EDITOR’S NOTE: Joe Posnanski, a former Kansas City Star columnist who now works for NBC Sports, covered Muhammad Ali’s visit to Kansas City on Feb. 23, 2000. This was his column in The Star the following day.
Muhammad Ali just sits there on stage while his wife, Lonnie, speaks her heart. Every so often, he makes a funny face. This has been his life for a long time now. Ali, the man who cast a huge shadow across the world with his mouth, his words and his poetry, speaks only in a whisper to old friends now. In public, he hardly speaks at all. It’s the Parkinson’s disease.
“Did you hear him speak?” we ask Shavel Moore, who is all of 11, and she smiles and nods her head boldly.
“Someone said, ‘God bless you,’ to him,” she says. “And he whispered ‘God bless you too.’ ”
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Ali moves around Kansas City on Wednesday — he’s in town for Kids Night Out 2000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City — and he kisses people, hugs them, does funny little magic tricks. He makes a handkerchief disappear. Then, because he does not believe in fooling people, he shows you how he did it.
He does not speak.
This is his life. Ali has become such a sweet, quiet, peaceful man in his older years. He does few interviews. He rarely talks. He seems so unlike the brash, hilarious, fearless man who floated and stung and picked his round and rhymed his words and was willing to go to jail rather than fight in Vietnam. He seems so unlike the Ali who inspired such love and such loathing and such fear, the most famous man in all the world. The Parkinson’s stole that away.
So many of us miss the old Ali. Before the dinner on Wednesday, a woman sets up a table of Ali memorabilia, and it’s all there, the Sports Illustrated covers, the boxing posters, the Wheaties box, the gloves, the Life magazines. Seeing it all reminds you that Ali was everything back then. He was heavyweight champ. He was an action figure. He was a Saturday morning cartoon. He was a special guest star on television shows. He was Superman. He was a dancer. He was a warrior. He was a man of conviction.
He was the greatest.
Now, when people see Ali, they swoon. They cry. They shake. They forget their own names. And it does not matter how big a star they might be themselves. On Wednesday night at the Kansas City Convention Center, in the moments before the charity dinner, the great Chiefs receiver Otis Taylor sits alone, by a wall. And he sits. And he sits. And he sits.
“I just want to see the champ,” he says softly. “I just want to catch a glimpse of him.”
That’s all we get of Ali these days. A glimpse. He’s so quiet. So removed. So different. His hands tremble. When he wanders among the children at the John T. Thornberry Center on Wednesday afternoon, a few run away from him. A few seem frightened of his constant shaking. Kendra Willis, who is 14, goes up to some of the little ones and tells them it’s OK, Ali is just a man, and he’s just a little sick.
“I’m older,” she says, “so I understand. They’re just little kids. I had to tell them that he’s just like us.”
That’s why it feels so sad: He’s just like us. In memory, Ali is immortal. He is untouchable. He pranced around Sonny Liston, he took all of George Foreman’s fury, he swapped blood with Joe Frazier, and he won. He always won.
Now, late Wednesday night, he sits quietly to the left of Lonnie Ali, and he makes a few faces, and he shakes like a tree branch in the wind. It’s heartbreaking. Lonnie talks about success, about what it takes, about how Muhammad Ali never let anything stand in his way.
Then it happens. Muhammad Ali stands up. Everybody in the place applauds. He walks over to Lonnie. Everybody in the place applauds. He whispers something into her ear. She starts moving back to the microphone. He whispers something else into her ear.
Lonnie Ali steps back to the chair. Muhammad Ali steps forward.
“I wasn’t supposed to talk,” he says. And then, he starts talking. He starts talking about wrestling (”It’s fake, you know”) and Sonny Liston (”I called him Big Bear”) and how he’s still the greatest. His voice is a rasp. He speaks, and some words are harder to pull out, but he keeps going, and everyone is mesmerized.
He talks about how he used to call George Foreman “The Mummy, “ and then Ali starts walking around like a Mummy, his arms out in front of him, and everyone in the crowd shrieks, especially the children. He starts taking questions from children, and a sweet little girl named Shay Brown, who loves to hug everybody at the Clymer Center, asks him where he was born. She gets a big hug and a kiss on the forehead.
One young man asks, “Were you ever afraid before a fight?”
Ali, without smiling, says, “Do you know who you are talking to?”
He talks about Smokin’ Joe Frazier, his favorite fighter, and how the toughest fight he ever had was with his first wife, and it’s amazing and beautiful, and the children keep raising their hands, they all want to ask questions, and, out of nowhere, Gen. Colin Powell appears on stage.
Colin Powell? Well, why not? Wherever Ali goes, the world’s most famous people follow. Powell says that he had to pay his respects to the greatest athlete of the century. Everybody stands and applauds. It’s a special night.
Powell walks off the stage.
“Well, he came by and stole my thunder,” Ali says, and he suddenly looks good. He looks powerful. The shake is gone. The voice is strong.
“Now, “ he says, “where was I?”