Went to see Ali the other day. Not the movie, the man.

The movie Ali, with Will Smith as a hauntingly real Muhammad
Ali, opens Christmas Day. The man Ali was slumped on a couch in
Suite 319 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, trying to apply
jelly to a bagel with that paint shaker of a right arm and guide
it into his mouth. Yeah, Parkinson's is a diet you never want to
try.

Jelly, though, is good because the sugar gets Ali's mind buzzing.
I could see it in his eyes. I wouldn't need to sneak him the
Snickers I'd brought in my pocket.

To many Americans, Ali is woven into a time when Vietnam, civil
rights and black power dominated their lives. No wonder Will
Smith broke his back (actually, a thumb) trying to nail Ali. He
studied Islam each day. Trained as a boxer for a year. Refused
stunt doubles. Listened to countless Ali tapes. Between shoots
he even wore a mold that kept his ears from sticking out so much
when he was on camera.

Smith was so Ali that the champ's wife, Lonnie, would get the
actor on the phone just so she and Ali could hear him do Ali and
be sent back to a place where they can no longer go.
"Funny...feeling," Ali says, with three-second pauses. "Hearin'
yourself...30 years ago."

Had Hollywood finally found somebody pretty enough to play him?
I asked.

"Can't...do it.... Can't nobody...do that."

The world sees the trembling and the awful new Ali Shuffle, and
feels sorry for the champ. Don't be. His mind is still bright.
He still composes poetry nearly every day. He still studies the
Koran and the Bible. Ali isn't alive only at your local Odoplex
24. He's still here, in the whispers.

If you introduce Ali to your wife, he will draw her ear close to
his lips and say, "You married him?" If you're seated next to
him at a banquet when the crowd of 1,000 rises to its feet and
chants his name, he'll whisper for only you to hear, "Just
another n-----." His light jab at the racism he knew as a young
man.

Ali has never been afraid to be himself, which is the point in
Ali, a movie that moves at the speed of an ice floe. You could
hand-weave a Howard Cosell toupee in the time it takes Ali to
fight George Foreman in the film. How can a movie be three hours
long and say almost nothing?

Yet Smith's Ali is so convincing that if Joe Frazier happened by,
he might take a swing at Smith. I had so many questions to ask
Ali about the film, but he drifted off within 20 minutes of my
arrival. I didn't know what to do. I started to kill time when
there was this sudden "AIIGGHGH!" It was Ali's Frisbee-eyed,
molar-baring face coming at me. After his sons scraped me off the
ceiling, I was able to laugh.

I asked Ali what it has been like to be a Muslim in the U.S.
since Sept. 11. He said he had not faced any hostility, and then
added, "Muslims don't...kill people.... But remember...
Judaism...has terrorists.... Baptists...have terrorists....
Catholics... Hindus...all religions have terrorists."

Ali had me pull him off the couch so that he could show me what
Islam had taught him. He stood in a doorway, and suddenly his
feet appeared to be rising off the carpet!

How'd you do that? I asked.

"Prayer...and...fasting," he said.

He set an empty orange juice glass in the middle of the carpet
and asked me, if he made it levitate, would I finally believe in
Islam? I nodded, grinning. He quieted his shakes, stared hard at
the glass and then announced, "April Fools'!" The man is 59,
going on nine.

I made a mistake in teaching him a magic trick, because from
then on he wanted only to practice it on anybody who happened
into the room. After 90 minutes he really did start to fade. The
eyes stayed closed longer than open. "Where...we...at?" he
asked. "New York?"

"No," I said. "L.A."

Finally, they stayed closed. Nap time for a legend.

To see Ali young again on the screen, so blurry fast of foot and
hand and mouth, is a joy. But it's also a joy to know that this
slow Ali, this whispering one, is still with us. In one scene in
the movie a woman who had met him when she was a little girl
says, "I loved you then. I never stopped. I still do."

Makes two of us.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

The world sees the trembling and the awful new Ali Shuffle, and
feels sorry for the champ. Don't be.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)