no grudge. He says, 'Doc, I made you famous.' And I say, 'Muhammad, you're absolutely right.'''
What if a demon crept after you one day or night in your loneliest solitude and said to you: ''This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again, times without number; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you. . . . The eternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again -- and you with it, you dust of dust!'' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who thus spoke? -- Friedrich Nietzsche
Warm Vegas night air washed through the '76 Cadillac convertible. ''We had fun, mister,'' said the driver. ''We lived, mister. Every day was history. Millionaires would've paid to do what I did. To be near him.''
He fell silent for a few blocks. The lunacy of light bulbs glinted off his glasses and his diamond-studded heavyweight championship ring. ''When I was a little boy, I used to watch airplanes in the sky until they became a dot, and then until you couldn't even see the dot. I wanted to go everywhere, do everything. Well, I did. Europe, Africa, the Far East, I saw it all. He was pilot, I was navigating. Hell, yes. The most exciting days of my life. Every day, I think about them. We were kids together, having fun. He was my best friend. I think I might have been his.''
The car stopped at an intersection. A woman, thick in the thighs and heavy with makeup, walked across the beam of his headlights. His eyes didn't flicker. Frantically, hopelessly, the blinking light bulbs chased each other around and around the borders of the casino marquees.
''You could feel it all around you, the energy flow,'' he said. His foot pressed the accelerator, his shoulders rested back against the seat. ''When you're with someone dynamic, goddam, it reflects on you. You felt: Let's go do it. I met presidents and emperors and kings and queens and killers, traveling with him. Super Bowls, World Series, hockey, basketball championships I saw. I was big in the discos, Xenon, Studio 54. There was myself, Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Namath: the major league of bachelors.''
Quiet again. The traffic light pooled red upon the long white hood. Dead of summer, down season in Vegas. The click of the turn signal filled the car. Then the click-click-click of a cocktail waitress, high-heeled and late for work. He peered into the neon-shattered night. ''What could I find out there tonight?'' he asked. ''A girl more beautiful than I've been with? A girl more caring than I've been with? What would she tell me I haven't heard before? What's left that could impress me? What's left I haven't done or seen? It burnt me out, I tell you. It burnt me out for life. . . .''
Gene Kilroy had no title. Everyone just knew: He was the Facilitator. When Ali wanted a new Rolls-Royce, Kilroy facilitated it. When he wanted to buy land to build a training camp, Kilroy facilitated it. When a pipe burst in the training camp or a hose burst in the Rolls, when Marlon Brando or Liza Minnelli wanted to meet Ali, or Ali wanted to donate $100,000 to save an old- folks' home, Kilroy facilitated it.
At hotels he usually stayed in a bedroom that was part of Ali's suite. As soon as they entered a city, he collected a list of the best doctors, in case of an emergency. He reached for the ever-ringing phone, decided who was worthy of a visit to the throne room. He worried himself into a 10-Maalox-a-day habit, facilitating. ''Ulcer,'' he said. ''You love someone, you worry. Watching him get hit during the Holmes fight, I bled like a pig -- I was throwing it up in the dressing room. And all the problems before a fight. It was like having a show horse you had to protect, and all the people wanted to hitch him to a buggy for a ride through Central Park.''
The trouble with facilitating was that it left no mark, no Kilroy was here. He has covered the walls of his rec room with 50 Ali photos. He reminisces every day. He watches videos of old Ali interviews he helped facilitate, and sometimes tears fill his eyes. ''I wish I had a kid I could tell,'' he said. And then, his voice going from soft to gruff: ''I'll get married when I find a woman who greets me at the door the way my dogs do.''
The Vegas casinos, they knew what Kilroy might be worth. All those contacts around the world, all those celebrities who had slipped into the dressing room - on a nod from the Facilitator: perfect qualifications for a casino host. First the Dunes hired him, then the Tropicana and now the Golden Nugget.
Each day he weaves between blackjack tables and roulette wheels, past slot machines and craps tables, nodding to dealers, smiling at bouncers, slapping regulars on the back, dispensing complimentary dinners and rooms to high rollers and ''How are ya, hon?'' to cocktail waitresses. He no longer gambles: All the lust for action is gone. All that remains is the love of arranging a favor, of helping other members of Ali's old ''family'' when they hit hard times, of facilitating someone else's wants now that his are gone.
''As you know, I was all over the world with Ali,'' he said, leading a multimillionaire into one of the Golden Nugget's suites. ''I got the royal gold-carpet treatment everywhere. But this'' -- he swept his arm across the room -- ''solidifies the epitome of luxury. Look. Your Jacuzzi. Your sauna.'' Again and again his beeper would sound, and he would be connected with another wealthy client. ''Sure, I'll have our limo pick you up at the airport. . . . Your line of credit is all set, $100,000.''
Whenever Ali comes to Vegas to see a fight, he will mix with high rollers at Kilroy's request or sign a couple of dozen boxing gloves, a stack of a hundred photographs, mementos Kilroy passes out to favored clients. In his world, Ali souvenirs are currency. ''One man was so proud of the things I'd given him,'' he said, ''that when he died, he was buried with his Ali picture and boxing gloves. I can give people their dreams.''
