My wife has never held famous athletes and coaches in very high regard. Much of this has to do with her disdain for misplaced priorities – so much attention and extravagant spending devoted to entertainment and sports when so much of the world’s population is without most basic essentials of life.
Because of my work, my wife occasionally has been in the company of some of the biggest names in American sports; but only one clenched her in rapt attention. It was Muhammad Ali.
We were attending a banquet at which Ali was honored. We sat at adjacent tables, with the back of my wife’s chair almost touching the back of the chair to which Ali was being ushered, slowly because of his disease.
We all stood as Ali entered. My wife’s eyes were on Ali; my eyes were on my wife, for I had never seen her give respect to a sports personality in this manner.
After the banquet, and at times since then, and certainly again after his death June 3, my wife and I have talked about what it is in Ali that she hasn’t seen in other prominent sports figures.
We noted that he brought elegance to a brutal sport, and charm to boastfulness. We cited the twinkle in his eye that outlasted his diseased body.
We recalled the tolerance and dignity he brought to his faith, and how he demonstrated his faith commitment at the most inconvenient time in his career.
We recalled his poetry when he was young and talked too much, and his use of magic to communicate after disease stole his words, as he did that night we were with him.
Years after that banquet, when Ali lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympics, my wife cried. She had tears in her eyes again when that moment was replayed on the day after Ali’s death.
Ali ascended to worldwide fame in a different era – when professional media tended to be enablers more than investigative journalists, and before social media pushed every personal weakness around the planet overnight. It’s possible Ali would not have been as loved if he had emerged in public life today. It’s also possible he would have been even more beloved.