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Sunday, September 12, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Still Larger Than Life -- To Millions, Muhammad Ali Will Always Be The Champ

In a suite on the 24th floor of the Mirage Hotel, Muhammad Ali is sitting on a small white sofa near full-length windows that overlook much of the east side of Las Vegas. He's wearing a pair of well-pressed, dark pinstripe slacks and a white, V-necked T-shirt that has a couple of nickel-sized holes in it, one of which reveals whorls of thin white hair on the left side of his chest. His waist is very thick; I'd guess he weighs about 265. "My man," he says. "Glad to see you."

Ali and I go back a long way. I first became a serious Ali watcher in January 1964. I was 10 years old and was the shortest and skinniest and sickliest kid in town. My mother had died unexpectedly only a few months before. Her death had hit me hard. I'd been in and out of hospitals, where I'd been pumped full of glucose because I'd refused to eat. At home, I spent nearly every waking moment staring at the TV. I talked occasionally to my father and less to my sister, but I was mostly silent.

Ali was still Cassius Clay. He'd just turned 22 and he was luminous as he was preparing to meet Sonny Liston for the first time.

I remember sitting mesmerized in front of my dad's small black-and-white television as Ali's voice roared from the huge world outside and through the TV's rattling 3-inch speaker. "I'm young and handsome and fast and pretty and can't possibly be beat," the voice said. And the voice touched radium in me.

I recall standing in front of the full-length mirror in the bathroom after that for hours at a time, pushing my worm of a left arm out at the reflection, trying feebly to imitate Ali's cobra jab. And my dad took an old laundry bag, filled it with rags and hung it from a ceiling beam in the basement. I pushed my fists into that 20-pound marshmallow 200, 500, 1,000 times a day, concentrating on speed: dazzling, crackling speed, in pursuit of godly speed; I strove to make my hands move quicker than thought (like Ali's), and I tried to spring up on my toes, as I had watched Ali do; I tried to fly like Ali, bouncing around the bag and to my left.

Since then, many of the events that have defined my life have been related to Ali.

While in college, my first-ever story for a national magazine was about another of my seminal Ali experiences - a sparring session I'd had with the Champ in 1975, when because of his influence, I was trying to make a living as a kickboxer. In September 1977 my girlfriend Lynn and I eloped and tried (unsuccessfully) to get married at the Ali-Earnie Shavers bout. But by 1986, when I became the district manager of a video store chain in Ali's hometown of Louisville, I seldom thought about him. He had been a childhood obsession.

While driving to one of the video stores, a friend who was with me pointed across the street and said, "Muhammad Ali's mom lives there." From then on, I noticed the house whenever I passed by. On the Friday before Easter, 1988, I saw a block-long white Winnebago parked out front. The license plate read, "THE GREATEST."

I parked, worked up my nerve, walked to the house. Ali's brother, Rahaman, opened the door. He smiled - this was something held seen hundreds of times. He said, "He's out in the Winnebago. Go knock on the door." When I did, Ali asked me in, did magic tricks, invited me to stay for dinner. Within a half-hour he said, "I like your face. You have a nice face. You're sincere. After 30 years, I can tell. I feel it rumblin' up from inside people."

I've seen a lot of Ali since that day. Recently, I've written several pieces about him, including one about becoming his friend. Because of Ali, after nearly 10 years of trying, I am finally able to eke out a living as a writer.

Now, at the Mirage, Ali stands and steps stiffly to the picture windows overlooking Las Vegas. He motions for me to follow. "Look at this place," he says, scarcely louder than a whisper. "This big hotel, this town. It's dust, all dust." His voice is so volumeless that the words seem to be spoken not by Ali, but by a specter standing in his shadow. "Don't none of it mean nothin'. It's all only dust."

We stare down at the sun-bleached town. In the middle distance, just before the edge of the Spring Mountain range, an F-15 touches down at Nellis Air Force Base. "Go up in an airplane," Ali is saying, his voice sounding full of phlegm and ether. "Go high enough and it's like we don't even exist. I've been everywhere in the world, seen everything, had everything a man can have." His tone is not cynical. Indeed, it is almost hopeful.

