One Sunday morning in 1989, Muhammad Ali and a mini-entourage materialized in the Cardinals’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Somehow, it suddenly was a little hard to breathe or think. And as it always did around Ali, a spectacle ensued complete with some magic.
“ ‘You heard ’bout me floating like a butterfly?’ ” Kevin Horrigan, my friend and then-colleague at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, captured him saying. “ ‘Watch this.’ ”
As Horrigan put it, Ali “walked, or more precisely, shuffled, off the carpeted floor onto the tile of the shower room. He turned his back and said, ‘Watch my feet.’ He then appeared to levitate about an inch for a split second.”
Somehow, though, that wasn’t what I remember about a scene that flooded my circuits.
What I’ll never forget was that the players, a number of whom were jaded and certainly unsentimental, had turned giddy and spellbound and morphed into groupies.
In an instant they were all googly-eyed over Ali the very way fans typically went gaga over the players.
That was the first and only time I’ve seen that role reversal in high-profile athletes.
That flip-flop says something more about the transcendent presence of the charismatic, provocative, delightful and confounding Ali, who died Friday at 74 from respiratory complications after decades of battling Parkinson’s disease.
He was something to virtually everyone for a million different reasons.
Ali spent much of the second half of his life barely able to utter a word, his flamboyant image softened by the dignity and love he conveyed as he contended with Parkinson’s disease. But Ali’s fascinating and lyrical voice of no restraint remained indelible.
Ali often over the years has been seen as the most famous person on Earth. Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century,” and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
“He shook up the world, and the world’s better for it,” President Barack Obama tweeted Saturday.
As recently as four years ago, 31 years after his last fight, Time magazine listed him among its “Top 20 most influential Americans of all time: The trailblazers, visionaries and cultural ambassadors who defined a nation.”
Such was Ali’s stature that in 1990 he secured the release of 15 American hostages in a meeting with Iraq president Saddam Hussein.
He was a phenomenon, a revolutionary force that seemed destined to make people confront (even if they rejected what they saw) their long-held views on everything from race to religion to politics.
In fact, on every nuclear hot button simultaneously.
If he hadn’t emerged in the world through boxing, he likely would have as a poet, a politician, a teacher or a preacher.
Instead, he became all of those at once through a quirk that led him to boxing.
After a bicycle owned by the then Cassius Clay was stolen when he was 12 and living in Louisville, Ky., he roamed the streets in a fury, shouting about how he was going to whoop whoever did it.
The Louisville Lip, the mouth that roared, already was engaged and starting to become a clever prototype that pried open the way to what we know as trash talk.
As the story goes, a policeman — and boxing trainer — named Joe Martin overheard the young man ranting and suggested he might want to learn how to box before he challenged anyone to a fight.
Next thing you know, he’s an 18-year-old gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where his greatest obstacle had been overcoming his fear of flying.
As recounted in David Remnick’s book, “King of the World,” Martin’s son, Joe Jr., once told the Louisville Courier-Journal that Clay only agreed to get on the plane overseas after buying a parachute and wearing it on the plane.
“It was a pretty rough flight,” Martin said, “and he was down in the aisle, praying with his parachute on.”
That was perhaps the last time in his career Ali allowed anyone to see his fear.
His transformative legacy was built on unbridled bravado, the likes of which in many ways had never been seen before in any athlete — let alone an African-American one.
Before Ali, as Joyce Carol Oates put it in an essay on Ali in ESPN’s SportsCentury, the black athlete was exemplified by constrained personae such as Jackie Robinson.
Robinson and others of that era, she wrote, “were given to know that his presence was provisional and not a right; his very career was a privilege that might be revoked at any time.”
Then there was Clay, who disavowed his “slave name” to become Muhammad Ali in 1963 and made it public in 1964.
It was a controversial change that made an already brash figure into a divisive one, particularly because of its then-association with the radical Nation of Islam.
To understand the tenor of the times, Oates wrote, consider that many television commentators and news outlets (including the standard-bearer New York Times) refused to acknowledge his name change.
