The elevator door opened and I saw a tall, impeccably-dressed man clutching a black leather briefcase . His arms shook ever so slightly, and he stared straight ahead as I and my friend, Peter Levine, walked in and took up positions on either side of the man.
Rather than staring up at the ceiling, as we all do when we shuffle into an elevator, Peter and I looked up into the face of the man. He was beautiful and proud, and he knew we were looking at him. “Hi, Champ,” Peter said, “Thanks for everything you have done for us.” Muhammad Ali, turned slightly to his left to acknowledge Peter’s remark and then, silently, turned again to face the elevator doors.
We rode up three floors in silence. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His perfectly tailored black wool suit didn’t show a wrinkle. Gold cuff links, a flawless Windsor knot, spotless and recently-shined black leather shoes, a touch of tasteful cologne and a well-worn and stylish briefcase. His face was smooth and relaxed and he seemed entirely at peace.
You always hear this, and it was true: Muhammad Ali was a beautiful man. Inside and out.
The elevator doors opened again and Peter and I walked out. As the doors closed, I turned to catch one more glimpse of him. Our eyes met. Mine were mostly likely wild with wonder. He gave nothing away.
Peter and I drove from East Lansing, Michigan to Hamilton, Ohio, the home of Miami of Ohio University and the host of, as far as I knew, the first ever academic conference on Muhammad Ali. Peter was one of my professors at Michigan State—I took a couple of classes with him, but I knew him best from the time we spent playing basketball at the IM West with other profs and grad students in the History and American Studies department every Saturday afternoon. Peter recently published a book on Jewish athletes, From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, and he was a kind, encouraging professor–I thought of Peter as a friend as much as I thought of him as my professor.
Years later, when I ran the New York City marathon, he met me on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn with a bag full of peeled oranges and an encouraging smile.
A few days prior to the Ali conference in Ohio, Peter asked me if I wanted to accompany him to the conference. His good friend, the journalist, Robert Lipsyte, was going to be there and Bob said that the Champ himself might even show up. Why not, I said, it’ll be a good road trip either way. Lipsyte, by the way wrote Ali’s obituary in the New York Times.
After the meeting in the elevator with The Champ, we went to our rooms and agreed to meet in the lobby where we’d proceed to the auditorium for the opening remarks. The room was about half full and it was mostly occupied by middle-aged, white, male academics. Although, when I was in the rest room, a guy standing next to me asked if I was a grad student and what I was studying. Yes and I’m writing my dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne, I said. Nice to meet you, what’s your name? It was Eric Michael Dyson, who I guess had flown in from UNC for the conference. I have to say, he was super friendly.
Back in the auditorium, Lipsyte was talking about Ali and his influence on American culture, and while he was interesting and entertaining, I think that most of the people in the room were simply waiting for Ali to show up. Every time the auditorium door opened, heads would swivel around and you could tell everyone was thinking the same thing, “Is that Ali?”
Towards the end of Lipsyte’s talk, though, it happened. The auditorium door opened wide and He walked through. Ali in his post-Parkinson years had a kind of peaceful passivity about him, and this was evident as the room fell silent and we all watched The Champ gracefully and slowly walk down the middle aisle of the auditorium. When he got to the front, just in front of Lipsyte, Ali turned around and started doing magic tricks. Some of you probably know that as he gradually lost his speech from Parkinson’s he started doing magic in public—as a way to communicate with people and to demonstrate his affection and caring for others. I can’t really remember what magic tricks he was doing. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Muhammad Ali was there in the room with us, acknowledging the moment.
That was the last I saw of Muhammad Ali. Four years later, he famously lit the torch to begin the Atlanta Olympics and every once in a while, he’d pop up in the news for this or that.
It goes without saying, but it’s certainly worth saying: Muhammad Ali was a great human being and a great American. He was a great human being because he was full of love for other people and he cared about justice and equality (when, because of his privilege, he didn’t have to). He wasn’t perfect, but he evolved and he changed over the years—he was in search of things that mattered: truth, love, hope, peace. These are not over statements that emerge after his passing, either. And, he was a great American because he pushed us to think differently, he took difficult and controversial political stands that fundamentally hurt his professional boxing career.
Muhammad Ali, with his deep and profound moral seriousness coupled with his sheer joy for life and for others really was The Greatest.