As I write this, it’s only moments after hearing the news that Muhammad Ali passed away. Numerous stories will be written and told of his achievements and career and why, over the years, his name became synonymous with the phrase “The Greatest.” I’d like to share with you an event I witnessed that immediately jumped to the forefront of my thoughts when I heard of his passing and was one of the main reasons I always liked him and thought he really was deserving of the term “The Greatest.”
It was a Sunday afternoon in the mid-70’s. By this time, Ali had not only won a victory in the New York Supreme Court, which ruled that his boxing license had been unjustly suspended when he refused induction into the military on grounds that he was a conscientious objector, but had, once again, made worldwide headlines with “The Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman and regained the heavyweight crown. At this point in the Ali timeline his was one of the most recognized names and faces in the world with fans regularly surrounding him everywhere he went.
So, I was more than a little surprised when I saw him sitting alone in one of my, then, favorite places for a Sunday brunch, the 50th On The Lake Motel Restaurant on Chicago’s South Shore Drive.
Yes, I know it’s Lake Shore Drive but, when you grew up on Chicago’s South Side as I did, we called it South Shore Drive.
Anyhow, there he was, “The Greatest,” sitting by himself having a Sunday brunch. I didn’t want to bother him so, when he happened to look up as I was leaving, I just nodded and smiled and he did the same. When I got to my car my companions and I were just sitting there talking about our “sighting” when we saw Muhammad Ali come out of the restaurant. As he emerged a few neighborhood kids noticed him and ran up to him. There were no reporters, cameras or any kind of media around to capture what would follow, just my friends and I watching at a distance from our car to see Muhammad Ali stop and take his time spending several minutes talking, laughing and signing autographs for some of his youngest fans. He didn’t rush them or act like he had somewhere else to be. On this sunny Sunday afternoon, these young fans had all of his attention for as long as they wanted. My friends and I were glad he was preoccupied with his new young friends so he wouldn’t look around to see us taking it in. On that lazy Sunday afternoon one of the world’s most well known celebrities paused, out of the spotlights glare, and gave those kids the gift of a memory I know they treasure to this day.
Years later, I had the good fortune to interview Muhammad Ali. It was one of the few times I was a bit nervous because, after what I had witnessed that Sunday after noon on Chicago’s South Shore Drive, I knew I really was talking to … “The Greatest.”