For everyone who admired his colorful banter, his poetry in and out of the ring, his playfulness with everyone from the Beatles to little children, there were plenty who loathed him for his arrogance.
That in itself was an understandable enough criticism, actually.
Others, though, clearly were repulsed at the temerity of a black man actually speaking his mind so boisterously no matter how embroidered with eloquence it was.
Suddenly, a non-white, non-Christian figure was bestriding the nation, defying the culture, deifying himself as “The Greatest” and defining a new world order as he became heavyweight champion in 1964 and defended it six times in the next three years.
Whether Ali was a product of the era or a catalyst perhaps has some chicken-and-egg to it.
But one way or another he stood for times-a-changin’ as norms were challenged, if not toppled, in the 1960s.
And like almost none before him and too few afterward, he used his considerable powers for more than just personal reward and took courageous stands.
Nothing said that more than his stance on Vietnam in 1967, when he refused to join the Army after being drafted.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” is what most remember him saying, but the decision was about a lot more than that.
“They never called me (the N-word),” he would say. “They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
Detractors then called him unpatriotic, too.
Never mind that the truth was he was acting on principle (and religious objection) and that countless others exploited loopholes to avoid the war who didn’t necessarily want it known.
Ali was sentenced to five years in prison but served no time amid an avalanche of appeals and legal maneuverings that led to the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the draft evasion conviction in 1971.
While all the wrangling was going on, the boxing commission revoked his license.
So with the exception of a 1970 fight against Jerry Quarry in Georgia (which had no state boxing commission), Ali in the prime of his career went nearly four years between bouts.
“He is giving up millions of dollars to do what his conscience tells him is right,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said during that time.
But Ali reclaimed his championship from George Foreman in 1974 in the fabled “Rumble in the Jungle,” and a year later he retained his title against Joe Frazier at the “Thrilla in Manila” in the Philippines.
“It was the closest thing to death that I could feel,” Ali said afterward.
Knowing what we think we know now about head injuries, who’s to say that very night didn’t contribute to his early onset of Parkinson’s?
Yet to read about him or watch him or see him then was to think he’d live forever.
For all that vitality, though, Ali seemed a complicated figure to some of us growing up then.
He was mesmerizing and made you think and was so damned funny, yes.
But this newfangled jaw-jacking stuff from a supposed ambassador at times seemed vicious — especially the cruel “Uncle Tom” and “gorilla” stuff he directed at Joe Frazier.
It was a curious thing to do for a man so driven by racism, and many believe Frazier never forgave him.
Still, for all his excesses, Ali largely had become a beloved figure by the time he retired for good in 1981.
Perhaps as people’s views evolved on the Vietnam War, they evolved on Ali, too.
Perceptions of him also surely changed as his religious stance evolved from the black separatism of the Nation of Islam toward more inclusive Sunni Islam in 1975.
Ultimately, Ali was about unity.
He touted the value of all faiths and denounced terrorists acting in the name of Islam in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I am a Muslim. I am an American,” he said in a statement released by the Islamic Institute that week. “As an American Muslim, I want to express my deep sadness and anguish at the tremendous loss of life that occurred on Tuesday. …
“I cannot sit by and let the world think that Islam is a killing religion. It hurts me to see what radical people are doing in the name of Islam. These radicals are doing things that God is against. Muslims do not believe in violence. …
“Hatred caused this tragedy and adding to the hatred that already exists in the world will not help. Instead, we should try to understand each other better.”
That was the spirit that began to make him a universally galvanizing force when it was disclosed in 1984 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system with symptoms that include muscle tremors and slowness or slurring of speech.
That version of Ali was most on display for all the world 20 years ago in Atlanta.
In a surprise appearance, he sent chills surging through millions as his arms trembled and he lit the flame at the Centennial Olympics.
Here he was, a nearly mythological figure, beset but standing tall for all to witness.
From any distance, it was overwhelming.
No wonder he could have that effect up close and personal — even on those used to receiving the adulation instead of being awestruck.