He shuffles awkwardly back to the sofa and drops heavily into his seat. Ali himself admits that the Parkinson's syndrome that has shaken his body and thickened his speech was brought on by blows he suffered as he stood his ground and hollered. He shows little trace of bitterness.

"The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God," he says. "The only things you've got is what's been given to you."

He gestures for me to join him by patting the cushion to his left. "How you been?" he asks.

"I'm OK," I say. "But my dad died a couple months ago."

This surprises the Champ. He turns and looks at me so empathetically you'd think we shared the same parentage. "How old was he?" he asks.

"Only 59. And I thought he was healthy. He was getting ready to retire and I thought I'd have lots of time with him. He was both my father and my mother."

"How'd he pass?" Ali asks. "A heart attack?"

I nod yes. Ali pats me on the hand. "I know you miss him," he says. "When I first won the title, people used to call me up, messin' with me, tell me my father'd been killed. Used to scare me so bad. Life is so, so short. Bible says it's like a vapor."

He picks up the TV's remote control from the sofa's armrest and tours the channels, stopping on a music network that is playing an older Michael Jackson hit. He turns off the sound; we watch.

"Gandhi," he says, as the Indian spiritual leader's gray ghost-like image flashes onto the screen. "Mother Teresa," a few seconds later. It's obvious Ali feels a kinship with the faces and their deeds. Images matter to Ali. He intones the names as if they were incantatory.

He puts down the remote, moves mechanically for the bathroom, and when he gets there, slowly takes a white, starch-crisp shirt from its hanger on the door and slips it on, then struggles a little with the buttons. Without tucking the shirt in his pants, he pulls a royal red tie over his head that has been preknotted, I'm sure, by his wife, Lonnie. He looks at me through the mirror and nods slightly, which I take to mean he'd like my help. In this moment, the most talented athlete of the 20th century looks so egg-shell fragile that I find my hands shaking a little. I might have imagined performing this service for my dad, had he lived to be in his 70s. But never for Muhammad Ali.

Ali is so large I have to stand on my toes to reach over and across the huge expanse of his back to slip the tie under his collar. He puts his shirt in his slacks without unsnapping or unzipping, then tugs on his jacket. Without being asked, I pick a few motes of white lint from the coat's dark surface and help him straighten his tie.

He picks up his briefcase and we leave the room. In the elevator he says, "Watch how people react."

When we reach the ground floor, as the doors open he makes an amazingly loud clicking noise by popping his tongue across the roof of his mouth. The sound is immediately repeated from probably 20 feet away. Less than a minute later, Howard Bingham, who has been Ali's personal photographer and best friend for nearly 30 years, appears in the doorway.

We walk from the elevator, Ali in the lead; Bingham follows me. Within seconds there are more than 100 people around us, wanting to touch Ali or shake his hand. Cameras appear from women's purses, as do pens and scraps of paper. "Do the shuffle, Champ!" an older man shouts.

Ali hands me his briefcase, gets up on his toes and dances to his left. He tosses a few slow jabs at several male heads, then for a couple of seconds allows his black shiny street dogs to blur into the patented Ali shuffle. The crowd, ever growing, explodes into laughter and applause. A space clears behind him and he uses it, knows it's there without turning to look. He moves toward the right corner of the wide hallway, waving on his audience, then turns to take his briefcase from me, which contains hundreds of yellow and green and blue Muslim pamphlets that have been personally signed by Ali and predated with today's date. Bingham reappears with a metal folding chair. Ali sits, places the briefcase on his lap and produces an inexpensive pen from the pocket of his jacket.

Two minutes later, there is no way to skirt the throbbing crowd around Ali. There's every bit of 1,000 people in the hallway. A Mirage security guard uses his walkie-talkie to call for reinforcements, and directs people who want autographs into a line.