When Ali is near, Kilroy looks at him and remembers what the two of them once were. Sometimes he feels helpless. How can he facilitate away Ali's great fatigue with life -- when he, too, feels sated and weary? ''I remember one day not long ago when he was signing autographs, and I was standing next to him. We heard someone say, 'Look at Ali, he's a junkie.' Muhammad's eyes get kind of glassy sometimes now, you know. I wanted to choke the guy. But Ali nudged me and kind of smiled. God, I hope he wins this last fight. . . .''
On an impulse he picked up the phone and dialed Ali's number. ''Hello, it's Gene. . . . You've been out walking, huh? I wish I could walk with you. . . . I can just barely hear you. . . . I said, I wish I could walk with you. . . . It's good you're walking; you'll feel a lot better. . . . Hey, wouldn't it be nice to have a reunion at Deer Lake? Get everybody together -- Sarria, you, me, Bundini, Pat, Lana. Get Lana to cook a roast, potatoes, gravy, everything. Wouldn't it be? . . . No, not bring back old memories. Bring back great memories. . . . Yeah. . . . O.K., well, get some rest. See you, champ. . . .''
He hung up the phone and stared at the wall. He glanced at his watch. Another day was nearly finished, a day of facilitating rooms and meals and money for men who still had the appetite, and he knew what he would do with the night. ''I could call and have three girls if I wanted,'' he said. Instead he would drive past the riot of blinking lights, past the ads for bare-legged showgirls and sequined singers, through the warm night air of Vegas to his home in the suburbs. His three dogs, all boxers, would jump up and lick him, and he would let them, and he would call hello to his 80-year-old mother, eat dinner and settle back for an evening of TV amid the Ali photos. ''The foxhole,'' he said. ''I'm going back to the foxhole.''
"Next! How many? Two? O.K., let's move it, please! Next! You gettin' big, honey! How come you don't stop by more to see me? Soup! Chicken noodle soup, anybody? Next! Hey, Eskimo, what you doin'? Ain't you beautiful? You want two? Gonna kill yo'self, storin' up all them fat cells. Next!''
She stood in a food-splotched apron in the basement cafeteria of a private school on East 70th Street in Manhattan, stuffing pita pockets with barbecue and rolling her hips to the music from the radio. Her hips, her soul and her name -- Lana Shabazz -- are those of a jazz singer, but the gaze she gave the children was that of a mother.
Hardly none of 'em down here know. That's nothin' off my teeth, no need for 'em to. I got my own life, I don't need 'em fussin' over me. Get up at five every mornin', draw me a bath, get dressed in my whites for work. Still live out of suitcases -- that's from being with him. Then I go drink coffee in a deli or a restaurant. Nice to sip and socialize with folks. By seven, I'm down here workin' myself tired to the bone runnin' this kitchen, the kind of tired you got to soak out in another big hot bath at night. Ain't easy, but I'm happy, 'course I am.
''Lana,'' the headmaster called, ''do you have some tea?''
''Lana,'' a teacher said, ''you got any of that broiled fish?''
''Lana,'' said the memo on the wall, ''a reminder that we will need coffee and Danish for parent tours next week.''
''Mama,'' said the little boy. ''I'm hungry. What's to eat?''
Mama, that's what the young ones call me. Three hundred and fifty kids needin' me here every day . . . but all of 'em needin' together can't never need me like he did. He'd come in at midnight, I'd have his dinner ready. He'd wake up at five a.m. and say, ''Lana, get me a cuppa tea,'' I'd get up and do it. He'd travel, I'd pack up and cook in his hotel suite. Made sure he got all the live enzymes. Cooked without butter to save the calories -- he had to allow for his sweet tooth. Made him cookies and cakes, then hid 'em so he wouldn't eat 'em all at once. He'd swallow what I made so fast I'd wonder if he had teeth in his stomach. Then he'd go back to his cabin, and I'd worry about the cold from the air-conditionin' hittin' his chest, he kept it so high. What a beautiful man. I'd feed his kids at camp, break up their fights -- they treated me like a mother. Nobody else couldn't a did what I did for that man.
She looked up and saw the first- and second-graders fill the cafeteria like a burst of happy swallows. They swarmed at her legs and tugged at her white bell-bottom trousers. ''Mama, do you have cookies? Mama, can we have a cookie?'' She told them she couldn't do that, stroked their heads, then grinned and sneaked them each a big one.
One time, man read my cards and looked at me funny. He said, ''There's more of Ali's cards showin' than yours.'' That scared me -- I'd almost lost myself to him. All I thought of was Ali. But he gave so much of himself to the world, I told myself, he needs someone to take care of him. And that was me. Veronica, his third wife, she sat there combin' her hair while Earnie Shavers was punchin' on him, but I couldn't bear it. I had to get up and go back to my hotel room, where I prayed and screamed so long, God had to let him win. Psychic told me that in another life, I was his mother. Gets me to wanna cry, thinkin' about him. But I won't though. No, I won't.
She did a little samba around the butcher block, disappeared into the pantry and reappeared bopping out a bongo beat on a shiny ice bucket. When she leaned to dip a spoon and test the soup, her gold earrings shook. She straightened and pushed her big eyeglasses back up her steam-slick nose.
A teenage boy entered with a gift -- a pair of stuffed grape leaves. She laughed from her belly and thanked him. A teenage girl said goodbye and kissed her on the cheek. ''You be a nice girl,'' she said softly to the girl.
