Ali and me. There is no better time to tell the story as we celebrate the life of “The Greatest.”
Over the years, I have been asked about the picture on my personal Facebook page where I am mugging with the man who was arguably the most famous person in the world for a couple of decades. People at the time often said Ali was better known in places like Africa and Asia than most contemporary Western leaders. That’s how much he transcended just being the world heavyweight champ.
The picture was taken in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy in 1986 or ’87 on the Sunday afternoon of that year’s Super Bowl. Ali was staying at the home of a local businessman whose name escapes me. I was told they had some financial partnership.
A fellow co-worker knew Ali’s business partner. I believe it was Paul Theriot who at the time was chief photographer at KUTV. With both of us being journalists it was clear there was a story here, but we were told Ali did not want any video cameras. No one said anything about a still camera, so Paul brought one and I tagged along just hoping to meet Ali.
The Champ was coming down the stairs from a nap when Paul and I got to the Utah businessman’s house. Ali sat quietly by himself to watch the Super Bowl game. He was not talking to anyone, Nor were people there making any kind of fuss over him. I decided to go over and introduce myself.
It was soon clear why Ali did not want cameras around, even though he apparently did not mind there were a couple of journalists in the room, He spoke in a labored whisper even back then. It was not widely known at the time
Ali had the early stages of Parkinson’s. It had already robbed of him his amazing oratory skills.
I think Paul had a video camera out in his car just in case Ali said yes to an on camera interview. When I asked about it, Ali whispered “I would prefer not.” There was no persistence on my part.
Then Ali said something that changed the day. He asked me if I wanted a picture made with him. It was like he knew that somehow there would be a still camera around. My co-worker Paul, being the extraordinary photographer that he was, had one just in case there was such an opportunity.
Once Paul got into place with his camera. I think it was Ali who mugged at me first. His sleepy face suddenly made that famous smile. How could you not make the same face back at the most famous person in the world?
I seem to remember only a few pictures were taken of Ali and me. Others at the small Super Bowl party soon started getting their picture taken with him as well. Many were neighborhood kids from in the predominantly Mormon area.. As they got their picture taken, Ali also signed his name to a book about Islam that he gave them. No one seemed to mind.
Ali delighted the kids each time they came up to him with that smile. There were just a few whispers from Ali that day three decades ago in Utah.
No doubt everyone there is thinking about it today as we say goodbye to The Greatest.