I stand at Ali's right shoulder, against the wall. Bingham is to my left. We're in those exact positions for nearly an hour before I ask Bingham, "Is it always like this?"

Ali's companion-photographer looks basically the way I recall from the '70s, a little hangjawed like the old MGM cartoon character Droopy. "Always," he says. "Everywhere in the world. Last year, over 200,000 came to see him in Jakarta."

"How long will he do this?" I want to know, meaning today.

"Until he gets tired. For hours. All day."

Ali gives every waiting person something personal. He talks to almost no one, yet most everyone seems to understand exactly what he means. He signs each person's first name on the Muslim literature and hugs and is hugged by everybody from 3-year-old tykes to their 80-year-old great-grandmamas. He has a radar that is attuned to children. Whenever kids are near, he goes out of his way to pick them up and snuggle and kiss them, sometimes more tenderly than one could imagine their parents doing. The first time I met him, one of the first questions he asked was if I had kids. I now want to know why he connects so to children.

"They're angels in exile," he replies, speaking in the same tone you'd expect from a monk exposing the uninitiated to the mysteries. "Children are so close to God. They haven't had time to separate from Him."

Women and men in line openly weep upon seeing Ali. Many recount stories about his impact on their lives. Some tell of having met him years before. He often pretends to remember. A huge, rough, Italian-looking fellow in his mid-40s takes Ali's hand, kisses it, then refuses an autograph. "I don't want anything from you, Champ," he says. His mud-brown eyes are red and swollen. "We've taken too much already."

# # #

I have breakfast with Ali the next morning. He's wearing the same suit and tie. This is not a sign of financial need or that he doesn't remember to change clothes. Even when he was fighting, and was making tens of millions of dollars, he didn't own more than five suits. He's seldom worn jewelry and his watch is a Timex.

I ask why, unlike the old days, everyone, everywhere, seems to love him. "Because I'm baadd," he clowns, but then holds up his shaking left hand, spreads its fingers and says, "It's because of this. I'm more human now. It's the God in people that connects them to me."

# # #

The Champ greets me at the door to his mother's house in Louisville, Ky. It's very hot today, over 100. He's wearing a knife-creased, sky-blue safari suit and a pair of white tennis shoes. His face has lost much of its puffiness; his pecan-colored skin refracts the late summer sun. In this moment, he looks much like the Ali we remember. "Man, you look good. Are you working out?" I ask.

"Doin' five rounds heavy bag, five speed bag, five shadow boxin'. Lost over 30 pounds."

I follow him to the kitchen and take a chair at a cream-colored, formica-topped table. Cassius Clay Sr.'s stained and yellowed registration card for a 1972 Cadillac is propped between salt and pepper shakers. Ali's dad had died only a few months before. I pick up the paper and think about my father's Social Security card sitting on my desk at home.

"How do you feel?" I ask.

"Got more energy. Move better."

Mrs. Clay comes into the room. "Oh, I'm so glad you are here," she says to me. Like her son, Odessa Clay has a pretty, oval-shaped face. She's wearing a yellow paisley dress and she smells of flour. Although she seems tired and a light sweat shines on her forehead and neck, she smiles her fragile smile. "Would you like a glass of root beer?" she asks.

She brings the soda in an old jelly glass. Ali leaves the room to say his midday prayers.

"These days," I say, "what does he talk about when it's just you and him?"

"Oh, he doesn't talk anymore. He's so quiet now you forget he's in the house. He writes and reads all the time."

Ali returns to the kitchen, still barefoot from his prayers, moving so quietly I can't help but believe he is trying not to disturb even the dust beneath his feet. We go downstairs and sit side-by-side on the sofa. A gold-framed certificate I haven't seen before is hanging crooked above the TV. I get up to see what's on it.

"In memoriam," it reads, "the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors extends its deepest sympathy to you in the passing of your beloved father, Cassius Marcellus Clay."