Even when I was 15, back in Bessemer, Alabama, I still kept my dolls on my bed. My first husband pushed them off and said I wouldn't need 'em now I had a real one in my belly. Guess I got that motherin' instinct -- can't get rid of it. Been takin' care of people all my life. Took care of my mother 'fore she died. Raised up my two little girls. Cooked for Malcolm X, for Elijah Muhammad and then for Ali. Funny thing, people trust you when you feed 'em, and folks always seem to trust me. Sitting on buses, I end up telling strangers next to me what foods they need to eat. I read nutrition books all the time when I'm layin' alone in bed.
At four o'clock she took off her white work shoes with a sigh, slipped on her sneakers and overcoat and walked out into the chill. She wedged inside the 101 uptown bus, left the million-dollar condos of the Upper East Side behind and went home to Harlem. She stopped at the post office, then sat over coffee at the Twin Donut Shop, the way she does every evening, and read her mail. Soon she would return to her apartment -- her daughters live in Chicago and Miami and she is divorced -- and draw a bath. ''Hey, how you doin', Lana?'' someone called to her. ''Doin' great,'' she said. ''Doin' great.''
'Course, maybe if you looked closer, you'd see the hurt in my eyes. Know what it feels like to think of somebody all the time, and suddenly they ain't there? Like losin' a child. Maybe he's sick because he ain't eatin' right. Maybe he ain't gettin' the right enzymes. I see other people 'round him now. Why we ain't there? We the ones made sure he was champ. Don't wanna say my life's empty . . . no, but . . . I have dreams about him. One where he's sick and doesn't want nothin' to do with me. Then he's all better and he's so happy to see me. Sometimes I think about that poem I wrote when he was young. Wrote that somebody like that could never live to be old.
I love him, but sometimes I get mad at him, too. People say that after workin' with him all those years, I shouldn't need for nothin' . . . and I'm flat broke. If they'd only have set up a retirement fund for us, we'd have no problems now. He used to say he was gonna buy me a house when he retired. If I'd asked him, he'd a done it. But I never asked for nothin'. And maybe that's best. Maybe if I had money I'd lose my love for people.
Some days, though, I just have to hear his voice. I call him, ask him what he's eatin'. People ask me all the time how he's doin'. Know how that feels, when people ask you how's your child, and you don't know what to say?
The gate of the fence that surrounded the little yellow house in northern Miami was locked. ''Sarria!'' I called from the sidewalk. ''Sarria!'' From inside the house a dog barked, then a second dog barked, a third, a fourth. And then the whole house exploded and shook with barking, a dozen, no, two dozen different timbres and pitches, the baritone bark of big dogs, the staccato yelp of small ones, the frenzied howl of the thin and high-strung. My knuckles whitened on the chain-link fence; how many could there be? ''Sarria!'' I cried again -- he had to be in there, people said he was a shut-in -- but my shout was hopelessly lost in the din.
I swallowed hard. Such a sweet old man, everyone had told me. I began to scale the fence.
This the dogs seemed to sense and take as an insult; the whole house seemed to snap and snarl and salivate. My eyes darted, my stomach clenched. I shifted onto the balls of my feet, approached the door, reached toward it from a few feet away and knocked -- my god, I could not even hear my own rapping. Bang! The door shuddered, but not from my knocking. Bang-bang! The metal meshing put up inside to protect the windows shook as the beasts hurled themselves at me.
I counted the strides it would take to flee back to the fence -- how could the gentle old man live here? -- then held my breath, reached over a bush and rapped on a bedroom window. ''Sarriiiiiaaaaa!'' In reply came the asylum howl, the door thumping as if about to splinter, the flash of teeth and eyeballs and fur in the window. I ran back to the fence and had just jabbed a toe in the meshing when, weakly, beneath the fury, came a muffled human grunt.
Five long minutes passed. Giving up, I saw the rush of snarling black. I froze, then whirled, clawing to climb. ''Negrita!'' I heard someone call. ''Ven! Ven!'' The dog hesitated, charged again, hesitated. I looked back. The old man -- thank god! -- was reaching out to wave me forward.
His hands, splayed from long, long arms, were broad and black and powerful from years of hacking Cuban sugarcane. I remembered them, working endlessly up and down the smooth ripples of Ali's body, rubbing until he drifted off to sleep on the table and then rubbing some more out of love. His hands I remembered, but I could not remember him.
His shoulders hunched, his head poking turtlelike from those shoulders, Luis Sarria moved in hobbling increments toward the steps in front of the house. He $ sat, and the bottom of his puppy-chewed pantleg hitched up to show the swathes of tape that wrapped his left leg. It had been chronically ulcerated since he stepped on a sea snail while fishing as a boy, but now the wound had grown threatening. At the gym near his home, where he worked until a year ago when the leg became too painful, they wondered if the germs carried by the great pack of dogs inside his house were what kept reinfecting it; and they wondered how much longer the 76-year-old man would last.
His wife, Esther, a Jamaican with small, happy-sad eyes, came out and sat next to him. Sarria picked up the black dog and hugged it to his chest. ''She is his favorite,'' his wife said, ''because she never wants to come back in the house, and so he gets to lift her like a baby.''
They are childless, she explained, and need money badly, barely making it each month on Social Security. The gentle old man can neither visit friends because of his leg, nor have them in because of his dogs. ''They would rip people up,'' his wife said. ''There are 25 of them.''
''But why keep so many?'' I asked.
She shrugged. ''They say Liberace left 25 dogs.'' '
'How could there be room for them all in your house?''
