I was fortunate to have met Muhammad Ali in 1992, while I was working for ABC Sports. Ali and ABC Sports had a long history together, and Ali had come up to our offices to discuss putting his image on a clothing line that the company was producing.
He had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease but the effects weren’t as bad as they were in his later years. He was a little slow but he had all his faculties. All of us at ABC Sports had been use to seeing stars in our department. I met Reggie Jackson once and of course our own announcers like Frank Gifford, Brent Musburger and Jim McKay would come up to the 13th floor periodically.
The day Ali arrived was totally different. It was actually announced the day before. This was a big deal. This was MUHAMMAD ALI, The Greatest, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. When Ali arrived he was ushered into a conference room where he sat down and started interacting with people.
NFL Hall of Famer Larry Csonka noted on his Facebook page that he had been to some banquets with Ali and that the champ “always noticed and recognized kids in his presence.” The day I met Ali was no different. Some parents brought their kids in and Ali entertained them with magic tricks, like making a handkerchief disappear.
The champ got up to fake spar with one kid by holding his opened hands up and telling the kid, “come on.” The kid hit one of Ali’s open hands pretty hard and was reprimanded by his mother. Ali just smiled at the woman and said, “He can’t hurt me, no one can hurt me.”
It seemed that pretty much everyone in the sports department and a quite a few people from the news division made their way into the conference room that morning. Ali was great. He was in his element, it was a controlled environment and he was in control. The man could light up a room.
When it was my turn to sit next to him and get my picture taken, it was a moment I will never forget as long as I live. I sat down and asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture with me, he replied with “What did you say?” I repeated myself and asked, would you mind taking a picture with me champ?”
He looked at me straight faced and asked me, “Who you calling a N—–?” A look of pure fear shot across my face. Just look at the picture, look at me then glace at the looks on the faces of the people around me. Whoever took that photo snapped it at precisely the right moment.
Needless to say I was scared as all hell. Here I am with all these people around me, my bosses, several Vice Presidents, and Ali’s handlers and Ali is accusing me of calling him the N word. I jumped up out of my seat and protested, “I didn’t say that!” Ali just started laughing and smiled at me and was probably thinking, “I got him.”
After my heart slowed down, I crooked my finger at Ali and told him that wasn’t very nice. The champ got up out of his seat, put out his arms and gave me a hug. And if any of my ABC Sports colleagues have that picture, I’d like a copy!
After meeting with everyone, taking pictures and signing autographs, Ali went into a meeting to discuss the clothing line. It was from this meeting that I got the idea for my first ever published story. I interviewed our Sr. Vice President of Finance at the time, since he was the one who arranged for the meeting with Ali. The piece appeared in our inter- company newsletter ABC Ink, and my journalism career was off and running.
Since that day I have met and interviewed hundreds of athletes, I have also met and spoken to a plethora of musicians, actors, comedians, television personalities and even two former Presidents. But nothing will ever compare to meeting Muhammad Ali. He was, and always will be, The Greatest.