"It was a relief," Ali says before I have a chance to ask.

"He was gettin' so old, in so much pain all the time. Talked to him a week before he died. He said he wouldn't see me again. `I'm tired,' he said. `Tired of this pacemaker. Don't want it no more.' It happens to all of us. It'll happen to me before long, it'll happen to you. We'll close our eyes and won't open them again. I'm preparing myself for the next life. That's what matters now."

A few minutes later, he says, "I'm tired. I need a nap. The heat's botherin' me." The words sound ancient, totemic. "Are you gowna be here when I wake up?" he asks.

"I think I'll go on home," I tell him.

He reaches to hug me, all the time watching my eyes. His body is so thick, his skin cool and moist through the thin shirt. I remember rubbing my dad's back and shoulders in the hospital. Next Wednesday, it wlll be exactly one year since he died. Ali's skin smells of earth and of trees. I kiss him on the cheek.

"Be cool and look out for the ladies," he says. It is his standard way of saying goodbye.

# # #

Ali has been at a gym in Philadelphia, signing autographs for children. He's gained weight again. He's at probably 250, but he looks OK and his energy level is pretty good.

As we leave the gym, I slide into the limo and take a seat across from him. An elderly man who looks a little like Ali's dead father startlingly appears beside the limousine. He taps on my window with his left knuckles. I jump. "Mr. Clay, Mr. Clay," he shouts and offers Ali, who never eats pork, a hot dog. He is razor-thin, stubble-cheeked and his eyes are yellow with age, cheap wine and a life spent on street corners.

Ali motions me to lower my window. He takes the old guy's hand for a moment. As we leave the curb, I ask, "Do you let everybody in?" I've never seen him refuse anyone.

"Don't want to disappoint nobody. But I try to be careful. There's a lot of crazy people out there. And a lot of people who hurt you without meanin' to."

A couple of minutes later, we pull up to a stoplight. To my left, a heavy woman, dressed in browns and grays, who has no legs or hands, is propped against a doorway. She is playing "Amazing Grace" on a harmonica that has been attached to her mouth by a strand of what looks to be plastic clothesline. "We don't know how that lady got here," Ali says. "She might be like you and me." As he says this, his left hand begins to dramatically tremble. It is the same hand from which once slid that great snake-lick of a jab - the most visible phenomenon of his boxing greatness, the very hand with which he won more than 230 fights.

Shortly thereafter, Ali closes his eyes, drops into a light sleep, and begins snoring. Watching, I can't help but consider how the young Ali's seemingly endless energy had promised us that he would never get old. And how in many ways he is now older than just about anyone his age. But this is not sad. One of the first things one notices when spending serious time with Ali is that his life is still larger than that of anyone almost any of us has known. And that he seems less than fulfilled only when we see him in the smallest of ways, when we don't recognize that his Parkinson's syndrome and its aura of silence enlarges both his legend and his life. In a way, his silence helps him come off as something of a seer. As his health appears to be deteriorating, he is becoming a more spiritual being. He no longer aches with the ambition and the violence of a young god.

I study the shape of his head, watch its almost perfect symmetry. He looks like a sleeping newborn, or a Buddha. Maybe he's some kind of bodhisattva. Or maybe he's a bit like Chance, the gardener, in Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There" - mysteries swirling through his life that he himself doesn't cause or doesn't necessarily understand.

# # #

There are around 75 people at a Louisville gym. Almost none of them are boxers. Ali is dressed in a suit and tie and is playfully winging clownish punches at everybody around him. His moves come fairly loose and reasonably fast.

He turns and sees me and nods, then puts both hands beside his head. I get up on my skates and dance to my left, in exactly the style I'd learned from him 25 years before. He opens his eyes fried-egg wide and feigns surprise. "I could be your daddy," he says, "if I was white."

We pirouette around the old wooden floor for probably 45 seconds, punching a half-foot from each other's chins and bodies. It's the first time in years I've been able to uncoil a little with Ali. I find myself smiling. I feel good.