''They live in the living room and one of the bedrooms,'' she said. ''We live in our bedroom now. We had to move all the furniture out of the living room because they were destroying it. They broke the record player chasing rats. They dug up Sarria's garden. Dogs eat pumpkins. Did you know that?''
''How can you afford to feed them all?'' '
'We can't. I spend five dollars a day to buy chicken backs, turkey parts, rice. I mix it with their dog food. We spoil them. But dogs are better than people. Sarria loves to caress them.''
Sarria rose gradually and hobbled to the house holding the black dog. ''He is sad,'' she said, watching him go. ''Because he cannot work, he is losing force.'' She glanced at the fence. ''If Ali would come to that gate and say, 'Let's go to Manila,' Sarria would be young again.''
I remembered how reporters used to gather in Ali's dressing room after a workout, recording every word from the champion's lips, moving then to the corner man, Angelo Dundee, or perhaps to the street poet, Bundini Brown, or to Dr. Pacheco. Never did anyone exchange a word with Ali's real trainer, as some insiders called Sarria. It was almost as if no one even saw him. ''Even in Spanish,'' said Dundee, ''Sarria was quiet.''
He had flown to America in 1960 to train Cuban welterweight Luis Rodriguez and never returned to his homeland, yet he never learned English. He felt safer that way, his lips opening only wide enough to accommodate his pipe, and Ali seemed to like it, too. Surrounded so many days by con men, jive men, press men and yes men, Ali cherished the morning hour and the afternoon hour on the table with the man who felt no need to speak. For 16 years, the man physically closest to the most quoted talker of the '70s barely understood a word.
Sometimes Ali would babble at Sarria senselessly, pretending he spoke perfect Spanish, and then in mid-mumbo jumbo blurt out ''maricon!'' and Sarria's eyes would bug with mock horror. Everyone loved the silent old one. They swore his fingers knew the secret -- how to break up fat on the champion's body and make it disappear. ''And the exercises he put Ali through each morning! Sarria was the reason Muhammad got like this,'' Dundee said, forming a V with his hands. ''He added years to Ali's boxing life.''
The extra years brought extra beatings. And, likely, the Parkinson's syndrome. ''I used to ask God to help me introduce power into him through my hands,'' Sarria said in Spanish, sitting once more on the front step. He rubbed his face. ''Never did I think this could happen to him. I feel like crying when I see him, but that would not be good for him to see. To tell a boxer to stop fighting is an insult. I did not have the strength to tell him, but I wish to God I had.'' '
'Oh, Sarria,'' said his wife. ''You have never talked.''
''If I had spoken more, I might have said things I should not have. Perhaps they would have said, 'This Cuban talks too much,' and I would have been sent away. . . .'' Or perhaps today he would be standing in Sarria's Health Spa on Fifth Avenue, massaging corporate lumbars for $75 an hour.
He ran his fingers across a paw print on his pants and spoke softly again of Ali. ''Ambitious people . . . people who talk a lot . . . perhaps this is what happens to them.''
Behind us, the dogs began to snarl and thump again. ''Shhhhh,'' Sarria pleaded. ''Shhhhh.''
''Sarria,'' I said, ''how did you get so many dogs?''
From his pocket he pulled three photographs. Two of them were yellowed ones of him and Ali, clipped from newspapers. The other was a color glossy of a little girl. Tears misted his eyes, then his wife's. And the two of them took turns explaining the story of the 25 dogs.
Fourteen years ago they had taken in the three-day-old daughter of a relative who was unable to raise her. For 11 years she gave them someone to hug and care for, to take to ballet lessons and help with homework, to fill the hole left When Ali departed their lives. And then, just like that, the relative reappeared and took her away. ''Oh, how Sarria cried,'' said his wife. She turned away and clamped her lips.
''Just before she left us,'' she went on, ''the girl brought home a stray dog. We named it Alfi, and then she brought home a second one -- we named it Kelly. When she left, we couldn't give away her dogs, you see. And then they started to make babies. . . .''
Clanking and jangling with walkie-talkie, nightstick, pistol and keys, Officer Howard (Pat) Patterson swung his 220-pound body out of patrol car No. 511 on the far south side of Chicago, and the shouting match began.
''Officer, this mother's in my face.'' '
'You reported a battery? What's your name, ma'am?'' Patterson asked calmly.
''Miss Jones. I went to jail for this mother -- -- , and now. . . .''
''I didn't touch her!'' hollered the man. ''I called her a name!''
''I might kill him!''
''Wait a minute, both of you.''
''She got my chain, officer!''
''You mother -- -- ! I was locked up last summer for your honkie ass.''
''Did he hit you, Miss Jones?''
''No, but he was in my face!''
''She pulled the chain off my neck. I want my chain!''
''Look,'' said Patterson. ''You assault him, miss, and I'll lock you up. You're both high. Sir, you go take a walk. Let her cool off. And you stop screaming like that, Miss Jones.''
Officer Patterson stepped back into the car and shook his head. ''Lot of police would put them both in jail,'' he said. ''I know before I was Ali's bodyguard, I'd put folks in jail 10 times faster than I do now. Now I just try to help them solve their problems and send them home. My attitude's different since seeing the world and rubbing shoulders with Ali.''
