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The line was so long that it must have been for someone globally famous. Maybe JLo. Possibly Beyonce. Or the kid from Harry Potter.
It was the bottom of the sixth inning at a disposable 2002 spring training game at the Oakland A’s stadium in Phoenix, and this line did not belong at an event this insignificant.
The line starts at the first row behind home plate, stretches up 20 rows of seats, down the concourse between the upper and lower sections and then down out to the concession area.
“Ali is down there,” a fan tells me.
This long line of people are all patiently waiting for Muhammad Ali’s autograph, because he is signing everything. For free. Never in my life have I wanted to join a long line of people as much as I did in this moment.
But I don’t. Instead, myself and a colleague merely peer down to catch sight of Ali sitting in his seat.
This week Muhammad Ali is again “making the rounds” as PBS will debut the latest Ken Burns’ documentary. The four-part series “Muhammad Ali” begins on Sept. 19.
The documentary is full of classic Ali footage, but missing are so many special moments where he entertained audiences for free that were not caught on camera.
At that spring training game in 2002, I stood in a mostly empty A’s clubhouse. It was likely the eighth inning, and by that time any player of note was gone.
Around the corner in walks The Greatest of All Time. There he is. In person. Muhammad Ali.
Most people in these sorts of jobs grow accustomed and numb to seeing and talking to the famous pretty people, but there are exceptions. Elvis Presley. Santa Claus. Muhammad Ali.
He had three people with him, and it was apparent Parkinson’s disease had a good hold of the champ. He could walk, but the tremors in his body were frequent.
This is not even six years after he famously lit the Olympic flame to open the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
On that day in Oakland, he walked through the clubhouse, and one point we made eye contact and I had a smile on my face like I am looking at the Easter Bunny. The real one.
Ali then takes a seat at a table in the clubhouse.
And he starts doing ... a magic show. This was in 2002, a few years before cameras were phones. We had phones, but they didn’t have cameras.
We just used our eyes, knowing full well this was a memory none of us would forget.
And everyone there is watching Ali doing tricks. Every player, coach, clubhouse guy and journalist all had smiles on our faces that could not erase. A’s manager Art Howe just stared at Ali because he was like the rest of us — none of us could believe this was happening.
Even with Parkinson’s, Ali commanded every room.
Ali talked more to us than we expected. By that point in his life he didn’t like doing interviews because he was self-conscious that he couldn’t speak the way he wanted.
Ali stands up to do this trick, and he starts to shake. The shaking grows worse.
We are all watching him not knowing what to do. And all of a sudden Ali falls down, and all of us look nervously at this icon who is embarrassed that he just can’t make his body and mouth do what he wants.
In that moment we are aware that this man, this living legend to us all, was exhibiting the frailties that a human being could have.
He had to have his friends help him up, and then he completed the magic trick.
He stops, and then he starts to autograph baseballs. The A’s clubhouse guys start to bring him trays of baseballs and he’s signing all of them.
I could hear him mumble at one point, “I think you’re taking advantage of me.”
Sports journalists normally sign some document that we can’t use our access for autographs. We could get in trouble.
This was a risk I wanted to take, but didn’t.
No photo or autograph from Ali, just the indelible memory of having watched a small magic show from The Greatest of All Time.