He points at a young blond amateur heavyweight, who looks like a fraternity kid. The Champ motions toward the ring and removes his jacket. I'm sure he must be joking, but he picks up a pair of licorice-colored Everlasts and walks to the ring apron.

He pulls his tie from his neck and the 16-ounce sheaths of leather are strapped on his wrists. "Gowna do five rounds," he yells to the people gathering ringside. The volume level of his voice has greatly increased. And the sound no longer issues from high in his throat; there's a musky roundness to his words.

In his corner, a second pulls Ali's shirt-tail from his trousers; the top button remains buttoned. Someone says "Ding," and then it's actually happening - sick old Muhammad Ali is really boxing.

I want to wince with each blow thrown. I feel sweat sliding down the small of my back. Ali doesn't seem able to get on his toes; his balance doesn't look good. He's throwing jabs, but every punch is missing. I believe the frat kid may be holding back in order to avoid hurting our ailing legend. But suddenly, around one minute into the round, the Champ drops his gloves to his sides, exposing his chin, and when his opponent tries to reach him with punches, he pulls his head back and away, just like the Ali we remember, causing the kid to miss by less than an inch.

At the beginning of Round 2, Ali's face is animated, focused, serious. The kid comes out hard, apparently wanting to make it a real fight. He thumps Ali with stiff punches to the chin and the chest. Ali covers up.

The kid steps in and Ali stabs him with a well-timed jab that is as sweet as a bite from the last tangy apple of autumn. Fifteen seconds later, he shivers the college kid's legs with a straight right lead. At this, Ali backs off. He doesn't want to hurt his student. The kid gets on his bicycle; for a few moments he wears the expression of someone who has just been made aware of his own mortality. Ali continues to box the rest of the round at a level just slightly above the boy's abilities. With 20 seconds left, he zings in a series of eight jabs and a razor of a right, all designed to make only surface contact, but to confirm that he is still Ali.

The old master does three more rounds with less capable students than the frat kid, then he steps awkwardly from the ring and immediately begins to walk his great-granddaddy walk.

He takes a seat with me on the edge of the ring. "H-H-How did I look?" he asks. He has to repeat the question twice before I understand. Both of his arms are shaking, as is his head. "D-D-Did I surprise you?"

I admit that he did. He chuckles and nods, satisfied.

He pulls on his jacket and takes probably five minutes to knot his tie. We walk from the gym into a thin mist. The sidewalk is empty. A wet and shining blue Chevy pickup with a camper attached to the bed is at the curb. An older black gentleman wearing a straw hat and holding an umbrella is leaning against the truck. Ali walks to the Chevy stiffly, silently and with great dignity. He has a little trouble getting into his seat on the passenger's side. I close his door. He waves to me.

"Be cool," he says. I wait for the rest of his catch phrase. But he surprises me once again. "Remain wise," he says.

# # #

It is Feb. 6, three weeks after Ali's birthday. A light snow is falling on the village of Berrien Springs, Mich. It sparkles on Ali's oak- and maple-lined driveway. My son Isaac is with me. He's never met the Champ and I've always wanted him to.

We drive past the small barn where Ali keeps a boxing ring and training bags, pass several other buildings and look down on the St. Joseph River, which flows slowly, muddily past Ali's 88-acre farm. We pull behind the modest, green-shuttered, white frame house and park beside the brown and beige Rolls-Royce.

Lonnie Ali opens the door to the kitchen. The fourth Mrs. Ali grew up in Louisville across the street from the Cassius Clay Sr. residence. Her mother is Mrs. Clay's best friend. Like Ali's mom, Lonnie is light-skinned, splashed with a galaxy of freckles, and her hair has an aura of redness to it. Lonnie is a private person, shy and gentle but not gullible, and when she laughs, which is often, she sounds kind. Lonnie and Muhammad were married in Louisville in November 1986, shortly after she earned her MBA from UCLA. Lonnie is a thoughtful, guarded speaker, and her reputation in her husband's business affairs is one for shrewdness tempered by a relaxed, understanding nature. Like her husband, she has a dead-on, yet nonjudgmental, way of looking at you.

