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You don't know Muhammad Ali until you know his best friend

The Best Of Friends For 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham has traveled the globe, meeting princes and presidents, all thanks to his selfless devotion to a buddy, Muhammad Ali, who happens to be the most famous man in the world.

This story originally appeared in the July 13, 1998 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Outside, the house is neat and trim, not unlike the owner himself, who possesses one of those perfectly oval faces—bald on top, bearded on the bottom—that, in caricature class, could be turned upside down and drawn just as well that way. The eyebrows are small, the eyes aglimmer, and the mouth is invariably found in a smile, perhaps because, for so long, it wasn’t much good at dispensing words.

Nature compensates.

But some things are distinct and immutable, such as the accepted fact that this fellow with the oval face is the nicest person in sports (which might be damning him with faint praise) and may be the nicest person on the face of the earth.

Best Person Around, for $200.

Who is Howard Bingham?

We do know this: The one person—and he is a famous person—who mistreated Mr. Bingham hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans since then.

There is a God.

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And now, driving up to his neat and trim abode, here comes Howard Bingham in his old Camry, one drab and indistinct of color and loaded with even more junk than miles, which total 108,000. Howard’s dog, Clyde, stirs. Clyde is part rottweiler, part German shepherd, but, as befits the dog of such a sweet guy, Clyde prefers the learned life of lying about to the vigilant one for which he was bred.

Howard calls out to one of his neighbors. The women in these environs of south Los Angeles all look after Howard, feeding Clyde when Howard is traveling or feeding Howard when he is home. He’s away a lot, though, consorting with the rich and famous here and there, everywhere. Still, he has lived in this little house since 1969. It is not far from the house he grew up in, where his mother still resides. He uses that residence as a mail drop, sparing the helpful neighbor women postal chores too.

Howard opens his front door. “People don’t believe it, that I still live here,” he says. “But I’m not fancy. You can only sleep on one bed.”

Well, you can if there isn't stuff piled on it. Howard's house, the stationary version of Howard's car, is something of a cross between a flea market and a mail-order warehouse. Friends like to say that Howard has “a file cabinet in his head.” This house is the wrong place for a file cabinet. Stuff is piled about, sometimes nearly to the ceiling—the accumulated effluvia of The American Man Alone.

One room passes for the eye of the hurricane. This is where Howard stockpiles hundreds of thousands of his negatives. He is, by trade, a photographer, and a very good one. For the celebrity gentry he is the anti-paparazzo, the photographer as gentleman.

Across from the Bingham archives is another room, fashioned as command central. One of Howard's friends, Mary Williams, a public relations woman, says that he’s on the phone so much that he reminds her foremost of Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator. Howard works not only the phones but also the fax and the E-mail while cuing up the TV and the VCR. Also his wont is to patch people together—people who share nothing in common but Howard Bingham. Suddenly you are not just schmoozing with Howard. You are on a three-way hookup with someone you never heard of in Asuncion, Paraguay. “Hello,” says Howard, talking on the phone to some big shot's secretary. “It’s your favorite person.”

“Oh, it must be Howard Bingham,” the secretary replies.

But now, brushing his chair free of bric-a-brac, making a small place for his own self, Bingham has a single call to make to just one person. He speed dials. He says,“Hi, Bill.”