When the comet ride with Ali began, Patterson was a 31-year-old cop on the streets of Chicago. When it ended, he was a 45-year-old cop on the streets of Chicago. He had two children, a loving wife, a close-knit family, 50 scrapbooks and a couple of walls of photographs that a ghetto kid never dreamed he would have, and for all of that he was grateful.
He got the bodyguard job through a chance meeting. The day he was assigned to protect the leader of the Black Muslim movement in America, Elijah Muhammad, back in the mid-'60s, he stuck a gun into a face coming out of the darkness: Herbert Muhammad, Elijah's son and Ali's manager. Herbert wanted just such a businesslike fellow to protect his boxer, and Patterson became the Bodyguard. He worked primarily during the weeks of fights until 1974, when he was put on permanent loan to Ali by Chicago mayor Richard Daley.
Whenever they met, Ali made a game of guessing where Patterson's gun was hidden. One time it might be the Colt Diamondback strapped to his ankle, the next time, the 9-mm automatic tucked under his suit coat; then again, if it was cold enough for an overcoat, the Colt and a .38 would be buried in his pockets. Upon reaching Ali's hotel suite, the Bodyguard would hide the pistols in a flower vase or beneath a sofa cushion, so he would always have one near, along with the shotgun he kept in a closet or under the bed. In a briefcase he carried as much as $50,000 in cash -- spending money for the champ.
His protective instinct was fierce. At Yankee Stadium on the night of the fight against Ken Norton in 1976, he had a $400 leather suit ripped to shreds while fighting off a mob from the fender of Ali's limo. He turned down four- figure bribes from people desperate to get past his checkpoint in hotel hallways and see Ali. When Ali entered a public bathroom, Patterson went, too. ''If anything at all happened to Muhammad,'' he said, ''I figured it would be my fault.''
During fights, he always kept his hand clamped over the water bottle so no one could sabotage Ali. But the Bodyguard had to sit on the corner stool and watch helplessly when his man needed protection most, in the ring when the end was near. ''Watching him get hit was like watching someone stick my mama with a knife,'' Patterson said. ''Ali fights stopped being a party. I tried to tell him to quit. . . .''
He drove the patrol car through the streets as he reminisced, head continually swiveling, eyes sweeping, ears listening for his number on the radio. The recruit he was training listened to the stories silently. Now and then a wino or a pimp called from the sidewalk, ''Hey, Patty, how's Muhammad?''
''Traveling with Ali opened up the whole world for me,'' said the Bodyguard. ''I'll admit it, I was afraid of flying before I got on that first airplane to meet him in Toronto. I never thought of going to other countries. Now I feel like there's nothing I can't do; my wife and I travel all the time.
''With him I saw that people all over are the same -- trying to educate their kids and get enough to eat -- just like us. Only most of them don't have as much as we do. That changed me, too. I used to worry about being a success, getting a promotion. Now that's not important. Seeing how somebody as powerful as Ali never used force to get things done, I learned from that. I'm not a police officer anymore, I'm a peace officer. I'd rather drive a drunk home or give somebody five dollars to solve an argument than stick them in jail. People need help, not jail.''
Not long ago, he was in London with a tour group when a disheveled, unbathed man approached and asked for money. The others averted their eyes and edged away. ''There's a sucker,'' some said when Patterson gave the beggar a bill and talked with him, but they didn't understand. He wasn't safeguarding a man anymore, he was safeguarding an idea.
''Whenever he saw someone old or sick or in trouble,'' said the Bodyguard, ''Ali always wanted to help them. He'd say, 'Who knows? Some day I might be that way.' ''
The last man to enter the Chicago mosque was short and round and rumpled. His sport coat was two sizes too baggy, his shirttail spilled out across the seat of his pants. His shoes were unbuckled, and his face was stubbled with whiskers. He looked not at all like the man who had reached into his pocket for a million dollars to buy the land and build the mosque he stood in.
The others at prayer stood near the front. He slipped off his shoes, padded to the back and dropped to his knees behind a pillar. Few were aware of it, but he remembered well a passage in Muslim scripture advising worshippers to pray behind an object, an obstruction for the devil.
All his life Herbert Muhammad has hidden behind pillars. As a young man he was the quiet, respectful houseman and chauffeur for his powerful father, Elijah Muhammad. Then he became the manager of Muhammad Ali, taking 33% of Ali's multimillion-dollar purses but remaining so obscure that bouncers at Ali workouts sometimes barred his entry to the gym. ''I never wanted to be a leader,'' he said. ''I never wanted to be a target. My role is to support those in the lead.''
Now he was 58, and he had trouble. His pillar was crumbling, his point man fading away. His dream of building 49 more mosques like this first one, using the money Ali and he could generate, was drifting further and further from his reach. Ali slurred words and shook and didn't want to be seen on television. Ali didn't care about making money anymore.
Herbert remained Ali's manager, and he wasn't going to give up his dream without a fight. Beneath the untucked shirt, unshaven face and tufts of black hair was a man burning with determination not to be forgotten when the Muslim history in America is written. Perhaps not equal to his father nor to his younger brother Wallace, whom Elijah anointed as successor, but close. ''Fifty mosques,'' said Herbert. ''Allah said if you build him a mosque in this life, he'll build you a paradise in the next life. My father established 200 mosques, my brother 250. But they didn't pay for them. I want to pay for 50. That would make my father proud. Every day my wife tells me to relax. How can I? I want to go till I drop. If I can't do something meaningful, take me now.''
