Muhammad and Me
I despise exercising.
Now, I do walk 20 miles a week, and two summers ago I traipsed 500 miles around Indiana to raise money for the Indiana Children’s Wish Fund, so it might seem like I enjoy it. But the truth is, unless I can see some sort of compelling reason to exercise – I walk the 20 miles weekly in the hope that it will help delay what I am assuming will be an ugly and inevitable physical demise – I would just as soon take a pass.
The reason I mention this is because last Friday in Boston, I was sitting in a hotel room trying to generate the enthusiasm to go work out and failing miserably. But finally, around three o’clock, I dragged myself out of my chair and headed out. As I left the room, headphones securely attached, I almost collided with a woman walking down the hall. I removed my headphones and apologized for my clumsiness, and – apparently noticing that I was wearing Pacers gear – the woman asked me if I was with the team. When I said that I was, she told me that she was from Louisville and that she followed the team, and then she turned to her left and said, “Muhammad, can you say hello?”
Up until this point, I was so embarrassed with my clumsiness and so intent on apologizing for nearly steamrolling this poor woman into the carpet that I hadn’t even noticed anyone else was there. But when she turned and spoke, I followed her gaze and noticed another woman, less than five feet from me and pushing a wheel chair. And in the chair was Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad F*&%^@g Ali.
Now, it’s been a long time since I idolized anyone, but from the time I was about ten until roughly the time I turned twelve I had three idols. One was Wilt Chamberlain. Another was Willie Mays. And the third was Muhammad Ali. I didn’t idolize these men for very long, because by the time I became a teenager I started to feel that idolizing somebody was a bit creepy. But for a while I was enamored with these three men, and they had an enormous impact on me at a very impressionable age.
As I’ve gotten older, my profession has afforded me any number of brushes with celebrity. I’ve chatted with Ronald Reagan (and managed to slip in a subtle political dig), had a nice conversation with my childhood idol Mays about playing stickball in the streets of New York, and even shot hoops with Kevin Costner (I was better than he was, despite what anyone else that was there might say). I share these anecdotes not in the hope that they will impress you, but because I want you to understand that I’ve met countless renowned folks over the years and have always felt at ease around them. That context is important as this story unfolds.
So anyway, back to the hallway. At first, I’m stunned. You just don’t expect to see Muhammad Ali right outside your hotel room. But, as the previous paragraph indicates, I’ve always been able to hold my own around luminaries from a variety of fields, so no worries, right? Well, the conversation, as best I can remember, transpires as follows:
The Lady From Louisville: “Muhammad, this gentleman is with the Pacers”
I think I see a glint of amusement playing around the champ’s eyes, but he says nothing. Still, that glint encourages me, so I try again.
It’s just not happening. I am so awestruck and so intimidated that the best I can do is to choke out a string of unintelligible consonants that I’m sure make me sound like some sort of mouth breathing illiterate. Which, by the way, is exactly what I felt like that afternoon.
Realizing that I was floundering, the lady from Louisville intercedes and wishes the Pacers luck that night against the Celtics. I ask her what the champ is doing in Boston, and she tells me that the he’s in town to undergo some speech therapy for a few days. I apologize again for nearly flattening her, we exchange a few more pleasantries, and then, just like that, the encounter – which maybe lasted ninety seconds – is over.
When you’re young, people you don’t even know can have a profound impact on you. My parents always encouraged me to think for myself and taught me that it was imperative to believe in yourself and stand strong for what you believe in, even if it’s unpopular and you wind up experiencing negative consequences as a result. Great lessons, to be sure, but sometimes the messenger matters. Not that I didn’t believe or respect my parents, but when you see somebody that you think is beyond cool demonstrating those things for the world to see without flinching it has a much greater impact.
That brief time spent with the champ last Friday didn’t change my general thinking. I’ve always thought, and still do, that worshiping somebody just because they can throw, shoot, or hit a ball, and affording those people special status for the same reason, is beyond disturbing. In my view, hero worship is one of the least attractive attributes that a significant number of Americans seem to share. That said, sometimes somebody comes along that has the athletic gifts that allows him or her a place in the spotlight, and that person not only entertains and amazes us with their physical gifts, they teach us things about life away from the arena that we would be wise to pay heed to. I consider Muhammad Ali to be such a man. He was one of my heroes when I was eleven or twelve, but I’m not eleven or twelve anymore; I’m in my fifties. And, upon further review, you know what?
He’s still my idol.