More than his blurring hands, more than his brick will, I will remember Muhammad Ali’s devilish heart. Even to the end, even through the shaking and the mumbling, he never lost that. He might’ve lost that perfect beauty, that timeless voice, but he never lost that prankster’s soul.
This was Scottsdale a few years ago—Jimmy Walker’s Fight Night, a Parkinson’s check-fest. The champ was in a chair and a middle-aged white man in a tuxedo approached—half petrified, half thrilled. He leaned close so Ali could see his face. He put his right hand on Ali’s left shoulder.
“Champ, I just want you to know, you’re my hero,” he gushed. “Anything I can do for you tonight, you let me know.”
Ali raised his eyebrows once, then twice. But for … what?
“I just want you to know,” the guy said, louder and closer. “If there’s anything you need tonight, let me know. Anything at all.”
Ali shook his head yes and motioned for him to get even closer.
“Baby Ruth,” he whispered in his ear. “The big one.”
This flummoxed Mr. Tuxedo.
“The candy bar? Baby Ruth?”
Ali nodded and held his trembling hands 10 inches apart. The big one.
The guy straightened up as though he’d just been knighted. The Champ needed a favor! From him! He was off straightaway to the gift shop. No luck. What was he going to do, disappoint Muhammad Ali? He got his Benz out of valet and went looking for a 7-Eleven. Found one.
Yes, Baby Ruth. No, not the big one.
Back in the Benz. Found a grocery store with one. Sped back. Valeted the car again. Went looking for The Champ with the Holy Grail. But by now 45 minutes had passed. The dinner had started and Ali was at one of the main tables. He swam against the tide of waiters made his way to Ali’s table and held out the dulcet prize to The Champ.
Ali’s eyes doubled. He reached for it—only to see a third hand snatch it away. It was Lonnie, Ali’s wife, and she was steaming.
“The Champ can’t have candy!” she yelled. “And he KNOWS that!”
She gave it to the waiter to take it away, glared at the Tuxedo and tsk’d Ali, who looked sheepishly at his pigeon with a twinkle in his eye. The Tuxedo’s face fell like a gun-range souffle. Suckered by The Greatest.
Yes, Muhammad Ali changed more minds about blacks, Muslims and athletes than any man in American history. Yes, he was clever, brave and true. Yes, he was the most important athlete I ever met. But what I will tell my grandchildren about was how he was so damn much fun.
For a 13-year-old, white, 1971, pre-Ritalin, hyper Catholic school kid who was always being told by the nuns to “shut that mouth” Ali was a wonder to me. Every picture was of him with his mouth as open as a baby bird’s.
For a teenager who was falling in love with the way words could jump off the page and bop you on the nose, Ali was a godsend to me. Every quote from him was a funhouse slide.
We traded them back and forth, using our awful Ali impressions, our bottom lips bit Ali-style:
“I’m so fast I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet!”
“I’m so bad I make medicine sick!”
“I should be a postage stamp! That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked!”
Here I finally had someone who couldn’t be shut up by Sister John Agnes, let alone Howard Cosell.
Sadly for me, by the time I was a traveling sportswriter, Ali was toothless, a sad Weeble for Larry Holmes to knock down (1980), a pathetic Macy’s balloon for Trevor Berbick to pop ('81), and then not even that. He retired for good, and, of course, worse.
Didn’t matter to me. He was my hero and I was going to meet him, even if I had to make up ideas just to be in his company. And that Ali I came to know wasn’t the world shaker, wasn’t the war objector, wasn’t the rope-a-doper. He was the uncle whose bag of tricks never emptied.
He could stand next to your right ear and make you hear things out of your left. One time, he made me stand about 10 feet back, then went to an open doorjamb and stood there for about 20 seconds. Then, suddenly, preposterously, miraculously, he began to rise two inches to the air! And not just his heels! His entire shoes! I still don’t know how he did it. One of the damndest things I’ve ever seen.
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One morning I had him to myself in the sitting room of a hotel suite in Chicago. Mornings were the best for Ali once Parkinson’s had him by the throat. He could talk in the mornings. But on this one, he seemed tired and sleepy.
Five minutes into the interview, The Champ fell asleep. I had so many questions left, I wasn’t about to leave. So I picked up a magazine from the coffee table and started to read it, turning the pages like gold leaf so as not to disturb the great man’s rest.
I was about two minutes into that when he suddenly leapt across the coffee table and choked me, causing my voicebox to shriek, my heart to stop and the magazine to wind up in the rubber plant. He must’ve laughed for 30 seconds straight.
The bag of tricks is empty now. The twinkle is finally out. But I can still see it in my mind. And, tonight, I will open a Baby Ruth and remember The Champ.
The big one.