Like Ali's life, a lifelong dream takes a sad turn near the end

May 07, 2006|By RICK MAESE

LOUISVILLE, KY. — LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --We stood in a long line, each of us with an excitement swirling deep inside, that place where you're always a 10-year-old and always in awe of the world. We were like children waiting to visit Santa Claus. Only Santa has nothing on the man waiting around the corner.

For a day, I wasn't a sportswriter. I'd come as a fan. I'd come as someone eternally 10 years old.

There's only been one athlete I've wanted to meet, but as the years passed, it seemed less and less likely that it would ever happen.

As a lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, though, Muhammad Ali had been named the grand marshal in the annual Pegasus Parade. And in conjunction with Ali's return to his hometown, the former champ had agreed to appear and greet fans at the brand new Muhammad Ali Center, the impressive museum built in his honor.

I was in line, knees knocking, thinking about all I'd read, heard and seen and wondering what I'd say. What exactly do you say to an iconic figure? It would have been easier if it were Santa waiting at the end of the line.

At some point, I started taking notice of the people who'd already made their way through the line, who'd waited their turn and seen The Greatest. They moved like zombies, free of emotion or any hint of what they'd just encountered. I'd soon understand why.

"You're next. Ready?" asked the line attendant, pointing to Ali. I'd expected to see a trembling champ, a fighter struggling to control his own nerves and muscles. Yet, a few feet away in a chair, Ali sat perfectly still. I'd heard that some Parkinson's sufferers can take drugs to calm their trembling limbs. I don't know if that was the case, but Ali looked nothing like I had expected. From the side, he could have been any man wearing a cream-colored shirt.

I kneeled next to him, as instructed, but didn't say anything. "Introduce yourself," said a photographer.

"I'm Rick. It's truly an honor."

Ali's eyes were closed.

The photographer lifted the camera and said, "Ali, eyes, eyes, eyes," until The Greatest opened his lids.

"Quick, make a fist," I was told. Seeing my clenched hand, Ali instinctively made a fist of his own.

He looked toward me but didn't see me. His eyes were glassy and his gaze hollow. I thanked him, and he closed his eyes.

I milled about and watched the pattern continue. "Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes," the photographer would say and each time Ali would momentarily come alive.

At one point, Howard Bingham came into the room. Bingham is Ali's photographer, biographer and best friend. No man has been closer to Ali over the past 40 years. He leaned over and whispered in Ali's ear. Then the pair posed for photographers and Bingham hugged him one more time before walking away.

At no point did Ali do anything that showed he was aware his friend was even in the same room.

I walked away a zombie and shuffled through the rest of the museum. The Muhammad Ali Center was abuzz with the champ perched atop a throne on the fifth floor. Only he wasn't a champ. He was another prop, no different than the robe, shorts and gloves enclosed in glass.

This one-day exhibit told me more than I ever wanted to know about the final chapter in the life of a great man.

On the fourth floor, I was able to purchase the photograph that I'd just taken with Ali. I slid $20 across the counter and walked away with my photo in a small bag. For several hours, I didn't dare open the bag. I was too shaken and unnerved by the encounter to accept that there might be photographic evidence.

I couldn't understand why his family would put him through this, and I couldn't justify why I had taken part in it. I wish I would have posed alongside a wax sculpture or a cardboard cutout of Ali. The effect would've been the same.

I eventually pulled out the photo, and there we were. As perfect and honest as a photograph can be, it often represents only a moment, not an experience. Nothing about the photo seemed real. The green screen behind us had been transformed into a boxing ring. Our fists were raised as though we were posed for a fight poster. My apprehension was hidden behind a slight grin. It lasted only as long as a camera flash, but Ali looks very much alive.

I told a friend a couple of months ago that the only athlete I wanted to meet was Ali. That friend was Dave Kindred, who first met the fighter in 1966, just two years after Ali won his first title. Kindred wrote then for the Louisville Courier-Journal and today writes for The Sporting News. His latest book is Sound and Fury, a dual biography tracking Ali, Howard Cosell and the unique relationship the two shared.

Kindred told me that I wouldn't meet Ali. And even if I ever met Ali, I wouldn't have met Ali.

When I left the museum, I finally understood what Kindred had meant. I have a photograph, but I didn't meet the legend.

The nervousness I felt that morning had bloomed into a fear by afternoon. Even The Greatest is just a man, as vulnerable to the might of time as anyone else.

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