Lonnie is carrying Ali's 22-month-old son, Asaad Amin Ali. Although he was adopted, Asaad's countenance and complexion are basically flawless, like his father's, and his skin is an identical glowing copper color. Asaad is large for his age. He has been walking since he was six months and Lonnie now tells me he weighs more than 50 pounds.

Isaac and I step through the kitchen and into the family room, a large, warmly lighted area with thick wheat-colored carpet, a 46-inch TV, a stereo and a couple of overstuffed couches. To our right, in the far corner, Ali is sitting at a desk, signing pamphlets. He's not wearing a shirt. He's nearly as round as old Buddha himself.

Ali looks at me and nods, almost invisibly, then reaches his arms out to my son, who moves slowly, reverentially, forward. Ali's arms encircle him. "You'll remember this when you are an old, old man," Ali says, both to me and to my son. As he places Isaac on his knee, Ali nods toward me again. He wants to be certain I don't feel slighted. "Happy birthday, Champ," I say.

Asaad waddles unaccompanied into the room. As Isaac hops down, Ali grabs up his son, takes him to his face and kisses and holds him to his right cheek with almost unbearable tenderness. "Didn't get to see the other eight growin' up," the proud papa says with profundity. "I'm enjoyin' this baby."

"It's good to have something new in your life," I say. "Something that's growing."

"Want to have five more," he tells me. "All races. When I'm 75 years old, they'll be 20."

"Are you serious?" I ask, although this fits perfectly into his mythology - Muhammad Ali the international man, Ali the champion granddaddy of the whole wide world.

"Naw, it's just a dream," he says. "I know it's a dream."

"Sometimes it's good to dream," I tell him. " `The man without imagination has no wings; he cannot fly,' I say, quoting a favorite Ali line from the mid-'70s.

A few minutes later, Ali asks Lonnie to take the baby. When she does, he finds a shirt, puts it on, and turns to Isaac, who is playing with one of Asaad's toy cars. "Stay here," Ali says with respectful authority. "We'll be back." He waves for me to follow.

We go outside, stepping across the driveway to the garage. The day glows phosphorescently; snow falls in chunks the size of an infant's hands. We enter the garage through a side door and climb a set of stairs. He pulls open a door. An otherwise empty space, about the size of a master bedroom, is piled floor to ceiling with boxes and envelopes and packages. "This is the mail I don't have time to open," he says.

"How long did it take to get this much?" I ask.

"About six months."

I grab the two pieces closest to my foot. The top one is covered with brightly colored stamps. "From Indonesia," the experienced traveler says. I feel a videocassette inside. The other is a thick letter on onion skin paper; the return address is in Kansas.

"Want you to help me," he says. "Feel bad not bein' able to write everybody."

This is in no way an overstatement. Nearly every day, when he is home, Ali invests three to four hours in opening letters and writing replies.

"Want to get a 900 number, where people can call and get a message, where I can talk with them. Want you to find out how to do it."

"If you want, I will help, " I say. But there is something I want to know. "Last year, at the 20th-anniversary dinner of the first Frazier fight, you got up to speak and ended up talking for probably 10 minutes. You didn't slur or stammer, your volume was fine, you were funny, your timing was good." It's true. He was terrific. And I've seen it on several occasions over the past couple of years, always when there are no TV cameras on him. "How do you do that?" I want to know.

He doesn't tell me. I doubt he knows. Instead, he immediately falls into his old pre-fight voice. "This is Muhammad Ali, the greatest of all times. I did what I set out to do. Whupped Sonny Liston, whupped Joe Frazier, George Foreman, whupped the United States draft board."

After 30 seconds or so, he stops and rubs his left hand across his face in the way I do when I've just woken from a night's sleep. "See wh-wh-wha you can find out," he asks. His voice gurgles like the river behind his property.

