Archive for June, 2016

Ali & Me

June 5, 2016

The Greatest.jpg-large

I had two personal interactions with “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. The first when I was a teenager in San Diego, CA and the second when he lived in the gated community Fremont Place here in Los Angeles (the same house “Rocky Balboa” owned in Rocky II).

If you recall, Ali fought Ken Norton in San Diego in March 1973 – I was a senior in high school – at the Sports Arena. A few days before the fight, I read in the morning newspaper that Ali would be working out at the city-owned Golden Hall. My mother was a long-time city employee in City Hall and I knew my way around the various buildings. In fact, I knew the security guard and how to sneak into the place with or without his assistance. So, and for some reason I don’t remember who went with me, a couple of buddies and I decided to ditch class and go see “The Greatest” work out.

We got in – unlike today, there was ZERO security – and found ourselves some seats. We’d all grown up knowing about and admiring this man and right there in front of us, Muhammad Ali was sparring. His hands were a blur, creating rifle-shot like sounds on the pads and yes, he did the famous “Ali Shuffle.” I guess we made some noise because all of a sudden, a couple of his crew looked over and one of them said, “Who the hell are you?” Ali heard the commotion, turned around, looked at us and said, “You boys working for Ken Norton?” No sir was our response. Then he said, “You working for [President] Nixon or the FBI?” Again, we gave a negative response. He then said, “Leave those boys alone” and waved us over.

We shook hands with him – he’d had his gloves cut off – and told him how much we admired him. Ali asked why we weren’t in school, we told why we’d come down, and he told us that he was glad to see us but we needed to get “your butts back in class right now.” We nodded and took our leave. (Today, we’d have a few selfies as proof but back then, all we could get were some cherished memories).

My second encounter took place several years later in the early 1980s. I’d moved to LA after the Air Force and one Sunday morning, I took a long bike ride from the Crenshaw District to the tony Hancock Park area. Somehow, I found an open walkway gate into Fremont Place and was slowly riding through the wide streets admiring the stately and opulent homes. As I passed one driveway, I saw a black man who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 30’s and we exchanged the “Black man nod.” I said, “Hey man, you’ve got a beautiful house.” He laughed and said that it wasn’t his but he worked for the man who owned and asked if I’d like to meet him. I said sure, why not and got off my bike.

Turns out the man was James Anderson (father of former NFL running back Jamal) and he was one of Ali’s bodyguards. To this day, after several decades of working in and around the celebrity/entertainment industry, I’ll never understand why he took me, a total stranger, inside to meet Ali but he did and for that act of kindness, I’m eternally grateful.

I ended up spending about an hour with Ali in his office – he claimed to remember our previous meeting when I mentioned it but I think he was just saying that to make me feel good – and just sat there utterly enthralled. He did a few corny magic tricks, threw some fake punches at me (God, his hands were HUGE) and at one point, took a phone call from someone who apparently needed some financial assistance because, after he hung up the phone, Ali reached into a drawer and pulled out a big checkbook/ledger.

As he wrote out a check, he looked at me and said, “Hey, how do you spell hundred?” I was floored; was this another of Ali’s tricks or did he really not know how to spell hundred? Either way, I spelled it for him and James Anderson said it was time for me to go.

He escorted me to my bike and I thanked him profusely for the opportunity to spend some time with Ali. He said, “You’re welcome. Just don’t tell anybody about this; I could lose my job.” I don’t know who I could have told, but I never did…until now.

May Allah bless the eternal soul of Muhammad Ali, THE G.O.A.T. of all GOATS.