From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

A Magical Moment with Ali

It’s not what you take but what you leave behind that defines greatness.

Edward Gardner, founder, Soft Sheen Products

In more than twenty years as a sports columnist, I have met and interviewed a who’s who of greats, including “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali.

My greatest memory of The Greatest happened shortly before Ali lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The living legend and African American hero—no, American hero—shuffled into the room for an autograph show in the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center, his feet sliding forward slowly and carefully in the unsteady gait of an old man missing his cane.

Ali was only fifty-four years old. Fifty-four going on ninety-four, it seemed. Parkinson’s syndrome had caused a new “Ali Shuffle.”

Still, he remained indisputably the people’s champion. When the doors for the National Sports Collectors Convention opened two hours before his noon appearance, fans rushed to get into a line that grew to three hundred before The Champ’s arrival. Meanwhile, Hall of Fame baseball and football players sat nearby, lonely, with capped Sharpie pens.

Ali’s hands never got a rest, never stopped moving, even when he wasn’t signing endless autographs. His hands shook so uncontrollably it looked like he was constantly shuffling a deck of cards. More “Ali Shuffle.”

And yet from the moment he began signing the cursive M until he had dotted the lower-case I, the earthquake in Ali’s hands magically calmed. Indeed, his signature was smooth and true. Perhaps his neurons and synapses were programmed with a computer-like keystroke after signing his name a million times.

But Ali was no robotic signing machine. He smiled whenever, which was almost always, an autograph seeker paying $90 to have a flat item signed—a whopping $120 on a boxing glove—called him “Champ” or said, “It’s an honor to meet you.”

A steep price for a squiggle of ink? Not at all when you consider one man in line called it “a religious experience.”

And every time a camera raised, Ali, his face still “pretty” and his body still muscular and almost fighting trim in a tan golf shirt, would rise out of his chair, slowly but gracefully and without assistance, to pose with a clenched fist held beneath the fan’s chin.

When I had learned Muhammad Ali would be in town, I made plans to take my then-six-year-old son to see him, just as my grandfather once took my dad to see the larger-than-life Babe Ruth in a hotel lobby.

Beforehand, I schooled the boy about Ali, telling him again and again how he was “The Greatest.”

With the handy excuse of me working on a column for the next morning’s newspaper, we hung out right beside The Champ for half an hour as he signed glossy pictures and magazine covers and boxing gloves. Finally, I told my son it was time to leave.

He disagreed.

“Not yet. I’ve gotta say hi,” he whispered, and loudly.

Ali heard the little boy’s protests. The great man turned around and instinctively the little boy stepped forward and extended his right hand. Ali, who had shaken adult hands almost femininely with just his manicured fingertips, took the small hand gently into his big paw and this time it did not look awkward or weak or sad.

And, for the very first time in thirty minutes, the man who used to “float like a butterfly” broke out of his cocoon of total silence.

“Hi, Little Man,” Ali whispered, spreading his arms wide open.

The six-year-old Little Man, who back then was quite shy, instantly stepped forward and was wrapped in a clinch.

But it turned out the real Kodak moment was yet to come.

After a standing eight count or maybe even a full ten seconds, Ali freed the Little Man and then held his right palm out in the universal “give me five” position.

The boy, who usually slaps hard enough to shatter metatarsals, gently slapped Ali’s extended palm before then holding out his own tiny palm for The Champ to return the gesture.

Ali took a swipe . . .

. . . and missed.

At the very last instant, the Little Man, as he still likes to do, pulled his hand away like a matador’s red cape teasing a bull.

“Too slow,” the Little Man whispered, his two missing front teeth causing the words to lisp slightly. Like, “Tooooth looow.” Like Ali’s own soft voice that now lisps slightly.

And like two six-year-olds they laughed together at the prank.

While still roaring in delight, Ali once again opened his arms and my son once again stepped into them, except this time the shy boy squeezed back, and tightly, as though he were hugging his dear Grandpa. Ali’s eyes caught mine, and I swear to this day they twinkled.

It was an end-of-a-movie fade-out and roll-the-credits hug. A full thirty-second hug. A worth-the-hour-and-a-half-drive-in-Southern-California-gridlocked-freeway-traffic hug.

A hug from “The Greatest” that the Little Man still remembers warmly, and surely will until he is an old man.

As we walked away hand-in-hand after saying goodbye to Ali, my son stopped and looked up at me and said through a Christmas-morning smile in his missing-teeth lisp: “You know, Dad, you were right—he really is The Bestest.”

Woody Woodburn

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