He sighed. The Muslim movement had changed since Elijah died in 1975; it had dropped the black separatist thrust and become rounder, softer -- more Herbert. Big-name athletes weren't changing their names to Abdul and Rashad as they did in the '60s and '70s. The glamour years were gone, and now it would take the quiet, behind-the-scenes work -- the kind Herbert was cut out for -- to keep the movement growing.
''Seemed like we were always doing something back when Muhammad was fighting,'' he said. ''Building buildings, schools, starting mosques, buying buses, helping people. Now everything has quieted down with Ali, but I still got the taste of it in my mouth.''
The irony was pungent. For years the Manager tried to restrain Ali. Now Ali was restraining the Manager. ''I'd beg him not to be so proud, not to mess around with women, not to say, 'I am the greatest,' '' Herbert said. '' 'I am the greatest' was an insult to God -- in our prayers, we say 'Allahu akbar,' God is the greatest. That was when I was trying to make him more meek and religious. Back then I had to run to keep up with him when he walked. But this sickness stopped him dead in his tracks. Now everything's in slow motion. Now he's a hundred times more religious and meek than I ever thought he'd be. His whole life is his prayers. But he doesn't seem to care about anything. . . .''
The Manager had ushered in the era of million-dollar sports contracts, brilliantly playing promoters Don King and Bob Arum off against each other. Now he has an agreement for 25% of the cut if he negotiates a product deal with Ali. ''If he wanted it and he wasn't sick, he could be making $20 million to $30 million a year in endorsements,'' said Herbert. ''He's probably making a couple a hundred thousand. Last year I made $500 dollars from him.''
Still, the Manager keeps busy. Between his five trips to the mosque each day to pray, he occasionally brokers deals for Third World sellers and runs a catering business in Chicago. But Ali was, and is, the key, and Herbert knows it.
Now and then the fighter leaves his 88-acre farm, which Al Capone once owned, in Berrien Springs, Mich., and makes the two-hour drive to meet Herbert at a Chicago hotel coffee shop. Ali genuinely liked Herbert and his easy laugh: He was the only nonfamily member Ali said he would ask along if he could take only five people to the moon. On one visit to the city, Ali sat in the coffee shop as the Manager made plans, listening with blank eyes as if the world of money and publicity was one from which he had died and floated far away. And the Manager, sharp and angular beneath the round body and the baggy sport coat with the elbow patches, tried everything to wake him. If Ali were dead, could Herbert feel completely alive?
''I tell him, 'Joe Frazier ain't sitting around,' '' he said. '' 'If you lost some weight and took your medicine, you could make a whole lot of money. You could even fight.' I know he can't fight, but I say it just to motivate him. He won't take his medicine, he hates to depend on anything. I think his problem is getting worse. He's shaking more. Sometimes it's hard to be in his presence, like someone sick in your family. I love that man. He is quicker to help a stranger, he has more inner compassion than any human being I've ever met. But I'm afraid he's losing the values of this earth. Allah said to do everything in your power to seek an afterlife, but not to neglect your share on this earth. Ali gave away that big house of his in Los Angeles, he gave away cars. He's giving up things too easy. I don't want to push him, but I have got to make him realistic. His mother, his father, his eight children, what will he do about their expenses, the kids' college educations? And he shouldn't dress the way I dress. He should have a suit and a tie, and he should have his hair groomed, because he represents something to people.
''He says, 'I don't need no car, I'll just ride a bike.' I say, 'That's as crazy as a guy making $400 a week driving a Cadillac.' One night when he stayed over in Chicago, he slept on the floor of the mosque instead of getting a hotel. I told him, 'People are going to think you've lost all your marbles or your money -- and neither one is good.' The whole world rallied around Islam as a universal religion because of Muhammad Ali. But if he doesn't watch it, he's going to become a monk.''
One day last summer the Manager received a call from Mexico City. It was Ali, seeking counsel: Should he chance a new form of brain surgery that might cure his illness? Two of the 18 patients who had undergone the operation -- in which adrenal cells are placed inside the brain to help make dopamine, a brain chemical essential to controlling voluntary body movement -- had died shortly thereafter, but others had shown marked improvement. Ali might be Ali again!
Ali's fourth wife, Yolanda, cried on the telephone and begged him not to risk it. Herbert Muhammad closed his eyes and thought. He so hated to see Ali hurt, he used to keep his head down and pray during fights.
''I felt if he put his trust totally in God, the operation would be a success,'' said Herbert. He looked down at his hands. ''But I didn't tell him that. If he turned out like a vegetable, it would be seen as my decision. People would think I said yes just because I wanted more paychecks from Ali. So I told him to listen to everybody but to make up his own mind.''
Ali decided to wait until American doctors had become more familiar with the surgery. Part of him was afraid to be what he was again, filled with an energy that needed lights and action and other people's eyes. The illness, he sensed, was a protection against himself. And because of this, the Manager closed in on 60 feeling the way Ali did toward the end of his career, still able to visualize himself doing what he wanted to do, but unable to do it.
''Not just 50 mosques,'' said Herbert Muhammad. ''But 50 mosques with day- care centers and schools and old-folks' homes attached to them. I keep telling Ali, Let's get back in the race. How could I have ever dreamed I'd have to beg Muhammad Ali to go?''