As we leave the garage, headed for the house, Lonnie and Asaad and Isaac meet us halfway. "Saad wanted to go with you, Muhammad," Lonnie says. She hands the child to her husband and looks at his feet. He's wearing a pair of slick-soled shiny leather uppers. "Don't you dare drop that baby," she says. Her tone is wifely, concerned, but not patronizing. She turns and goes back to the house. With Ali and Asaad in the lead, we trudge around the driveway. Soon, Ali's son decides he wants down. Ali lowers him to the ground, holding his left hand, and tries to get him to walk. Asaad turns to look at Isaac; he intends to play. I ask Isaac to take Asaad's right hand so he'll go with his daddy. My boy does so in a way that replicates Ali's gentleness. I stay a few feet behind, watching the three of them shuffle along at a toddler pace. For many minutes, Ali, Asaad and Isaac plod back and forth in a chain through the snow. The only sounds are those of wind in the bare branches of trees and of Ali's scuffling feet and, in the distance, of water tumbling over rocks. Just before we go back inside, I reach to brush the melting snow from the children's hair and shoulders, and from Ali's.

# # #

Isaac and I stay at the farm for two days. The Great Man plays with my son for hour upon hour, doing magic tricks, telling ghost stories, chasing him around the house, hiding behind furniture, jumping out to tickle him. When he isn't entertaining Isaac or talking with me, he's often asleep and snoring.

As we're leaving for our long drive home, Ali walks us to the car and closes our doors. It's still snowing, but surprisingly, there is little accumulation. Just enough to make the asphalt slippery. Like Lonnie, I'm concerned that Muhammad might fall. There's a video camera in the back seat. When I'm certain that Ali's balance is OK, I grab it and push the power button.

Ali sees the camera and opens Isaac's door, snatching my son up and holding him at face level. "This is the next champion," he says. "This man will win the crown in 2020. Look at the face. 2020. Just think about it: I will be the manager . . . And we will be the greatest of that day, the greatest of that time."

Ali places my laughing son back in his seat and points at the lens. "Watch my feet," he says in his thick slow voice, then turns his back and takes about 10 shuffling steps. Looking over his left shoulder, he raises his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he sometimes has trouble walking even on dry land, he seems to levitate about 3 inches off the ground. The winter light is tawny.

"This is Muhammad Ali in Berrien Springs, Michigan," he says. "Ain't nobody else like me. Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, they just boxers. I'm the biggest thing that ever happened in sports. I ain't boastin'; it's just the way it is. From Adam until now, I am the greatest in the recorded history of mankind," he says to the camera, and to the world.

As we pull out of the driveway, Isaac is sitting all the way in the back of the car, staring out the rear window. I ask my son if he is crying. He nods yes. I ask him why. "He's so cool, I didn't think anybody could be that cool. I just wish he wasn't sick."

I tell him that it's all right. And I honestly think that it is. Even more than all right, Ali's life has been exactly what it was intended to be. Ali himself believes this and this is why he so seldom seems frustrated by his health. He will occasionally lament about what he could be doing if he were healthy, but most of the time, when asked about his malady, he says, "God gives people trials. This is my trial. It's His way of keepin' me humble."

The following week, I go to Isaac's school to talk with his class about our visit to the farm. I ask the first-graders how many of them have heard of Muhammad Ali; all 23 raise their hands. After I speak for a few minutes and answer questions, Isaac reads an Ali story he has written. We then play a videotape that includes highlights from the Champ's career, as well as the levitation scene we'd filmed at the farm. At the end of class, everybody, including the girls, leaps around the room, throwing punches at everybody else.

For days thereafter, my son tells me, he reminds his classmates that they have seen a man named Muhammad Ali who can actually fly.

Davis Miller, who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., is writing a book about his relationship with "The Greatest Athlete of All Time." He wishes to dedicate this story to his father, Roy L. Miller, who died on Sept. 6, 1989.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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