Millions of words have been written and said since the passing of Muhammad Ali. Now it’s time for me to add my two cents. I grew up in in eastern Pennsylvania the son of small-town storekeeper who struggled mightily to eke out a living. They were middle aged when Ali appeared on the scene in the 1960s. They, like many of their generation, harbored a bias against others who were different, be it color, religion, nationality, etc. It always surprised and disappointed me that this Jewish mother and father who had also felt the sting of non-acceptance, would take out their life’s frustrations on other human beings.
That started to change with Muhammad Ali. My father was a big boxing fan who religiously tuned on the Friday night fights and swore by the legendary Joe Louis. Ali’s brashness both infuriated and entertained them. My father thought he was the best fighter he had ever seen, since Joe Louis, of course. My mother agreed with Ali that he was indeed the most beautiful man in the world. But they both wanted to see someone knock the crap out of him and shut his mouth.
So we were stunned when Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston in 1964, and enraged shortly afterward when he joined the Nation of Islam and became Ali. But as the years went by and Ali was stripped of his title, something seemed to change within my parents. They were realizing that a person who had the courage to follow his beliefs and was willing to pay whatever price should be admired, not reviled. They were learning what integrity meant. Ali became a favorite of theirs until they died.
My own path crossed with Ali’s on Nov. 2, 1989 when he came to a Houston department store which was selling his new brand name cologne. If you bought a bottle you got an autograph. A few months earlier I bought a gorgeous Effanbee doll of Ali at a local toy store. I carried it in a large paper bag, paid $25 for a bottle of the cologne, and waited in the long line for my autograph. As I approached Ali’s table I pulled the doll out of the bag and though I tried to be discreet, it caught everyone’s attention, including Ali’s. His hands were shaking slightly even then and I’m trying to figure out where he’s going to sign the thing. He took it in his hands, posed with it in a boxing pose for a few seconds, and then asked me my name, which he carefully inscribed on the white robe along with his name and the date. He shook hands with me as I was leaving and said thank you. To which I say, Thank you, champ!