The scene: A small motel room in downtown Los Angeles that costs, at monthly rates, $5.83 a night. A little bit of afternoon light makes it through the curtains, falling on a tablecloth etched with the words God -- Mother -- Son. On top of the television stands a small statue of Buddha, its head hidden by a man's cap. Four packs of playing cards and a Bible lie on the head of the bed; tin dinner plates are set on a small table. Affixed to a mirror are a photograph of a young Muhammad Ali and a leaflet for a play entitled Muhammad Ali Forever.
On the bed, propped against a pillow, is a 57-year-old black man, slightly chubby, with black woolly hair on the sides of his head and, on the top, a big bald spot with a tiny tuft of hair growing at the very front. As he talks, his eyes go wide and wild . . . then far away . . . then wet with tears.
His name is Drew (Bundini) Brown, the ghetto poet who motivated Ali and maddened him, who invented the phrase, ''Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'' and who played bit parts in The Color Purple and Shaft; who licked Ali's mouthpiece before sliding it in but never said a yes to him he didn't mean; who could engage the champion in long discussions of nature and God and man, then lie in the hotel pool before a fight and have his white woman, Easy, drop cherries into his mouth; who, when he felt good, charged two $300 bottles of wine at dinner to Ali's expense account and then made Ali laugh it off; and who, when he felt bad, drank rum and shot bullets into the night sky at the mountain training camp in Pennsylvania -- a man stretched taut and twanging between the fact that he was an animal and the fact that he was a spirit.
Oh, yes. A visitor sits in a chair near the window of the motel room, but often Bundini Brown talks as if he is ranting to a crowd on a street corner -- or as if he is completely alone:
The old master painter from the faraway hills,
Who painted the violets and the daffodils,
Said the next champ gonna come from Louisville.
I made that up 'fore we was even champion. Things just exploded in my head back then. Guess that's why Ali loved me. I could help him create new things. See, he never did talk that much. People didn't know that about him, 'less'n they slept overnight and caught him wakin' up. All that talkin' was just for the cameras and writers, to build a crowd. He was quiet as can be, same as now. But now people think he's not talkin' 'cause of the Parkinson's, which is a lie.
I remember when he fought Jerry Quarry, after that long layoff. Going from the locker room to the ring, my feet wasn't even touchin' the ground. I looked down and tried to touch, but I couldn't get 'em to. Like I was walkin' into my past. Me and the champ was so close, I'd think, ''Get off the ropes'' -- and he'd get off the ropes! Man, it made chill bumps run up my legs. We were in Manila, fightin' Frazier. The champ came back to the corner crossin' his legs. Tenth or 11th round, I forget. Angelo said, ''Our boy is through.'' I said, ''You're goddam wrong, my baby ain't through!'' I was deeply in love with him. Ali tried to fire me every day, but how he gonna fire me when God gave me my job? So I stood on the apron of the ring, and I said out loud, ''God! If Joe Frazier wins, his mother wins, his father wins, his kids win. Nobody else! But if Muhammad lose -- God! -- we all lose. Little boys, men, women, black and white. Muhammad lose, the world lose!''
And you know what? The nigger got up fresh as a daisy. Everybody seen it! Got up fresh, man, fresh! And beat up on Frazier so bad Frazier couldn't come out after the 14th round! God put us together for a reason, and we shook up the world!
(He picks at a thread on the bedspread.) People'd see us back then and say, ''It's so nice seein' y'all together.'' We made a lot of people happy. I was a soldier. (His hands are shaking. He reaches down to the floor, pours a glass of rum as his eyes begin to fill with tears.) I was happy then. It'd be good for Muhammad if I could be with him again. Be good for me, too. Then I wouldn't drink as much. By me being alone I drink a lot. Always did say I could motivate him out of this sickness, if me and the champ was together. He needs the medical thing, too, but he needs someone who truly loves him. If we were together again, more of the God would come out of me. (His voice is almost inaudible.) Things used to explode in my head. . . . I'm kind of runnin' out now. . . .
He asked me to go stay on the farm with him. (His eyes flare, he starts to shout.) What you goin' to do, put me to pasture? I ain't no horse! I don't want no handouts! I got plans! Big things gonna happen for me! I gotta get me a job, make some money, take care of my own family 'fore I go with him. If I don't love my own babies, how in hell I gonna love somebody else's?
First thing I'd do if I had some money, I'd go to the Bahamas and see my baby. King Solomon Brown's his name. Made him at Ali's last fight, with a woman I met down there. He was born on the seventh day of the seventh month. There's seven archangels and seven colors in the rainbow, you know.
I brought him to America and lived with him until he was one. Then he went back to the Bahamas with his mother. Didn't see him for a year and a half, then I went back. Wanted to see if he'd remember me. I said, ''A-B-C-D-E-F-G -- dock-dock'' (he makes a sound with his tongue and the roof of his mouth) -- that's what I always used to teach him -- and he remembered! He ran and leaped into my arms -- I mean, jumped! -- and we hugged, and it wasn't like I was huggin' somebody else, we was one body, we was one! (He wraps his arms around himself and closes his eyes.) I'll never forget that hug. Couldn't bring him back to America, I had no house for him to come back to. Stayed eight weeks and went broke. Came back and after that I'd see kids on the street and think of my kid and I'd start to cry. . . . Why don't you get up and leave now? Put two eggs in your shoes and beat it. You stirrin' up things, you know. (The visitor starts to stand.)
I'll make some money. I'll get a home he can come to, and put him in school. Got two grandchildren, too, and I wanna be near 'em. They're by my son, Drew, he's a jet pilot in the Persian Gulf. And I have another son, Ronnie, here in Los Angeles. One son black, one son white, born a day apart. And then Solomon. I'm a boymaker. Don't see my kids like I want to. Can't go back to my babies till I got somethin' to give 'em. Right now, I'm broke. I said, broke, not poor, there's a difference. (He glances across the room and speaks softly.) I know one thing. You get used to good food and a clean bed, hard to get used to somethin' else. Why don't you leave now? Please?
(He rises and goes to the door, shredding a piece of bread and tossing it outside to the pigeons.) People don't know it, but feedin' the birds is like paintin' a picture. . . . Some people think Muhammad's broke, too. He ain't broke. He's brokenhearted. He hasn't found himself in what he really want to do. Maybe he just be in the freezer for a few years. Maybe he's going through this so he has time to think. Last time I was with him, his 15-year-old son said to him, ''Daddy, Bundini is your only friend, the only one that doesn't give up on you.'' Muhammad looked at me, and we started cryin'. But this is not the end for Ali. Somethin' good gonna happen for him. Maybe not while he's still alive on this earth, but Ali gonna live for a long time, if you know what I mean. Like my kids, even when I'm gone, I'm gonna be livin' in 'em . . . if I can be around 'em enough to put my spirit into 'em. Go fishin' with ; 'em. There you go again, you got me talkin' about it. Didn't I ask you to leave? (The visitor reaches for his shoulder bag.)
It ain't nothin' for me to get up and walk down the street and have 15 people yell, ''Hey, Bundini, where's the champ?'' That one reason I stay in my room. (He pauses and looks at the visitor.) You think I'm alone, don't you? Soon as you leave, God's gonna sit in that chair. I call him Shorty. Ha-ha, you like that, don't you? By callin' him that, means I ain't got no prejudice about religions. I was born on a doorstep with a note 'cross my chest. It read, ''Do the best you can for him, world.'' I had to suck the first nipple come along. I didn't run away from home -- I been runnin' to home. I'm runnin' to God. And the nearest I can find to God is people. And all around me people are fightin' for money. And I'm tryin' to find out what makes apples and peaches and lemons, what makes the sun shine. What is the act of life? We all just trancin' through? Why can't we care for one another? There's a lady that come out of church the other day and got shot in the head. I want to know what the hell is goin' on. God, take me home if you ain't gonna give me no answer. Take me home now. If you're ready to die, you're ready to live. Best thing you can do is live every day like it's the last day. Kiss your family each day like you're not comin' back. I want to keep my dimples deep as long as I'm here. I want to see people smile like you just did.
(His lips smile, but his eyes are wet and shining.) The smarter you get, the lonelier you get. Why is it? When you learn how to live, it's time to die. That's kind of peculiar. When you learn how to drive, they take away the car. I've finally realized you need to be near your kids, that you need to help 'em live better 'n you did, that you can live on by feedin' your spirit into your babies. But now I ain't got no money and I can't be near 'em. Back when I was with the champ, I could fly to 'em anytime. See, I was in the Navy when I was 13 and the Merchant Marine when I was 15, and they was the happiest days of my life, 'cause I was alone and didn't have no one to worry about. But now I'm alone and it brings me misery. . . . C'mon now, get on up and leave. Talkin' to you is like talkin' to myself. . . .
See this bald spot on my head? Looks like a footprint, don't it? That come from me walkin' on my head. Don't you think I know I'm my own worst enemy? I suffer a lot. If my kids only knew how I hurt. But I can't let 'em know, it % might come out in anger. And 'fore I see 'em, I gotta have somethin' to give to 'em. I owe $9,000 'fore I can get my stuff out of storage. (He bites his lip and looks away.) One storage place already done auctioned off all the pictures of Ali an' me, all my trophies and memories from back then. Strangers have 'em all. . . . (A long silence passes.) Now the other storage place, the one that has all Ali's robes from every fight we ever fought, every pair of trunks we fought in, lot of jockstraps, too, enough stuff to fill a museum -- I owe that place $9,000, and I'm talkin' to 'em nice so they won't auction that off, too, but I don't think they'll wait much longer. Sure I know how much that stuff's worth, but I can't sell it. That's not right. I want that stuff to be in my babies' dens some day. That's what I'm gonna give my babies. I can't just sell it. . . . (His head drops, he looks up from under his brow.) You know somebody'll pay now?
(He rubs his face and stares at the TV set.) You stirrin' it up again. Go on, now. You know if you just keep sittin' there, I'll keep talkin'. Pretty please? (He gets to his feet.) You can come back and visit me. We friends now. I can't go out, I gotta stay by the phone. I'm waitin' on somethin' real big, and I ain't gonna get caught off-guard. Somethin' big gonna happen, you wait and see. . . . A few days later, Bundini Brown fell in his motel room and was found paralyzed from the neck down by a cleaning woman. And then he died.
Seven years ago, when the group broke camp at Deer Lake for the final time, everyone contributed money for a plaque that would include all their names. They left the task to Bundini Brown and departed.
Today the camp is a home for unwed mothers. In front of the log-cabin gym, where babies squeal and crawl, stands a tall slab of gray granite, chiseled with 16 names and surrounded by flowers. Bundini Brown had bought a tombstone.